50 years ago today: Vatican II begins

It was 50 years ago today that Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council. He did so with an address that remains historic in its own right (but is not available in English in the Vatican’s website for some reason).  Today, in fact, is also Blessed John XIII’s feast day!

My full-time work at Liturgical Press has allowed me some good opportunities to think more deeply about the Council and understand it better. Several months ago we published — for the first time in English — the fascinating My Journal of the Council, the personal journals kept by Fr. Yves Congar, OP, throughout the four years of that historic event. Congar was one of many remarkable theologians who participated as theological experts. Others included Joseph Ratzinger, Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, and John Courtney Murray. Despite having a place among these luminaries, few could argue with the assertion of John O’Malley, SJ, who wrote recently in America magazine, “When account is taken of Congar’s writings before the council and of his influence on so many of the final documents, he must be ranked, in my opinion, as the council’s single most important theologian.”

Anyway, his journal makes for fascinating reading! We get his very personal take on many of the prominent people and events of the Council and great insights into the behind the scenes work that went on. (Because he “names names,” Congar himself insisted in 1968 that it could not be published before the year 2000.) Fr. Robert Barron, who calls My Journal of the Council “one of the most theologically fascinating and just plain entertaining books I’ve read in a long time,” comments on the book here.

Then there’s the new book, True Reform: Liturgy and Ecclesiology in Sacrosanctum Concilium, by Massimo Faggioli, also worth a read. Faggioli argues that we too readily “reduce” the Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy to the one that spurred the liturgical renewal that followed the Council, sort of a nuts-and-bolts document rather than a theological-doctrinal one. Rather, says Faggioli, Sacrosanctum Concilium is the key to understanding the theological vision of the Council, especially with regard to the nature of the Church itself. After all, the maxim is lex orandi, lex credendi, “the law of prayer is the law of faith,”: what we pray in our liturgy is central to understanding what we believe.

Faggioli writes, “The profound ecclesiological meaning of the liturgical movement and liturgical reform has been lost.” In True Reform, he aims to recover that meaning and does so in some fascinating ways.

Last weekend I was able to attend a conference marking the Vatican II anniversary at John Carroll University, titled “A New Cloud of Witnesses: The Laity 50 Years after Vatican II.” Participants had the pleasure of hearing some excellent keynote addresses from such notable presenters as John Allen, Jr., Margaret Steinfels, Edward Hahnenberg, E.J. Dionne, and Richard Gaillardetz. As the title suggests, the main topic was the laity. Hahnenberg is an especially noted and engaging scholar on the theological aspects of this topic, and his talk may be the one that I found most interesting and enriching, though each was certainly well worth the time.

Now this weekend I’m off to Georgetown University for another Vatican II conference, this one called “Vatican II after Fifty Years: Dialogue and Catholic Identity.” I’m looking forward to presentations by John O’Malley, SJ, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, Catherine Clifford, Elena Procario-Foley, and Massimo Faggioli, as well as Mass celebrated by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Should be another rich experience!

The Council was surely the most consequential event for the Catholic Church since the Protestant Reformation. May the Spirit continue to guide us in understanding its message and making that message a reality in the Church and the world of our day. Happy anniversary!

One thought on “50 years ago today: Vatican II begins

  1. Way to promote!

    It’s interesting how conscious I am of the council these days, the excitement and anxiety that must have been simmering as people prepared for it. One of our authors frequently talks about the psalms getting “into our bones.” To a certain extent, I think the same could be said about the council: the teachings have, over the past fifty years, soaked into our bones. Easy enough to say, I’m sure, since I’ve known only the post-Vatican II church.

    I look forward to spending some time in the coming months and years looking more deeply into the documents.

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