REFLECTION & STUDY
Second Vatican Council
What was the purpose of the Second Vatican Council?
Blessed Pope John XXIII was inspired by the Holy Spirit to call the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council for the primary purpose “of bringing the perennial life-giving energies of the Gospel to the modern world, a world that boasts of its technical and scientific conquests but also bears the effects of a temporal order that some have wanted to reorganize by excluding God.” (Salutis humanae 1961). The Pope believed that the answers to the problems and challenges of the modern age were found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the doctrine of His Church. The purpose of the Council was to re-present the 2000 year doctrine of the Catholic Church in such a way “that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.” (Homily of the Opening to the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.)
Why read the Vatican II documents?
Every Catholic in the world today has been impacted by the Council and the changes made in the Church after the Council. Much was done after the Council in the name of the Council which was never intended by the Council. Conversely, parts of the Council have never been implemented at all. How are Catholics today supposed to know what the Council intended if they do not read the documents themselves? More importantly, how can we take up the mission of the Holy Spirit who inspired Pope John XXIII and the Council Fathers if we do not know what the mission is? As Pope Benedict has said, if we interpret the Council within the 2000-year tradition of the Church, “it can be and can become increasingly powerful for the ever necessary renewal of the Church.” (Address to the Roman Curia December 22, 2005) Fifty years later, this is our task: to renew the Church and the world through the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.
How does one read the Council documents?
The Second Vatican Council provided the Church with sixteen ecclesiastical documents. Today, one can easily access the documents online or in hard copy format. In the resources section of this page, one will find various ways to access the documents. Although, the thick volume of Council documents may seem daunting, it must be remembered that this was a pastoral council whose aim was to teach the faith not only to Christians who are literate but to all people of good will. Therefore, the vocabulary is simple to understand, the text includes many scripture references, and the content is meant to nourish and enlighten the faithful.
The sixteen documents were written by several thousand bishops and theologians. The documents are the fruit of many years of preparation, prayer, and discussion by this Council. Taking the example of the council fathers, it is recommended that one read the documents with prayerful reflection. Reverence for the documents is key as the Council was inspired by the Holy Spirit through the humble Servant of the Church, Pope John XXIII.
Every person who reads the Council documents will approach it with a different learning style. For some, this may be reading the documents completely a first time and then, re-reading them. For others, it may be studying the documents, individually or in a group, chapter by chapter. Study groups can include College students and Adult Faith Formation groups, who are seeking to further their understanding of the Church.
As the opening of the Year of Faith falls on the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, this year presents a good opportunity to take up the challenge of learning about the faith. The Church has already supplied an invaluable resource that places substantial excerpts from the Council in the context of the life of the Church in an organized and systematic manner. This resource is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was promulgated twenty years after Vatican II by Blessed Pope John Paul II. The timing of the Year of Faith also corresponds to the 30th anniversary of the publishing of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites church fathers, doctors of the Church, saints, scripture passages, theologians, and text from various Councils of the Church to communicate the faith.
For more information on resources and how to read the documents please see the resources section.
What were the types of documents prepared by the Second Vatican Council?
The four different types of documents prepared by the Second Vatican Council were: constitutions, decrees, declarations, and messages. The four constitions of the Second Vatican Council are: Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum); Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium); Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium); Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). “It is still rather difficult to state precisely why one document was given a specific qualification rather than another. It could be noted, though, that the constitutions—such as the dogmatic and pastoral ones—are fundamental documents addressed to the Church universal, while the decrees, which build upon constitutional principles, are directed more specifically to a given category of the faithful or to a special form of apostolate. The declarations were policy statements giving the teaching of the Church on certain more controverted matters, and thus are more liable to be revised with time. The messages are exhortations addressed to various categories of persons at the conclusion of the final session of the council” (Francis G. Morrisey, O.M.I., 1992, Papal and Curial Pronouncements: Their Canonical Significance in Light of the Code of Canon Law, Ottawa: Saint Paul University)