The Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII to address the role of the Church in the modern world, was an epic event when it opened Oct. 11, 1962.
It came at the start of an era that saw sweeping changes in all aspects of society, as individuals and institutions everywhere took stock of their principles and practices in the postwar environment.
John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic and the youngest-ever U.S. president, was in office less than a year; the American civil rights movement was gaining strength as blacks demanded the equality they deserved; countries in Africa and southeast Asia were becoming independent after decades of colonialism; and sexual mores and artistic expression were rapidly evolving, with more to come over the decade which came to be known, for better or worse, as “the Sixties.”
That the Catholic Church was one of the first major institutions to engage in such a monumental exercise of self-examination was both exhilarating and anxiety-provoking at once.
As we mark the 60th anniversary of the council’s opening, that dichotomy has remained, as Catholics continue to debate whether Vatican II has helped or hurt the Church and whether or not the Church is living up to the spirit of the council or ignoring it, and even whether the council’s teachings should be tossed aside completely and a new council convened.
Pope Francis sees it differently.
In his homily marking Vatican II’s opening in St. Peter’s Basilica, he called the debates about the council then and now a distraction from the Church’s mission.
The council reminded the Church of what is “essential,” he said, defining it as “a Church madly in love with its Lord and with all the men and women whom He loves,” one that “is rich in Jesus and poor in assets,” a Church that “is free and freeing.”
He said, “We are always tempted to start from ourselves rather than from God, to put our own agendas before the Gospel, to let ourselves be caught up in the winds of worldliness in order to chase after the fashions of the moment or to turn our back on the time that providence has granted us.”
George Weigel, one of our regular columnists who is generally seen as more traditional in his views on the Church, makes a strong case elsewhere in this issue on why he sees the council as having been necessary.
In researching his new book, “To Sanctify the World: The Vital Lesson of Vatican II,” Weigel studied the council’s 16 texts and commentaries on them, including commentaries by Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI), who was one of the three most influential theologians at the council and is also seen as having a traditional outlook.
Still, Weigel wrote, the future pope held that the council was crucial to rekindling a Christ-centered faith that would be the source of a revitalized Catholic mission to convert the modern world.
As Pope Francis put it, “A church in love with Jesus has no time for quarrels, gossip and disputes. May God free us from being critical and intolerant, harsh and angry. This is not a matter of style but of love.”
We agree with that, and share the pope’s prayer for the contemporary Church and the world, that we go forth in a spirit of love for all.