Remembering Vatican II 60 years on

Pope John XXIII arriving for the opening session of the Second Vatican Council.

It’s 60 years this month since the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, opened in Rome to much pomp and fanfare.

Between 1962 and 1965 more than two thousand bishops from the four corners of the globe gathered periodically for three years. They met in St Peter’s Basilica for four sessions, each lasting up to 12 weeks at a time.

Pope John XXIII called the council because he believed the Church needed “updating”.

To connect with people in the 20th-century in an increasingly secularised world, some of the Church’s practices needed to be improved, and its teaching needed to be presented in a way that would appear relevant and understandable.

From the window of the Apostolic Palace on the night following the conclusion of the first session, the ‘good pope’ delivered his famous “moonlight speech” to the thousands who had gathered below.

Pope John XXIII surprised the crowd with an impromptu speech urging the faithful to go home to their children and give them a hug and tell them “this is the caress of the pope.”

The Council produced sixteen documents (four constitutions, nine decrees and three declarations. These statements touched on every aspect of Catholic life: liturgy, communications, ecclesiology, ecumenism, religious life, the priesthood, Catholic education, relations with non-Christians, the laity, missionary efforts, religious liberty, and the role of the Church in the modern world.

Retired Pope Benedict XVI recently stated that the Council was “not only meaningful, but necessary”. He said, “A theological understanding of the world’s different religions, the relationship between faith and reason and, especially, the nature and mission of the Church in the modern world were challenges the Church needed to face.”

Earlier this month to mark the 60th anniversary, Pope Francis led a special Mass that began with a reading of Pope John XXIII’s inaugural speech to the council and excerpts from some of Vatican II’s key documents. It ended with the faithful leaving the basilica holding candles in remembrance of the candlelight procession in St Peter’s Square on the night of October 11, 1962.

Today, the outcomes of Vatican II are still playing out in one form or another. For example, Pope Francis’ insists on a “synodal” or decentralised church, with an emphasis on lay Catholics rather than clerics.

This vision is evident in Pope Francis’ decision to allow laypeople, including women, to head Vatican offices and in the two-year “synod” process in which ordinary Catholic faithful have joined a global consultation on the life and mission of the church.

Pope Francis has also been an enthusiastic supporter of the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) which has been held every four years since 1994. The 12th WMOF was held in Rome in June and had the theme, ‘Family love: a vocation and a path to holiness’.

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