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The Second Vatican Council was the twenty-first ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church is considered the brainchild of Pope John XXIII. The council commenced on the October 11th 1962 with an inaugural speech given by the Pontiff (Comby and MacCulloch 56). From this speech, he outlined some of the major issues that he hoped the council would address.
Germane among them touched majorly, but not exclusively, on the pastoral aspect of the Church, ecumenism with other Christian Churches, hierarchical structure of the Church, et cetera. Other challenges that bishops faced in their profession included technological challenges, social change, political instability and financial challenges. Accordingly, there was need to equip them with a common knowledge that reaffirmed the Church’s position on such issues.
Pope John XXIII saw the need to convene an ecumenical council three months into his papacy, something that surprised members of the curia, though was widely supported across the secular and religious sanctums. In fact, the Pontiff used to say before the commencement of the council that it was high time the windows of the Church were opened to let in fresh air.
He further surprised the curia when he invited non-Catholic Christians to send their observations, to which the Eastern Churches accepted together with some Protestants. However, his death on June 3, 1963 marked the end of the first session of the council to be continued by the second session, which was called by the new Pope Paul VI. This paper attempts to discuss the features of this council and defends its teaching.
The Major Concliar Documents
The Council Fathers explained very well the constitution on the divine revelation, the Roman Catholic understanding of the Bible as a direct communication from God, the tradition, and the magisterium (the Church authority) as an integrated divine economy that forms the basis of her faith.
The church council took a biblical understanding of the church in its constitution rather than a peddled judicial model. The Church was termed as the ‘people of God’ thus stressing the servanthood of the presbyterian offices, the collegial or shared responsibility of bishops for the whole Church. Moreover, the new concept called upon church members to holiness and participation in the Church’s mission of proclaiming the Good News. The pastoral constitution espoused the shared joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the contemporary humanity, especially of the poor and the afflicted (Second Vatican Council 3).
The Council Fathers in the constitution on liturgy rooted for active communal participation during holy Mass, which is the central act of Catholic public worship. Changes could only be enacted after replacing the Latin language, which was used in the Mass by vernacular languages. Some documents endeavored to establish a cordial relationship with the Eastern Churches and Protestant Christians as well as those who did not profess Christianity.
Features of the Council
Changes that the Council Fathers made in the liturgy of the Church demonstrate the impact that the twenty-first ecumenical council had on Catholic Christians. These changes were so radical that some Catholics, especially old ones, found them disturbing. For example, having grown accustomed to the Latin Mass, the abandonment of this language did not go down well with them. The abandonment of Latin as a common language to conduct mass led to many bishops being unhappy because mass was taken as a common prayer.
However, for “full participation of the People of God in the Mass, the council not only changed from Latin to English in parts of the Mass, but also authorized the use of vernacular in the Mass as well as in the administration of every sacrament and sacrament” (Comby and MacCulloch 36). The promulgation of the Constitution of Sacred Liturgy in September 1964 resulted from the above resolution buttressed by the fact liturgy is at the center of Christian life and worship.
In line with the centrality of the liturgy in the life of Christians, the council resolved that the high altar be situated at a position that makes it possible for the priest to face the congregation while saying Mass.
The “council further resolved that the crucifix and the candlesticks be placed upon the altar in a customary manner; though in certain circumstances, the bishop may allow them to be placed alongside the altar” (Comby and MacCulloch 56). The ambo (lectern) from which Scripture readings are made, should be easily seen by the faithful. All these changes were made in order to make faithful participate in the Mass as the assembly of the People of God.
Changes in the Eucharistic Celebration
The rite of the Eucharistic celebration underwent the following changes that the Council Fathers saw fit. If the Mass was preceded by another liturgical service, then all opening prayers become null. Similarly, the doxology is to be said or sung loudly.
There was the omission of the sign of the cross made at this point with the introduction of the celebrant lifting the Eucharist and the chalice above the corporal. The faithful and the celebrant say or sing the “Our Father” and the Embolism is said thereafter for freedom from evil and the forgiveness of sins. The council shortened the words spoken by the priest when giving Holy Communion to “The Body of Christ” to which the person answers “Amen” (Second Vatican Council 3).
In all the Masses said on Sundays and Holydays, the Gospel is explained by the homily, which may be drawn from other texts of the Mass considering the feast or solemnity celebrated. Regarding the Eucharistic Fast, which formerly started from midnight, was reduced to three hours and finally, the council reduced it further to one hour after receiving the Eucharist (Second Vatican Council 2).
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The council reinstated the catechuminate rituals of adults receiving instructions on the Catholic faith. Most sacraments were renamed and given new explanations, for example, the formerly “Extreme Unction” became Anointing of the Sick. Previously, “the right to give many blessings had been reserved and a priest had to obtain a special authority before blessing” (McGowan 56). The council changed this with some exceptions thus making it possible for any priest to offer blessings.
This custom was “extended to other occasions such as Mass on the evening of Maundy Thursday, and Masses celebrated at the meetings of priests” (McGowan 59). Regarding music and singing, the council recognized that worship was noble when accompanied with solemn songs. The council allowed for other kinds of sacred music to be incorporated into the liturgy (Maines & McCallion 97).
According to the Constitution of the Church, the council espoused that the Catholic Church holds the belief that it is the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church of Christ. However, it solemnly acknowledges the activity of the Holy Ghost on all men since the divine action goes beyond the boundaries of the physical Church. The author writes:
On the hierarchical structure of the Church, the council used the term ‘college’ to denote the unified, corporate body of men consisting of bishops with the authority together with the Pope as the head (Shaw 16)
Defense on the teachings of the Vatican II Council
From the use of Latin to the use of vernacular for saying Mass, the Council Fathers did a commendable work to include all faithful in the liturgical celebration of the Mass (Tuan 8).
For this reason, many people have been converted to the Catholic faith and are able to participate fully in the liturgy. The changes made on the altar allowing the priests to face the congregation while celebrating Mass have added fervor to the participation of the laity in the liturgy.
The freedom given by the council regarding the use of sacred music and percussion instruments has made many cultures to embrace the Catholic faith. Moreover, the decree on divine revelation that combines three sources of revelation gives the Church a wealth of information on the divine through the Congregation of Sacred Faith (The Second Vatican Council 13).
The recognition by the council that the activity of the Holy Ghost is eminent in all men has facilitated the cordial relationship between Catholics and other Christian denominations such as the Eastern Churches and the Protestants. The ingenuity of the council on this issue was reinforced by the decree on ecumenism with Christians and non-Christians alike. In the world where interdependence is unavoidable, harmonious coexistence is necessary and this is what the council espoused.
Pope John XXIII saw the need of convening an ecumenical council immediately after he took office of the papacy, hence the surprise of the curia members. In spite of his decisions, he was widely supported across the secular and religious sanctums. Further surprise came after his invitation of non-catholic members to provide their observations of the conduct of the church to the council.
Eastern Churches accepted the invitation together with other Protestants.teh death of the Pope in 1963 meant that the first section of the council ends with the second session beginning after the new Pope, Paul VI assumed office. The council sought to equip bishops and other members of the clergy with common knowledge that reaffirmed the Church’s position on controversial issues facing them and the church in general.
The Second Vatican Council has gone down in history as an ecumenical council that radically shook the Church by making unprecedented changes that hitherto had not been witnessed. Such changes made in the language used for saying Mass were very instrumental in making the People of God to participate in the liturgy.
Pope Paul VI finally promulgated the fresh air that Pope John XXIII had envisaged to refresh the Church. The teachings on social, economic, and political dispensations of the century were equally timely. Finally, the thoroughness of the council that made it issue sixteen documents is also worthy of praise. This is because the documents addressed issues affecting the clergy and the church hence leaving everybody contented with the church actions.
Comby, Jean and MacCulloch, Diarmid. How to read church history: From the reformation to the present day. London: SCM Press, 1989. Print.
Maines, David & McCallion, Micheal. Transforming Catholicism: Liturgical change in the Vatican II Church. New York: Lexington Books, 2007. Print.
McGowan, Jean. Concelebration: sign of the unity of the Church. Sacramento: Herder and Herder, 1964. Print.
Shaw, Russell. Papal primacy in the third millennium. New York: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2000. Print.
The Second Vatican Council. The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council Dedicated to “The Immaculate”. The Vatican, May 2011.Web. <http://mb-soft.com/believe/txs/secondvc.htm>
Tuan, Catherine. Vatican II and ecumenism: A study in church history on Christian unity. London, UK: Kenrick Seminar, 1981. Print.