Thursday, October 11, 2012

Celebrating the Golden Anniversary of Vatican II

Pope John XXIII at Vatican II
Fifty years ago today, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).  It surprised many that this “caretaker” papacy would launch such a sweeping endeavor as Vatican II.  In fact, Pope Blessed John XIII died on third of the way into the conclave, but he believed that the Roman Catholic Church required aggiornamento or “updating”.

Having been born towards the conclusion on Vatican II, I have no personal recollections of the way the Church was prior to Vatican II.  My cursory knowledge as a child caused me to conclude that Vatican II translated the mass into the local languages (vernacular) and stopped the use of High Altars with the priest's back to the congregation. I was aware of people who were put off by the Novus Ordo liturgy and longed for the Tridentine  rituals, but that just seemed like an old translation.  It was only when I started to study Vatican II that I had a better appreciation for the fruits of the council and how strongly disappointment remains from the right and the left today.

Bishops meeting in Plenary Session of Vatican II
Over three years, some 2800 bishops from 116 countries met, debated (in Latin) and produced 16 documents.  Instead of automatically taking the preparation work from a cautious curia, the Council regrouped in geographical zones and requested a thorough re-thinking of the Council’s agenda.  But regional politics was serendipitously curtailed by seating, which was by seniority rather than delegations.

Unlike other councils, Vatican II did not define any dogma or pronounce anything anathematic.  The documents used word of persuasion and inclusion, like People of God or “brothers and sisters” rather than top down neo-scholastic theological statements.

 While keeping true to the essence of the Church in scripture, holy tradition and the Magisterium, Vatican II renewed the vision of what it means to be Church.

 Lumen Gentium calls the church to be the light of the world and source of salvation.  Lumen Gentium recognized the importance off family as the “domestic church” which provides the strong foundation of faith for sharing with the world.

Sacrosantum Concilium recognized the Eucharist as being the foundation of the Church, for in Holy Communion Catholics encounter the person of Christ and it is the main source of God’s grace.  

The Second Vatican Council spurred liturgical reforms which had been brewing in the church for years. This involved more than just worshiping in the vernacular.  It involved a whole new calendar and lectionary which refocused Sundays as “little Easters” telling salvific history through scriptural readings throughout the year rather than focusing on myriad Saintly feast days.  The scriptural readings read significantly more scripture over three year cycles.  Moreover, Vatican II desired the active participation of the People of God.

In fact, the entire emphasize shifted from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (re-creating Calvary) to re-creating the Last Supper (convivium).  While Vatican II did not espouse new theological doctrine per se, this reflects the “spirit of Vatican II” which shifted in focus in faith from the Messiah’s suffering on the cross and dying for our sins to understanding Eucharist as the perfect sacrifice of free will to our Father’s plan  which is made perpetual through the wonder of Jesus’ resurrection as embodied in Communion.

While the sung Tridentine High Mass has its beauty when it has an inspired choir and a priest who does liturgy well. I recently was blessed to worship in an Extraordinary Form  Requiem Mass for March For Life founder Nellie Gray. It sounded heaven but  I experienced how it was a challenge for  much of the congregation to follow along in Latin, and there were few, if any, moments of participation from the Congregation.   But the Novus Ordo liturgy involved the faithful in their common tongue with expanded hymnals and wider selections of readings. The People of God are now lectors as well as communion ministers and the dialogue within the mass encourages eager and active  worship in communion, thereby being another manifestation of Christ.

Vatican II also revolutionized how the Catholic Church interacted with others in the world. Gaudium et Spes dealing with the Church and the modern world, recognizes that the Church shares the same joys and the same suffering with the world.

Pope Paul VI & Orthodox Metropolitan Meliton of Heliopolis (1965)
 Voices from other faiths were heard and heeded during the Second Vatican Council, particularly on the Lectionary.  It was a wonderful fruit of ecumenism that many mainline Protestant faiths revised their lectionary to roughly parallel the Roman liturgical calendar so the divided brothers and sisters in Christ  were nearly worshiping off the same page.

It is inconceivable to a Vatican II baby that prior to the aggiornamento, but per John O'Malley, S.J. Catholics were not only forbidden to pray with those of other faiths but were also inculcated with contempt. Vatican II fostered friendly relations with our divided brothers and sisters from Orthodox and Protestant Christianity.  Moreover, Vatican II condemned all forms of anti-Semitism and demanded respect for all from Abrahamic faiths, like Islam as well as Judaism.

So why is there still controversy a half century after Vatican II?  One can reasonably understand why traditionalist would bristle at all of the change. While sedevacantists may not be pleased unless we all travel back in time to January 1959 when Pope Blessed John XXIII announced his intention to hold the Second Vatican Council.  But Pope Saint Pius V did not bind his successors to never change the 1570 Tridentine Rite liturgy, as Popes have supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary powers.  While Pope Paul VI did promulgate the Missa Romanum in 1969, several other Popes had modified the Tridentine Rite before without controversy. Aside from the changes in language and  emphasis in worship, the changes in the Lectionary took away from the tried and true rhythm of the Tridentine worship year and deemphasized Saints day in general Sunday worship.

Scott Hahn’s scholarship on Episcopal Attitudes to Liturgical Change on the Eve of Vatican II indicates that the impetus to change was not the majority opinion immediately prior to the Second Vatican Council.  Hahn suggest that only 29% of the bishops wanted extensive change to the liturgy.  Most of those advocates for change came from Protestant dominanted regions, or as Father Ralph Wiltgen, S.V.D titled his book on Vatican II “The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber”.  It should be noted that Pope Benedict XVI (nee Joseph Ratzinger) was a theological consultant (peritus) who was a proponent of the Nouvelle Théologie.

But it is puzzling to discover discordant voices from the left at the notion of Vatican II.  A parish study group considering Vatican II documents that leaned left sounded more like Catholic version of Anger Management.  Nearly all of the two score of participants could vividly remember the innovations of Vatican II, but this group felt that the Church had not changed enough.  In addition, they were worried about retrenchment from current Pope Benedict XVI.  What was more surprising were some vitriolic voices against the legacy of Pope Blessed John Paul II.

Part of this can be attributed to the governance of Second Vatican Council. The published documents were the work of many hands and the resulting consensus language rarely sounds poetic.  While the rules governing Vatican II required 2/3rds super-majority for passage.  But Pope Blessed John XXIII’s successor Pope Paul VI wanted Vatican II documents to have an appearance of near unanimity, so the published documents are full of concessions and sometimes contradictions in short proximity to each other.

Although the Second Vatican Council did not strictly espouse a new theology, the Nouvelle Théologie hermaneutic which opened the church was embued throughout the documents, but not a systematic theology.  Consequently, when liturgical changes to Vatican II were introduced, there was some ambiguity in its implementation. This is certainly seen in the English translation of the Novus Ordo Mass (1969).  The translation methodology of Comme le prévoit (1969) uses the principle of dynamic equivalence  to convey the overall sense and meaning of the text in idiomatic English.  A sense of casual colloquialness can be associated with the “And also with you” response to the invocation of the Holy Spirit five times within the liturgy.  But the 1973 approved ICEL English translation allowed for many equivalents at the discretion of the Presider.  This flexibility bothered even a staunch liberal liturgical innovator like former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembrand Cardinal Weakland who decried injecting so many ideosyncratic mannerisms into the liturgy that becomes so colloquial that it is unbefitting of the liturgical movement.

The English Speaking Liturgical translators (ICEL) had prepared a new translation in 1998 which sought to redress shortcomings in the 1973 translation, but was a marriage of both dynamic and static translation.  The new missal required the blessing from Rome, but the Vatican sat on approving the text for four years before rejecting it in favor of the more static translation embraced in Liturgicum Authenticum (2001).   Aside from the unfamiliar language as part of the new translation (e.g. consubstantial, incarnate), the 2011 missal does not allow for Presiders to improvise.  So traditionalists, who take umbrage at the Novus Ordo and any translation continue to be upset, but Pope John Paul II’s requirements for a new Lectionary displeased liturgical liberals too.  After nearly a year has passed, the People of God seem to have made peace with the new translation, though fewer people can recite by rote memory and some get stuck on the new words. Although the new missal is an internal church conflict a half century after the council, it has its roots in “the spirit of Vatican II”.

Another challenge for the faithful with appreciating the legacy of Vatican II is understanding the theology which purportedly underlies the documents.  It is said that the importance of salvation history is the resurrection instead of the bloody sacrifice of Calvary.  That much I appreciate although I wonder if it minimizes the sacrificial hermanuetic, particularly of the bloodless lamb sacrifice for the salvation for God’s people.  But former Georgetown University Theology Chair Anthony Tambasco goes further in asserting that is was Christ’s perfect submission to God’s will which redeemed humanity, not the replacement expiation of sin.  In fact, Tambasco recently asserted that had Jesus died a married man in bed, he still would have redeemed humanity by his perfect submission to His Father’s plan.

When challenged to show chapter and verse from the Second Vatican Council documents, the answer was that it is all throughout them, without pointing to anything in particular. This kind of reminds a political junkie about campaigning on "Hope" and "Change" and people insert whatever they want into those broad bromides. Such an airy fairy answer was not pleasing to those schooled in neo-scholastic theology ala the Baltimore Catechism.  Nor did this take jibe with my reading of excerpts of Vatican II documents.

Perhaps this is why Pope Benedict XVI has encouraged Catholics during this Year of Faith to review reading Vatican II documents. For the faithful who take up this challenge, the Church offers a plenary indulgence for those who do so in a prayerful manner.


 We should appreciate the Golden Anniversary of Vatican II for breathing new life in updating the Catholic Church. But we should not ignore traditions which have sustained the faithful, like the Extraordinary Form (Tridentine) Mass as well as Anglican patrimony.  The Second Vatican Council shaped by the passionate pleas of Melkite Patriarch Maximos IV, who urged reconciliation with our Orthodox brothers while retaining the Eastern lung of Christianity’s culture, language and traditions.  Furthermore, we should continue to embrace the call for all Catholics to be priests, prophets and king by actively participating in the liturgy and spreading God’s transforming love into the world via the New Evangelization.

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