Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What a Day! Pope John XXIII and Vatican II!

Forty-nine years ago today, on 11 October 1962, Pope John XXIII presided over the opening of the Second Vatican Council.  It is for this reason that we now celebrate Pope John's feast day today as well.  It's interesting, because usually a saint is remembered on the date of his birth or the date of her death.  John's is celebrated on the date of his most significant achievement in ministry: Vatican II.  It's a great day to commemorate both.

Angelo Roncalli, while he relished his peasant roots, was a man who loved history and the lessons history could teach us.  He was also a Roman "outsider" (unlike his best friend and successor, Giovanni Battista Montini, who was quite the Vatican "insider"), who came into his own during lengthy tours as a papal legate to Bulgaria (1925-1935), Turkey and Greece (1935-1944) and France (1944-1953).  He always maintained that it was his military service as a stretcher-bearer and chaplain during World War I that formed him into a pastor, and during World War II he did everything he could to facilitate the escape of as many as 100,000 Jews from Nazi-held areas.  In 1953 he was appointed Patriarch of Venice and was made a Cardinal.  He wrote that he loved the title of "Patriarch" -- the title he thought he would be buried with -- because it meant he was a "Father" to his people.  Little did he know that he would soon become "papa" to the whole world, not just Venice.  What his biography shows us is a man who was deeply immersed in the "real world" in a variety of difficult human situations, and a man who learned profoundly how the Church might help.

What the great Pope John brought to the world, and what the Council he called emphasized, was a "novus mentis habitus" -- a "new way of thinking" -- about the world and the Church.  Pope John Paul II used to speak about this quite often in the early days of his own papacy: that the world and the church today demands a new way of thinking about how we relate to the people with whom we live and serve.  Today, this message seems more needed than ever.

We read of church leaders who have decided that the richness of eating and drinking the Lord's Body and Blood, commanded by our Lord, is best accomplished through a resurgent sacramental minimalism by consuming under the species of bread alone; we wonder why our young people (and, let's be honest, some NOT so young people as well!) are leaving active participation in a Church they honestly believe has lost its moral compass and any connectedness whatsoever to the real problems which today's people face.  Instead, they see institutional church leadership fussing about translations from a dead language into a living culture while whole peoples are victims of genocide, forced migrations, war and natural disasters. They know that individual Catholics and groups of Catholics are involved in trying to make things better, but the acknowledged leadership often seems completely out-of-touch and remote from those efforts.

It was this very detachment from the "real world" that Pope John and the Council attempted to address.  In 1962, the world's bishops had vivid memories of two world wars, worldwide economic collapse, the rise of three totalitarian regimes, the emergence of the nuclear age and the cold war.  During the Council itself, the world was brought to the brink of another worldwide war during the Bay of Pigs debacle and the President of the US himself was assassinated.  The bishops of the world, led by John himself, wanted to try to find a NEW WAY OF THINKING so that the world might be transformed into a different kind of place, so that such tragedies could not happen again.

I entered high school seminary in 1963, during the Council itself, and what a dynamic and exciting time it was!  We were encouraged to dream about serving in a rejuvenated Church, a Church that would walk among people and help them.  To use John's own word, there was to be an aggiornamento in the Church, an updating, not just of how we worshiped, but how we lived and served in the world.

Many things have happened in the forty-nine years since the Council began, but I believe that we are still called to a new way of thinking.  The old patterns of thought which some people seem intent on trying to "restore" to the Church and the world, did not keep the world from war, violence and destruction.  Pope John's call to look forward with new, fresh approaches is more needed today than ever.  What else matters if we cannot connect the real messiness of life with the promises of Christ?

Viva il Papa Giovanni!


  1. Thanks for this - lovely post with great insight.

  2. Some of us have been patiently waiting for a new post. It was worth the wait!

  3. Thanks, Bill, for this post as we remember a giant of the Church.

  4. As I just mentioned on Deacon Greg's blog, I was an undergraduate at a very large Roman Catholic university in the Midwest from 1961-65. Even though I am older than Deacon Bill, I still can remember the fascinating dreaming all of us had about the future of our church as John XXIII defined it.

    Thanks for bringing this up.

    Deacon Norb in Ohio

  5. Bravo Bill: you say what so many are now thinking.....

  6. fidectThanks Bill. I well remember the euphoria and the hope of those days and look at where we are now. You have said it so well

  7. Vatican II was certainly an important moment in the life of the Church, and I think we are still trying to develop our ways of applying its insights in our daily life as the Church.

    But I have one disagreement. You write of leaders fussing about translations, while individuals and groups of individuals are trying to alleviate "real" problems. It seems to me that you miss the point that it is the hierarchy who are supposed to teach, govern, and sanctify the Church, but it is the laity, as laity, who are called to teach, govern, and sanctify the world through their involvement in secular affairs. In other words, when lay individuals and groups are dealing with genocides, forced migrations, wars, and natural disasters, that's the way it's supposed to be.

  8. Dear naturgesetz,

    I take your point, and in general I can agree with it; but the rather sharp line of demarcation which you suggest is nowhere to be found in the documents of the Council.

    The role of the ordained and official ministers of the Church, as explained in detail in Chapter Three of Lumen Gentium (especially paragraph 18)is to build up the Body of Christ. We all do that in a wide variety of ways, and the bishops worked hard to describe a Church that was not set up "over against" the world, but rather existed as a "soul and leaven" of society. That does not leave the clergy in the sanctuary and the laity "in the world"; we're ALL in the world, with the laity taking the lead in those areas where they exercise particular responsibilities.

    I guess my point in that very personal reflection was that certain leaders (not all of them, by any means!) are operating out of a different ecclesiology than other folks, and that ecclesiology can be quite at odds with the communio ecclesiology of the Council. That's why I said "some" leaders.

    God bless,


  9. I have a question about your part 6 article in the deacon digest. So as to not post a question that does not pertain to this blog article, how can you be contacted? Thank you

  10. Dear DiscerningDave,


    Look forward to hearing from you!


  11. Bill,

    I could not agree with you more. I do wonder though:

    Change is not easy partially because it moves us out of our comfort zone. Moving from the pre VII world to a post VII world was especially difficult. Frankly, we as church can look back and say quite honestly; we did not do a good job of bringing the "vision" of Vatican II to life. There are many reasons for this. Perhaps clergy themselves were ill prepared to transition from a world of strict obedience to a perform the task of transformation. Maybe people were too rigid and unbending...... lacking trust?

    I think too that for the most part our focus was on a single issue of liturgical change,,,,, language, position & posture of the presider, lay involvement, and church decor.

    Did we miss the transformation in thinking, in renewal of Catholic social thought & action!

    Honestly, I believe we did. And even now, almost 50 years later we still are missing the point! How often do we hear or preach catholic social doctrine. How many times have we heard any homilist refer to a specific document of Vatican II? Yet, those documents offer a richness of teaching that lead one to the hear and soul if you will of what it means to be human and made in the image and likeness of God...... authentic joyful Eucharist that continues after mass!

    Yes, times have changed. The world is very different from 50 years ago, or is it! Situations change, new events take place, different challenges present themselves, but THE FAITH IS UNCHANGING

    SADLY, I fear (and I hope I am wrong) many who occupy high places within the church prefer to fall back on the "good" years...... the "safety zone" if you will. So the attitude of turn back the reform will some how lead us back to those "good old days".

    I suggest if we have authentic faith, and if we trust the Holy Spirit to lead us, we will have no fear.... no reason to fear as the Holy Spirit speaks to the entire church, after all she consists of "All the People of God" as Lumen Gentium so wise-fully proclaims.

    May you continue to do the Good work God has initiated in you.