e-mail us

Vatican II: 40 years later

Daybreak on a new kind of church


In October 1962 there was a Catholic in the White House for the first time. “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita” were playing in U.S. movie houses. Francis Crick and James Watson had just been awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for the discovery of the DNA molecule. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was on The New York Times bestseller list. The discovery of nuclear-tipped Russian missiles in Cuba and the ensuing eyeball-to-eyeball superpower confrontation were about to jangle the nerves of the world.

That same month Pope John XXIII, who had succeeded the ascetic-looking Pius XII four years previously, opened the first session of the Second Vatican Council, with a speech that contained these words: “The council now beginning rises in the church like daybreak, a forerunner of most splendid light.”

Twenty years later, a keynote speaker at the annual Great Lakes Pastoral Ministry Gathering in Chicago featured three slides projected on a large screen behind the podium. The first depicted a typical Catholic church before the council, with the altar rail dividing the altar and sanctuary from the people in the pews. The second slide showed a Chicago church that had taken that altar rail and put it on the front of the church edifice, thereby announcing that the entire congregation gathered within was, in the council’s phrase, “the people of God.” A third slide, engineered by a computer graphics whiz, showed an altar rail surrounding an image of the planet Earth suspended in space. There was thundering applause at this visual demonstration of how Catholic spirituality had changed since 1962.

The council’s effect on Catholic spirituality was profound. To get a picture of the range and scope of that effect, NCR talked with three observers of 20th-century Catholic spirituality.

“If you could say that one image dominated the spirit of the council, it’s ‘the people of God,’ ” Dominican Sr. Marygrace Peters, associate professor of church history at Aquinas Institute at St. Louis University, told NCR. “That phrase guides the documents in their expression, even the documents on scripture and liturgy. For example, Eucharist is presented by the council documents as the focus of liturgy because that’s where the people of God gather.”

Another profound influence Vatican II had on Catholic spirituality was its emphasis on the role of scripture in Catholic life, according to Peters. “The old cliché was that the Protestants got the scriptures while the Catholics got the sacraments. We moved out of devotions as a basis for lay spirituality to scripture as a basis. Prior to the council Catholics memorized the catechism, while our Baptist friends could quote scripture, chapter and verse. After the council, our prayer and spirituality became much more scripture-centered and rooted in the Word.”

The documents and spirit of the Second Vatican Council led to a transformed Catholic spirituality in which working for social justice was an uppermost consideration, Peters said. “The openness to the world, to other religions and to the whole human family that characterized the council is expressed finally in a faith that does justice. No more do we retreat from the world into a cloister, but rather our contemplative practices support the embracing and healing of the world that must go on in an authentic spiritual life.”

Resources for laypeople

Another effect of the council, according to Peters, was that the spiritual resources of the church were made available to laypeople. “Laypeople had spiritual practices, like holy hours, eucharistic devotions, novenas, First Fridays, rote prayers -- but no retreats or spiritual direction. These practices belonged exclusively to clerics and religious until after the council. Even such things as Cursillos, Marriage Encounter and charismatic renewal came about because of the conciliar spirit and documents. We are training people here at Aquinas Institute for certification in spiritual direction; the majority of them are laypeople. Thousands of lay Catholics are enrolled in theology programs around the country as well.”

Vatican II emphasized a much closer tie between the sacramental life of the church and the spiritual life of its members, according to Michael Downey, editor of The New Catholic Dictionary of Spirituality and faculty member at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, Calif. “Before the council the Sunday Mass and the spiritual life were in separate compartments,” Downey told NCR. “The spiritual life was understood as the pursuit of perfection or virtue, the interior life. Now there is more of a sense that the liturgy is central to the Christian spiritual life, is indeed its font and source, and a growing realization that the two realms cross-fertilize each other.”

This intermingling of the two streams can be seen plainly in the design of the new cathedral in Los Angeles, Downey said. “People come there for liturgy in droves; they’ve had to expand the Mass schedule already. Critics say it doesn’t really look like a cathedral. That’s because the architect designed a worship space that is reflective of the council’s views of the relationship between liturgy and the spiritual life of the laity. There is a large assembly space, prominent places for the ministers of the Word and Eucharist. There’s a real sense of coming to the cathedral from the world and then returning to that world.”

Picking up spiritual crumbs

“Vatican II erased all the artificial and idolatrous walls of separation between the church and the world,” Art Winter, former editor of Praying magazine and author of Stories of Prayer (Sheed & Ward), told NCR. “The council established, or re-established really, the world as a legitimate arena for spiritual life.

“All along the church had said God was in the world, but we acted like God was in the church alone. We equated the Catholic church with God’s life primarily, and this had the effect of separating God from the rest of life.”

Winter dramatized the pre- and post-council worlds in terms of his own family members: “My mother’s large family had three boys and three girls -- and three nuns. The nuns had ‘the call’ from God, so they had a spiritual life, and the rest of us tagged along behind picking up the spiritual crumbs. My parents, who were farmers and God-loving Catholic people, never could make the connection, for instance, between God and the land they worked, that their calling as farmers didn’t have to take a back seat to the vocation of priests and nuns.”

Throughout the conciliar documents there was an emphasis on God being active in and among people, places and things “that we thought were on the other side of the wall. We thought God was present in church but not really active in the world. The old Baltimore Catechism asked: Where is God? We dutifully memorized the answer: God is everywhere. Instead of pausing in amazement to contemplate this startling fact, we just went on to the next question.

Winter cited a sentence in the council document, “The Constitution on the Church in Modern World,” that clearly spells out this change in spirituality: “When men and women provide for themselves and their families in such a way as to be a service to the community as well, they can rightly look on their work as a prolongation of the work of the Creator, their personal contribution to the fulfillment in history of the divine plan.”

For Winter that means God is there leading and guiding laypeople, that life outside the church is an arena for spirituality, for spiritual living.

This shift in emphasis in the area of spirituality was not particularly promulgated or taught effectively by the church in the wake of the council, according to Winter. “For the most part, the good news is still buried in the documents; it’s not preached regularly. When I talk with other Catholic laypeople, conversations about spirituality quickly wind up in church. I think we’ve just begun to scratch the surface, the old mindset is deeply ingrained.”

When doing volunteer or service work, Winter said he hears others say, “ ‘Too bad you didn’t become a priest. Why aren’t you a deacon?’ That’s exactly the wrong direction. Being a lay Catholic is a vocation in its own right. The council documents say forthrightly that laypeople are called to live in the world as priests and prophets. Laypeople are called to speak God’s word in the world as priests are called to speak it in the church, in terms of peace, justice and equality.

“The documents go on to say that it’s the special vocation of the laity to build the reign of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s Word, that we are called by God to contribute to the sanctification of the world from within. These council documents are full of language like that, and my feeling is that one rarely hears it even 40 years later.”

Believers have two books

The change in emphasis in spirituality was new but also very old, according to Winter. “Saints like Ignatius, Francis of Assisi and Thérèse of Lisieux, for example, all talked about God present in all things. Another old notion is that we believers have the book of the Bible on one hand and the book of creation on the other. Both reveal God because of God’s presence in creation. God not only creates us, but sustains us. Creation spirituality is really the ultimate spirituality because it recognizes both books of revelation.

“As a cub reporter for a city newspaper, I went to cover a talk by some city official. He was a very disorganized speaker, and it was hard to make heads or tails out of what he said. When my city editor asked me what kind of talk he gave, I replied, ‘He didn’t really give it, he just let it out of the bag and it ran around the room.’ I think we can say that about Vatican II. It let God out of the Catholic bag and let God run around the world. The analogy breaks down, as all analogies do about God, in part because we never really had God in our bag as Catholics, though that was the impression many of us had.”

The Second Vatican Council emphasized that the church is where we celebrate and validate God’s presence in daily life, according to Winter. “The more my own daily life is seen as the arena for spiritual living, the more important the church becomes for me. Church is not something I am propelled to but more drawn to because I need what it has to offer. It completes the work I am doing.”

The notion of “reading the signs of the times” was a byword or motto of Vatican II. The world wars of the first half of the 20th century and the Holocaust had taken place. The Cold War was afoot, and the war in Vietnam was gearing up, as was the civil rights movement in the United States. “History was telling us something about the walls of separation,” Winter said. “Throughout the last century theologians and scripture scholars were struggling with bringing down those walls, reminding us that we are all God’s children.”

Then came the council -- and its attempt to reverse the tremendous fracturing between people, believers, church and world, matter and spirit. The spirituality of the future will surely continue this work, healing a fragmented world.

Rich Heffern is NCR opinion editor. His e-mail address is rheffern@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002