Thursday, October 11, 2012

In Gratitude for the Second Vatican Council

As I write this on Thursday night, October 11, my heart is filled with such gratitude. Today begins the Year of Faith declared by Pope Benedict XVI. It is begun this day, on the 50th Anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. This Year of Faith is a time to remember the renewal brought about by Vatican II and "the opening of the windows of the Church," to use a phrase of Pope John XXIII who called for the Council, so that the Holy Spirit could come into the Church like a fresh wind and "a new Pentecost."

Pope John XXIII Open the Second Vatican Council Oct. 11. 1962
I was a few months away from my 6th birthday when Good Pope John opened the Second Vatican Council. I was a Protestant and knew nothing of Catholicism. But little did I know that this Council would have a profound effect upon my life. Those who live now and are over 60 years old will no doubt remember some of the changes Vatican II brought about. The first would be a new orientation for the liturgy, the public worship of the Church. Soon the Mass would be celebrated in English or whatever a people’s language was. The altar was moved from the wall of the back of the sanctuary and the priests faced the people while celebrating Mass. Suddenly people could understand the prayers and readings and were expected to participate in a ritual dialogue with the priest and sing songs and be a part of the Mass in a way the laity had not been in more than 1200 years or so.

The reason for these changes grew out of the Council’s first document, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which said:

"Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.

"In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work." (#14; emphasis added)

What must be noted in this statement is that this full and active participation was to be considered before all else in the restoration of the liturgy. Vatican II was not making changes to just make changes. The Church Fathers desired that the ancient spirit of the people’s participation in and the spiritual benefits from the liturgy be increased by everyone understanding and being more active in their participation.

This didn’t mean that the former way of celebrating Mass (when the Mass was in Latin and the people were more passive in their observance at Mass) was without tremendous spiritual benefit and graces. But now the Church Fathers called for these riches of the Mass to be made more comprehensible and accessible to the people.

Other changes would come, based on a retrieval of the best of the past tradition. I will be writing a lot on this Council in this Year of Faith. But back to my own story concerning this Council. The Council closed in 1965. Sixteen years later, when I had just turned 22 years old, I was received into the Catholic Church at St. Augustine’s Church here in Gainesville. I was a student at the University. My becoming a Catholic involved many factors, but it was very much the direct fruit of the Second Vatican Council.

I had begun attending a prayer group at St. Augustine’s while at UF and living in a household of devoted Catholic male students and attending Mass with them. How I began to do this is another story for another time.

I am fairly certain that had the Mass still been in Latin, I would have probably felt totally a stranger attending it; but I felt at home at the Masses at St. Augustine. The Scriptures, which were so important in my early Christian life, was as important then as now. And the Council had called for a lavish provision of Scripture in the Church, encouraging laity to read and know the Bible again. And the Council had called for more involvement of the laity in the life of the Church, where before Priests and Sisters did most of the ministry. I felt that I could contribute something to the service of God in the Catholic Church because of the responsibilities of my Baptism.

Bishop Bob Baker
Fr. John D. Gillespie
I was so fortunate in my student days at UF to have the example of two consecutive Pastors at St. Augustine’s, first Fr. Bob Baker (now Bishop of Birmingham, Alabama) and then Fr. John Gillespie. They exemplified the new spirit of Priest as Servant Leader inspired by Vatican II. Their preaching and teaching was Catholic,  intelligent and relevant to modern life. They both have tremendous respect for the laity and the active role due to the people by the right of their Baptism. As I left for the seminary with Fr. Gillespie’s blessing in 1981, I was well prepared for the studies and the demand to serve as Christ serves because of these two Priests and I hope that I may one day be as self-giving as they still are.

Fifty years later,  the Second Vatican Council seems like the stuff of legend now. There have been those who contend that the Council went too far or was "wrongly interpreted" or led to a demise of Catholic practice. Pope John XXIII warned of "prophets of doom" even as he opened the Council in 1962. But the fact that our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, has called for a worldwide and year-long celebration of this Council’s 50th Anniversary tells us that this event in our life time will continue to inspire the Church’s course through the 21 century.

It is enough for me tonight to give thanks to God for this Council and its role in my becoming a Roman Catholic and a Priest, still full of hope, still in love with this Church today.

See a small video clip of the Opening of the Second Vatican Council HERE; it's in Italian but worth seeing)