Cover Story - What is the legacy of Vatican II?

The council’s meaning is still unfolding, says visiting expert

By Kevin Birnbaum

Pope John XXIII leads the opening Vatican II session
Pope John XXIII leads the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 11, 1962. A total of 2,540 cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops and bishops from around the world attended the opening session. CNS/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo

"That I should live to see a day such as this! How good is the good God,” wrote Seattle Archbishop Thomas A. Connolly on the opening day of the Second Vatican Council, Oct. 11, 1962.

In a report from Rome for his archdiocesan newspaper, the archbishop described how nearly 3,000 cardinals, archbishops and bishops had processed into St. Peter’s Basilica as a crowd of several hundred thousand looked on. Then came a scene that would be almost unimaginable today.

“The Vatican Band, stationed on the outside of the main door, played the Pontifical March as the Holy Father, on his elevated throne, carried by 16 stalwart Vatican guards, came into view.”

Writing that night on a portable Olivetti typewriter in his hotel room, Archbishop Connolly reflected on the ancient pedigree and significance of the church’s 21st ecumenical council, or gathering of the world’s bishops.

“More than any assembly in the world, this assembly represents a focal point around which the storms of 20 centuries have swirled,” he wrote.

“Whatever else the Council may mean, and it will have a great many meanings for a great many people, this sense of continuity, of stability, in a world of violent change, is perhaps its most universal aspect. Governments, legislatures, constitutions come and go, but today, and for several months, Pope John XXIII will counsel with a gathering that finds precedent and inspiration in the old annals of the Christian Church.”

A major turning point
Looking back from a distance of five decades, Vatican II expert Massimo Faggioli would agree with Archbishop Connolly’s sense of the council’s momentousness, but he would argue that the council represented not just continuity, but also a major turning point in the history of the Catholic Church.

“The Second Vatican Council is the most important event in church history in the last four centuries” — since the Reformation and the Council of Trent in the 16th century — said Faggioli, an assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and the author of "Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning." “It is the moment when the Catholic Church made the most important and consequential debates and decisions in modern history.”

Faggioli will visit the Archdiocese of Seattle this month to lead a retreat on the legacy of Vatican II (see box below).

As evidence of the change wrought by the council, and its lasting impact, Faggioli noted that “the vast majority of Catholics now take for granted” various practices and attitudes that Vatican II either initiated or restored.

Five big changes
Faggioli highlights five important developments in the Catholic Church that can be traced directly to Vatican II.

The most obvious and important change, he said, was the reform of the liturgy, including the translation of the Mass into vernacular languages — “this idea that we are all participants — we are all celebrants, in a way, of the liturgy — and that’s why we should all celebrate in a language that we can understand.”

Second, he said, was the council’s renewed emphasis on “Scripture as the first source for theology and a key element for the spiritual nourishment of our spiritual life.”

The third change was in the area of ecclesiology, or the understanding of the church. Vatican II emphasized the idea of the church as “a spiritual communion,” Faggioli said, rather than a bureaucratic institution.

Fourth, the council called for “a new relationship between the church and the modern world,” he said. “The church need not be an enemy of the modern world, and vice versa.”

Finally, Faggioli said, Vatican II marked a change in the Catholic Church’s approach to non-Catholic Christians and non-Christian religions. “The idea that there are … billions of people who in good faith worship God in other ways, with other traditions and languages — until Vatican II, that field was completely unexplored in Catholic theology.”

We’ve likely not seen the last of the changes that Vatican II has in store for the church. Faggioli noted that after the Council of Trent, it took a full century for some of its reforms to be implemented.

“So I think that after 50 years we can be optimistic about what happened [at Vatican II],” he said, “and we should consider that it’s a council that will take generations to be fully implemented.” 


Cover of Vatican II book

Recommended reading

If you want to learn more about Vatican II, Massimo Faggioli recommends John W. O’Malley’s "What Happened at Vatican II," which he calls “the best one-volume book on the history of the council.”

Faggioli’s own book, "Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning," is about the decades of debate that have followed the council.


‘The Church of Today’

Massimo Faggioli and Helen Oesterle, pastoral associate at Seattle’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, will lead a retreat on the reforms of Vatican II and key issues facing the church May 30 to June 1 at the Archbishop Brunett Retreat Center at the Palisades, 4700 S.W. Dash Point Road, Federal Way.

The price is $199 per person (single room) or $165 per person (double room), and includes six meals and two nights in a room with private bath. Scholarships are available. For more information, call 206-748-7991.