Remembering 50 years since the Second Vatican Council


Shaping Ministry

The Second Vatican Council has shaped my ministry throughout nearly all of my twenty years as a priest and thirty-three years as Bishop.

As a seminarian I was in the Basilica of St Paul’s outside-the-walls, taking part in the Mass for the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul on 25 January, 1959, when Pope John XXIII announced his intention of convening an Ecumenical Council.

I was back in Rome in December 1961, on leave from studies in Ireland, and witnessed in St Peter’s square the formal proclamation of the Bull convoking the Council.

In November-December 1985, I was privileged to represent the New Zealand Bishops at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome. The purpose of the Synod was to celebrate the Second Vatican Council, to affirm it, and to increase its effectiveness: celebrate, verify, promote.

Pope John Paul II, when summoning that Synod stated that, for him, “the Second Vatican Council has always been the constant reference point of every pastoral action, with conscious commitment to translate its directives into concrete, faithful action...

I believe I could, and my fellow New Zealand Bishops could in conscience, make these words of Pope John Paul II our own.

Cardinal Emeritus Tom Williams

Formation and Catechesis

I was at High School when Vatican II began and at University when it finished. I remember the great hope and enthusiasm it generated in my family particularly with my mother who felt the Church was addressing the need for catechesis of the laity. During that time the Mass changed significantly and people began to see the value of good liturgy as a way of engaging in prayer and reflection. At the same time we were encouraged to own Bibles and read them to reflect on what it was that we were being called to be.

A concern for me was that within a few short years we had an exodus by the Religious Orders from Catholic Schools. The religious had been the glue of the faith for the next generation and their exodus left the students of the late seventies and eighties with a less rigorous catechesis. Forming the laity which was a focus for Vatican II still needs to happen.

Vatican II set great hopes for the Church in the 1960s although it was some years before the full impact of the Council was felt in the parishes of New Zealand. Priests and Laity reacted to the changes. Some were enthusiastic and some more conservative members saw the end of the church. What it did do was create a debate throughout the Church for the first time about what our mission was and what part we had to play in it. An exciting change for me was the move from being a faith focused on compliances to a faith drawing us to understand and live the Gospel and make the Kingdom of God real on earth.

Paul Ferris, Dunedin Diocese

Ecumenism and Mission

I was a university student in Auckland while the Council was on, part of CathSoc, under Dominican chaplain, David Sheerin OP, when Pope John 23rd called together all the Catholic bishops of the world to an ecumenical (in terms of world-wide) Council.

Bishop Delargey and David Sheerin between them kept us up to date with what the topics were and how the discussions were going. For me, a child of a mixed marriage in which my Methodist mother felt very much marginalised as she honoured the ‘promise’ to raise us Catholics, the opening up to respect for other Christian religions, and even more so to other faiths was life-giving, faith saving and non discriminatory. No longer did mixed marriages have to take place in the sacristy or outside the sanctuary, and no longer were we forbidden to go to our grandparents’ funerals or relatives weddings. The Catholic Church emerged from its fortress mentality and its belief that only it had the truth. That was when my energy and passion for ecumenism began – there is still a long way to go but what a change!

Our wedding was the new university chaplain’s first Mass in English – he was more nervous than we were! The liturgical changes were the ones which were most noticeable – Latin to the local language, priest facing the people, altar rails gone, women(!) readers, emphasis on “full, active and conscious participation” by all the assembly – we became players not spectators, to take a sporting analogy.

We could read and study the Bible by ourselves, we could take part in some decision making at parish and diocesan level, we became the People of God, empowered by the sacrament of baptism. The role of the laity was no longer to pay, pray and obey but to work together to bring about the reign of God – we lived in the world and that was our field of mission. The Church, that was us too, not just the hierarchy, was to act as a leaven, confronting injustices and suffering, preaching peace and joy, interacting with the world, not as in the past, praying for it but remote from it.

Our New Zealand bishops came back and with the benefit of a small country and 4 dioceses agreed to implement these changes nationally and swiftly. As with any change there was a variety of responses but for me personally it revitalised and invigorated my faith and commitment. There still remains Vatican II principles to be implemented.

Pat Lythe, Pastoral Services, Auckland Diocese

Growing Lay Ministry

Traditionally clergy or religious sisters and brothers had served as Chaplains in our prisons and provided excellent service (and indeed continue to do so whenever the opportunity arises). With them also were volunteer visitors who provided spiritual support for those who sought their services.

Vatican II’s decree of the Apostolate if the Laity outlined among other things, aspirations, expectations and opportunities for lay people to prepare for and participate in various activities in the life of the Church and at all levels in the wider community this was seen as an integral part of one’s Christian vocation – being called through Baptism and Confirmation to live by Christian values, guided by the Holy Spirit.

Today opportunities for lay pastoral leadership formation have led to more lay people being seen working with clergy or religious as Catholic Chaplains.

Collaborative ministry is seen also in their working alongside other Christian Chaplains, this is most encouraging – the ecumenical aspect of the Chaplaincy Service is mutually beneficial, as it presents the face of Jesus in love and action.

The declining number of clergy and religious Chaplains is a factor, but the growing number of lay Chaplains in fact a direct outcome of change envisioned in Vatican II. Generally, staff and those incarcerated appear to accept the in personnel in good grace because they appreciate the service provided.
Suffice to say, there are challenges and changes ahead, with commitment, faith, hope and love, the Holy Spirit will inspire and enable lay Chaplains, clergy, religious and other volunteers to work even more closely together for the well-being of those in that environment and for the benefit of the wider community.

Jackie Jansen, Lay Chaplain, Wellington Diocese


Bishop Peter Cullinane reflects on the significance of the Second Vatican Council and the changes it heralded

To meaningfully celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council we need to ask: why did Pope John XXIII think a General (Ecumenical) Council of the Church was needed? And what did it achieve?
Based on his extensive pastoral experience in many countries he felt the Church needed to be in better shape to carry out its mission in the kind of world that was emerging. And he knew it was his responsibility, in union with all the bishops around the world, to discuss what needed to be done.
Of course, Pope John was well aware of the many good features of the Church’s life at that time. The Catholic people were very loyal to their faith; they turned up in good numbers for Sunday Masses and various devotions; likewise, it was the huge generosity of the Catholic people and of religious orders that enabled the establishment and running of a remarkable network of Catholic schools in countries like New Zealand. Vocations to priesthood and religious life in countries like ours seemed plentiful; the work of the Church’s missionaries was heroic; and lay people participated in various forms of the lay apostolate. In the 1950s we seemed to riding the crest of a wave.

Perhaps, however, it was not all as good as it seemed. In fact, many of the problems that followed the Council derived from the inadequate formation - scriptural, catechetical and liturgical - Catholics had received before the Council. It will help to make some simple comparisons between the life of the Church as we experience it today, and the life of the Church as Pope John experienced it before the Council. There are features of the Church’s life we now take for granted that were not part of the Catholic people’s experience before the Council.

Before we make these comparisons, however, three preliminary points need to be made:

(i) The primary focus of the Council was “renewal”. This has to do with the deepening of our relationship with the Risen Christ, affecting our relationships with one another – what it means to be “the body of Christ”. “Reforms”, on the other hand, are the changes needed to facilitate renewal, as we shall see from the comparisons we will make between the pre- and post- Vatican II life of the Church.

(ii) During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there had been considerable study of the scriptures, the early Church writings and the history of the liturgy. This “return to the sources” (generally known as “Ressourcement”) provided wider perspectives on the Church than were available in the theology text books in use before the Council. These Ressourcement studies became decisive in the direction the Council took, and they continue to be useful tools for properly interpreting and implementing the Council. 

(iii) Thirdly, there is wisdom and reassurance in Pope John’s reminder that “the substance of the ancient doctrine of the faith is one thing, and the way in which is presented is another” (Opening Speech, 11 Oct 1962). In other words, the Church and its mission remain the same even as it strives to improve the ways it exercises its ministries, celebrates its sacraments, and expresses its teachings.

What, then, are some of the “changes” or reforms the Council authorised in order to facilitate the deepening of our relationship with Christ and with one another? The following examples might help to deepen our appreciation of why we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of this great Council.

1. Before the Council, it was commonly assumed that responsibility for the mission of the Church lay only with the ordained, and that the call to holiness was only, or mainly, for those who took the vows of religious life. But the Council taught that all the baptised share responsibility for the mission of the Church, albeit differently, and all the baptised are called to holiness. For lay men and women, carrying out the mission of the Church and growing in holiness both come about in the circumstances of their daily secular lives. Such is baptism that ordinary secular life is where it all happens!

2. We now take it for granted that the Mass and sacraments will be celebrated in our own languages. Partly as a counterpoint to Protestant practice, the Catholic Church had previously insisted on Latin. The Council decided that the Catholic people could be better nurtured and renewed through “full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (Constitution on the Liturgy, n.14).

3. Similarly, we take for granted the use of the Lectionary at Mass. But the Lectionary only came into existence because of the Council’s insistence on the importance of the scriptures for our nurture. Previously, Catholics heard only a very narrow selection of scripture readings from the Missal being used before the Council. In fact, it used to be considered that one had “heard” Sunday Mass even if one arrived after the Liturgy of the Word!

4. The Council also authorised what we now call inculturation (Constitution on the Liturgy, nn.37, 38). Pope Paul VI later used a musical image when he spoke of the need to “transpose” the gospel into other cultures in “the fields of liturgical expression, catechesis, theological formulation, and secondary Church structures” (Apostolic Letter on Evangelisation, n.63). This acceptance of plurality is consistent with the Church’s most ancient tradition, but breaks with the uniformity that had been prevalent in the Church of the West during recent centuries.

5. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation (16th Century), the Enlightenment (17th – 18th Centuries) and Modernism (19th and early 20th Centuries), the Church’s reaction was understandably defensive, but also led to an exaggerated rejection of some features of emerging democratic societies (cf Syllabus of Errors, Pope Pius IX) and to a distancing of the Church and the world from each other. Even within the Church modern scholarship was sometimes suspect and inhibited. In that climate the Catholic people’s experience of the Church tended to be narrowed down, conformist, routine and inward looking. Very important openings to renewal have come with the Council’s teachings concerning Divine Revelation, Religious Freedom, Human Dignity, and engagement with the world.

6. The unfinished work of the first Vatican Council (which was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war) had resulted in a very one-sided way of experiencing the Church’s authority: the ministry of the Pope tended to eclipse the role of the bishops. The Second Vatican Council reaffirmed ancient Catholic belief that all the bishops share responsibility for the governance of the universal Church – with and under the Pope. In practice, this has led to the formation of Bishops’ Conferences and to more decisions being made by the bishops for their local regions.

7. It is also to the credit of the Council that the Catholic Church has passed from a period of aloofness from the ecumenical movement (which started among Protestant churches) to a time of positive and proactive ecumenical engagement.

These are just some of the reasons for celebrating this great Council. Every Pope since the Council has urged Catholics to faithfully implement its teachings.