Second Vatican Council

General Information

The Second Vatican Council, the 21st ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic church, was announced by Pope John XXIII on Jan. 25, 1959. On Oct. 11, 1962, after four years of preparation, the council formally opened. Four sessions convened; the last three (1963-65) were presided over by Pope Paul VI, who succeeded John as pontiff in June 1963. The council ended on Dec. 8, 1965.

Unlike previous ecumenical councils, the Second Vatican Council was not held to combat contemporary heresies or deal with awkward disciplinary questions but simply, in the words of Pope John's opening message, to renew "ourselves and the flocks committed to us, so that there may radiate before all men the lovable features of Jesus Christ, who shines in our hearts that God's splendor may be revealed."

The participants with full voting rights were all the bishops of the Roman Catholic church, of both the Western and Eastern rites, superiors-general of exempt religious orders, and prelates with their own special spheres of jurisdiction. Non-Catholic Christian churches and alliances and Catholic lay organizations were invited to send observers. These observers, however, had neither voice nor vote in the council deliberations.

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The council produced 16 documents--all of which had to be approved by the pope before they became official--on such subjects as divine revelation, the sacred liturgy, the church in the modern world, the instruments of social communication, ecumenism, Eastern Catholic churches, renewal of religious life, the laity, the ministry and life of priests, missionary activity, Christian education, the relationship of the church to non-Christian religions, and religious freedom. Of these, the most important and influential for the subsequent life of the Roman Catholic church have been the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which gave renewed importance to the role of the bishops; the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which authorized vernacularization of the liturgy and greater lay participation; the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, which acknowledged the need for the church to adapt itself to the contemporary world; the Decree on Ecumenism; and the Declaration on Religious Freedom. Together these documents present a church that is primarily a worshiping and serving community open to various points of view and religious traditions.

Although the Second Vatican Council had enormous impact, it cannot be isolated from prior and parallel liturgical, theological, biblical, and social developments. In few instances did the council initiate a new way of thinking for the church. It endorsed specific approaches, tentatively in some cases, and planted seeds for other, possibly more radical, changes in the future.

Richard P. Mcbrien

Abbott, W. A., ed., The Documents of Vatican II (1966); Deretz, Jacques, and Nocent, Adrien, eds., Dictionary of the Council (1968); Miller, J. H., ed., Vatican II: An Interfaith Appraisal (1966); Vorgrimler, Herbert, ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, 5 vols. (1967-69).

Second Vatican Council

General Information

The Second Vatican Council was the 21st ecumenical council recognized by the Roman Catholic church, which became the symbol of the church's openness to the modern world. The council was announced by Pope John XXIII on January 25, 1959, and held 178 meetings in the autumn of each of four successive years. The first gathering was on October 11, 1962, and the last on December 8, 1965.

Of 2908 bishops and others eligible to attend, 2540 from all parts of the world participated in the opening meeting. The U.S. delegation of 241 members was second in size only to that of Italy. Asian and African bishops played a prominent role in the council's deliberations.

Only Communist nations were sparsely represented, the result of government pressures. The average attendance at the meetings was 2200.

Preparations for the council began in May 1959, when the world's Roman Catholic bishops, theological faculties, and universities were asked to make recommendations for the agenda. Thirteen preparatory commissions with more than 1000 members were appointed to write draft proposals on a wide range of topics. They prepared 67 documents called schemata, a number reduced to 17 by a special commission convoked between the council's 1962 and 1963 sessions. Voting members of the council were Roman Catholic bishops and heads of male religious orders, but, in a radical departure from past practice, Orthodox and Protestant churches were invited to send official delegate-observers. Male lay Roman Catholic auditors were invited to the 1963 session, during which two of them addressed the council. Women auditors were added in 1964. The agenda was extensive, and topics discussed included modern communications media, relations between Christians and Jews, religious freedom, the role of laity in the church, liturgical worship, contacts with other Christians and with non-Christians, both theists and atheists, and the role and education of priests and bishops.

Major Documents and Conclusions

The council issued 16 documents, notably the constitutions on divine revelation (Dei Verbum, November 18, 1965) and on the church ( Lumen Gentium, November 11, 1964) and the pastoral constitution on the church in the modern world (Gaudium et Spes, December 7, 1965). The constitution on divine revelation was informed by the best modern biblical scholarship. The council explained the Roman Catholic understanding of how the Bible, tradition, and church authority relate to one another in the exposition of divine revelation.

The constitution on the church stressed a biblical understanding of the Christian community's organization, rather than the juridical model that had more recently been dominant. Terming the church the "people of God," it emphasized the servant nature of offices such as those of priest and bishop, the collegial, or shared, responsibility of all bishops for the entire church, and the call of all church members to holiness and to participation in the church's mission of spreading the gospel of Christ. The tone of the pastoral constitution on the church in the modern world was set in its opening words, which declared that the church shared the "joy and hope, the grief and anguish of contemporary humanity, particularly of the poor and afflicted." It began with a theological analysis of humanity and the world, then turned to specific areas such as marriage and family, cultural, social, and economic life, the political community, war and peace, and international relations.

A constitution on liturgy promoted more active communal participation in the Mass as the central act of Roman Catholic public worship and was the initial step in changes that by 1971 included the replacement of Latin, the ancient language of the service, by vernacular languages. Other documents sought common ground in dealings with Orthodox and Protestant Christians and with those who are not Christians. In a rare departure from its deliberate policy of avoiding condemnations, the council deplored "all hatreds, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews." American delegates played a significant role in shaping the council's declaration upholding the universal right of religious freedom, a document in which the thought of the American theologian John Courtney Murray figured prominently.

Pope John had launched the Second Vatican Council on a positive note, setting as its purposes the updating and renewal (aggiornamento) of the Roman Catholic church and achievement of Christian and human unity. Pope Paul VI, who continued the council after John's death in 1963, endorsed those purposes and added that of dialogue with the modern world.

Reception and Opposition

Initial reaction to the council was generally favorable. One major result was the development of closer relations among Christian churches. But as currents of change, some of them unrelated to anything that had occurred at the council, continued to sweep through the church, conservative Roman Catholic groups began to fear that the reforms had become too radical. Organized dissent surfaced, and some critics challenged the authority both of the council and of the popes who carried out its decrees. Opposition to changes in the church's liturgy became a rallying point for those whose discontent with change ran far deeper.

The most prominent leader of the "Catholic traditionalists" who rejected the doctrinal and disciplinary reforms instituted by Vatican Council II was a retired French archbishop, Marcel Lefebvre, who in 1970 founded an international group known as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X. He declared that the council's reforms "spring from heresy and end in heresy." Efforts at reconciliation between Rome and Archbishop Lefebvre were unsuccessful. Pope Paul VI suspended him from the exercise of his functions as priest and bishop in 1976, but he continued his activities, including ordination of priests to serve traditionalist churches. Lefebvre was excommunicated in 1988.

James Hennesey

Second Vatican Council (1962-1965)

Advanced Information

Regarded by Roman Catholics as the twenty-first ecumenical church council, Vatican II was a deliberate attempt to renew and bring up to date (aggiornamento) all facets of church faith and life. It was convened in October of 1962 by Pope John XXIII, and reconvened in September 1963 by his successor, Pope Paul VI. Altogether the council held four annual fall sessions, finally adjourning after approving sixteen major texts that were promulgated by the pope. At the opening session 2,540 bishops and other clerical members of council attended, and an average of 2,300 members were present for most major votes. The council took on a profound and electrifying life of its own. Before the eyes of the world it succeeded in initiating an extraordinary transformation of the Roman Catholic Church.

Occasion and Characteristics

In January, 1959, Pope John XXIII announced his intention to convene an ecumenical council. After one full year of gathering suggestions throughout the church he established ten commissions to prepare draft documents for the council to consider. He formally called the council in December, 1961, and opened it in St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, on October 11, 1962.

In various communications, including his opening speech, Pope John indicated the needs of the hour. The Western world had experienced during the 1950s stupefying technical, scientific, and economic expansion that had given countless people occasion to put their trust in material goods even while other millions of people lived in devastating poverty and suffering. Militant atheism abounded, and the world was undergoing grave spiritual crisis. But, proclaimed Pope John, and herewith he set the character of the entire council, the world needs not the condemnation of its errors but the full supply of "the medicine of mercy." The church, via the council, aimed to help the world by rejuvenating its own faith and life in Christ, by updating itself, by promoting the unity of all Christians, and by directing Christian presence in the world to the works of peace, justice, and well-being.

Chief among the council's characteristics was a pastoral spirit which dominated throughout. There was also a biblical spirit. From the very beginning the bishops indicated that they would not accept the rather abstract and theologically exact drafts prepared for them. Instead, they desired to express themselves in direct biblical language. Moreover, there was an evident awareness of history, the history of salvation, the pilgrim church, the ongoing tradition, the development of doctrine, the openness to the future. The council was ecumenical in its outreach to non-Catholic Christians (represented by observers from twenty-eight denominations) and humble in relation to non-Christian religions. It was remarkably open to the whole world, especially through massive global press coverage and by directly addressing the world in an opening "Message to Humanity," and in a series of closing messages to political rulers, intellectuals and scientists, artists, women, the poor, workers, and youth. Yet the council kept the church thoroughly consistent with its Roman Catholic identity and tradition.

On the Church

Undoubtedly the central theme of the promulgated documents was the church. The "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" (Nov. 1964) was the pivotal doctrinal statement of the entire council. A second dogmatic constitution was "On Divine Revelation." A third, called simply a constitution, was "On Liturgy," and a fourth, called a pastoral constitution, was "On the Church in the Modern World." In addition, nine practical decrees and three declarations of principle were promulgated. Of these, five concerned the vocations of the church as fulfilled by bishops, priests (two), members of religious orders, and the media. Four covered the church's relations with Eastern Catholics, ecumenism, non-Christian religions, and civil governments (religious liberty).

The constitution "On the Church," in eight chapters (also called Lumen gentium), was the first ever issued on the subject by a council. In a direct way it explicitly continued and completed the work of Vatican I. In particular it incorporated (ch. 3) almost verbatim the controversial statement on papal infallibility, with the addition that infallibility also resided in the body of bishops when exercising the magisterium (doctrinal authority) in conjunction with the pope. The primacy of the Roman pontiff was again affirmed, but, significantly, the centrality of the bishops was also affirmed. This was the principle of collegiality, that the bishops as a whole were the continuation of the body of the apostles of which Peter was head. By placing episcopal collegiality in union with papal primacy and by shared infallibility the council resolved the ancient tension of pope versus councils.

The same document (ch. 4) introduced the biblical teaching that the church as a whole was the people of God, including both clergy and laity. This reversed centuries of virtually explicit assertion that the clergy alone were the church. Both laity and clergy, the document affirmed, shared in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly functions of Christ. The decree "On the Laity" and the constitution "On the Church in the Modern World" (also called Gaudium et spes) charged lay people to undertake their work in the world in all walks of life as Christian vocations, as a lay apostolate which shared directly in the continuation of the work of the apostles of Christ. This too undid centuries of emphasis on the clergy, monks, and nuns as virtually the sole possessors of Christian calling.

On Divine Revelation

This second dogmatic constitution continued the work of Vatican I, but profoundly modified it. As continuation, it stressed the necessity of the magisterium of the church functioning within the ongoing sacred tradition "which comes from the apostles [and] develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit." The profound modification was the new de facto primacy given to sacred Scripture. Four of the six chapters define the Scriptures of the OT and the NT as the sacred communication by God, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, of "those things which he wanted." While use of critical methods is appropriate, "serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture." Sacred Scripture is properly interpreted within the context of the sacred tradition and of the magisterium of the church; all three together and each differently are due to the action of the same Holy Spirit. The biblical emphasis is made explicit here and in other decrees by the centrality given to Scripture in the revised liturgy, in the education of clergy, in the exposition of the council's teachings, and in the insistence that all persons be given full and easy access to Scripture. The results were immediately experienced most dramatically in the transformation of parish worship into the vernacular languages throughout the world.

On Ecumenism

The Decree "On Ecumenism" likewise continued traditional teaching, but adapted it dramatically. The council reaffirmed that "it is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the all-embracing means of salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained." Yet for the first time Protestants and Anglicans are explicitly regarded as Christians ("separated brethren"), and Eastern Orthodox are treated as directly descendant from the apostles. Most significantly, the Catholic Church, for the first time, did not claim that the solution to these divisions lies in a "return" of these churches to Rome, but in an open future in which all may be "tending toward that fullness with which our Lord wants His body to be endowed in the course of time." Pope Paul made the point concrete by creating a permanent Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, and by issuing (Dec. 1965) with Patriarch Athenagoras, head of Eastern Orthodoxy, a declaration committing the mutual excommunications of A.D. 1054 to oblivion and hoping for restoration of full communion of faith and sacramental life.

C T McIntire
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Walter M. Abbott, ed., The Documents of Vatican II; J. H. Miller, ed., Vatican II: An Interfaith Appraisal; B. Pawley, ed., The Second Vatican Council; G. C. Berkouwer, Reflections on the Vatican Council; A.C. Outler, Methodist Observer at Vatican II; E. Schillebeeckx, The Real Achievement of Vatican II.

The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council
Dedicated to "The Immaculate".

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Sweet is the Providence that Overrules Us." Seton

Opened Under Pope John XXIII in 1962
Closed by Pope Paul VI in 1965
+ Jesus - Mary - Joseph +

"I am aware that I owe this to God...
as the chief duty of my life...
That my every word and thought may speak of Him..."
St. Hillary

The Second Vatican Council

An Assessment of this Council




These notes are intended as an AID to study by Catholic Students of the Second Vatican Council. They contain material, some written in a journalistic style, for the American reader. To that extent they are biased; but they 'set the stage' and 'wet the appetite' for further study of this crucial historical event.

Thirty odd years on the 'Aggiornamento' is still fermenting, the fresh air of the Holy Spirit still blowing, a self-destructive 'Civil War' still raging .... But His Peace will come to us all ...

Students are reminded that, as with all serious study, research is necessary and recourse must be had, wherever possible, to original documentation.

These notes should lead the serious student to the libraries of our Catholic Colleges and Universities and to resources no computer system yet devised can replace.

The First Vatican Council was adjourned in 1870, following the solemn definition of papal infallibility. Only a part of its task had been accomplished, but it was destined never to meet again. Pope Pius IX died in 1878, and five popes had come and gone before the Second Vatican Council was proclaimed by Pope John XXIII.

Pope John announced his intention of summoning the Oecumenical Council in January, 1959, within three months of his election to the Chair of Peter; he signed the Apostolic Constitution, Humane Salutis, on Christmas Day in 1961. Meanwhile, ten commissions had been formed to prepare draft decrees to be debated in the Council. At first, seventy decrees were proposed, but gradually their number was reduced to seventeen.

Pope John wished the Council "to increase the fervour and energy of Catholics, to serve the needs of Christian people." To achieve this purpose, bishops and priests must grow in holiness; the laity must be given effective instruction in Christian faith and morals; adequate provision must be made for the education of children; Christian social activity must increase; and all Christians must have missionary hearts. In Italian, he was bale to express his desire in one word -- Aggiornamento -- the Church must be brought up to date, must adapt itself to meet the challenged conditions of modern times. More than words, Italians appreciate expressive gestures; so also Pope John, when asked to reveal his intentions, simply moved to a window and threw it open, to let in a draught of fresh air.

Eighteen months before the Council assembled, the Pope himself showed how very fresh and new the air was to be. He established a special Secretariat "for promoting Christian Unity" and authorized this Secretariat to take part in the prepatory work of the Council so that schemes, drafted for debate, would take into account the truly Oecumencial spirit -- that is, the desire to understand the beliefs and practices of other Christian bodies, and the need to work for the union of all in Christ.

Preparation for the Council

Long before the Council began, the bishops of the Catholic world were asked to submit their proposals for subjects to be raised in the Council sessions. More than two thousand lists of proposals were received together with detailed opinions from sixty theological faculties and universities. All of this material was studied and summarized, and suggestions made by the Congregations of the Roman Curia were also examined.

In June 1960, Pope John established ten commissions, entrusting to each commission the task of studying particular questions. In this way the Theological Commission examined problems of scripture, tradition, faith and morals; other commissions considered bishops and the control of dioceses, religious orders, the Liturgy of the Church, seminaries and ecclesiastical studies, the missions, the Eastern Churches and the lay apostolate. A central commission worked to coordinate the labours of individual commissions, assisted the Pope to decide the subjects for debate in the Council, and suggested rules of procedure.

The Council Opens

The Second Vatican Council opened on October 11th, 1962. More than two thousand five hundred Fathers were present at the opening Mass -- the greatest gathering at any Council in the history of the Church. After the Mass, Pope John addressed the Fathers, showing them the way in which the Council must move, and the spirit which must animate it. The way was to be a renewal, the spirit was to be that of men who place all their trust in God. In the past, Pope John said, the Church felt it necessary to use severity and condemnation. What is required now is mercy and understanding and, above all, an outpouring of the riches which the Church has received from Christ. The task of the Council must be to find ways by which the Church can present itself to the world of today, and can reach into the minds and hearts of men. The Council must not become a school where theologians can perfect their formulation of Catholic truth.

Inspired by the words of Pope John, the Fathers began their work. Viewed from outside, in the manner in which a reporter might comment on Parliamentary debates, the impression was of two groups -- the "progressives" and the "reactionaries," radically and bitterly opposed to one another. Those bishops whose only concern, it seemed, was to safeguard the Church's teaching were labelled reactionaries; those, on the other hand, who showed concern for pastoral needs were called progressives. In reality, however, a Council is not a parliament. The bishops are united in the Faith and in their love of Christ. In the second Vatican Council, all have tried to find, in the riches of the Church's teaching, those truths which must be stressed and emphasized in the modern world, and to decide how these truths may best be set forth for the good of all -- of those who are unbelievers as well as those who believe in Christ.

Cardinal Montini (who was soon to succeed Pope John in the chair of Peter) wrote to his people in Milan on November 18th, 1962, to explain the two "tendencies" of the bishop. The Council, he said, was an assembly of many with complex religious problems. The unity of the Church, and its universality; the old and the new; what is fixed and what develops; the inner value of a truth, and the way in which it is to be expressed; the search for what is essential and care for particular details; principles and their practical application -- religious problems can be considered from so many different aspects. Discussion of these problems will often be animated and lively -- yet all the bishops are united by that very love which they have for the truth.

Another observer shows how the two "tendencies" were like two voices. One voice was uttered by those bishops who wanted, above all else, to preserve the Faith whole and entire; the other voice spoke for the bishops who had the same concern for preserving the Faith committed by Christ, but who also felt the great pastoral need to express that faith in a language which the modern world could understand and appreciate. This observer (Jean Guitton) found in the two voices a poetic image of the Cross of Christ. The upright pillar of the Cross, fixed into the ground, tells the Christian of the unity, integrity and unchanging truth of the Faith; the cross-bar, on which Christ stretched out his arms, tells the Christian that the Faith is open to all men, that it is universal. Just as the Cross unites its two parts, so also the two "voices" or tendencies are united in the Christian faith.

From the beginning, the Second Vatican Council has shown that the great majority of the bishops are concerned with the pastoral needs of the Church. They have shown that concern in many different ways -- in the enthusiasm with which they have welcomed Oecumenical dialogue with non- catholic Christians and with Orthodox Churches; in the interest with which they have followed the historic visits of Pope John Paul VI to the Holy Land and to India; and above all in the overwhelming approval which they gave to the "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy," in the second session of the Council (December 1962).

The Council and the Liturgy

The changes in the Liturgy of the Church show how the work of the Council affects every Catholic. In earlier ages of Christendom changes were made in Canon Law and in the Christian Life itself. But these changes usually took place so slowly and gradually that each man in his own brief life-time hardly noticed them; if he did take heed of change, he did not find the change disturbing. But in modern times -- above all in the middle of the twentieth Century -- the whole tempo and movement of secular history has increased in every sphere of life, and with the greatest rapidity. The Church is new as well as old. If it is to remain up to date and in touch with the urgent needs of modern life, then the Church, too, must undergo change. Clearly, changes and adaptations must be accomplished with great prudence. Clearly, too, great courage is needed, if the ancient and unchanging truths and ways of life and worship are to take on new forms.

Inevitably, many Catholics have found the liturgical changes disturbing. Older Catholics, in particular, have over the years grown deeply attached to the words and actions of the Latin Mass; they have learned to love it, in its Latin form, and it has become for them a permanent and unchanging reality in a rapidly changing world. Latin was the common tongue -- the lingua franca -- of the Western world, used by clerics, statesmen and scholars. Since the Mass is the common prayer of the whole Church, many feel that Latin should still be retained. This view was expressed in the first great Decree to issue from the Council -- the "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy." The Decree states "the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites."

The change from Latin to English, in parts of the Mass, has been singled out because it appears to many to be the most striking result of the Council's work. But the Council has authorized the use of the vernacular, or mother-tongue, not only for parts of the Mass but also for the administration of every sacrament and sacramental. It has directed national councils of bishops to establish liturgical commissions whose task is to produce suitable translations of liturgical texts, and to promote knowledge and love of the sacred liturgy.

While local commissions are engaged upon this work, the Central Liturgical Commission meets in Rome. Its primary function is the revision of the liturgical books. Its secondary function is to adapt the liturgy to the needs of modern times, and to enable all Catholics to take part actively in the official worship which the Church offers to God. However rapid and unexpected these changes might appear, they are in fact intended to be gradual, step by step, until eventually the renewal of the liturgy has been completed.

The first major result of this work by the Central Commission was the promulgation, in September 1964, of an Instruction for putting into effect the "Constitution of the sacred Liturgy." This instruction drew attention to the fact that changes are taking place, not for the sake of change, but because the Liturgy is at the centre of Christian life and worship. It is through the active sharing in these sacred rites that the faithful, the People of God, "will drink deeply from the source of divine life. They will become the leaven of Christ, the salt of the earth. They will bear witness to that divine life; the will be instrumental in passing it on to others."

By modern standards, florid and elaborate ceremonies, dress and ornament are seldom esteemed. During the course of centuries, many features or details had crept into the liturgy, and these features are now regarded as unsuited to the worship of God and out of keeping with the real nature and dignity of that worship. For this reason the liturgical books are being revised and the rites simplified. The first book to appear, following the Council's decree, is known as the Ordo Missae. Issued in January 1961, this book sets forth the rite which is to be followed, in keeping with the changes introduced by the Council and by the Liturgical Commission.

The Altar

Where possible, the high altar is to be placed in such a way that Mass may be offered by the priest facing the people; the altar should stand away from the wall of the sanctuary, so that room is left to allow the priest to move around it. The Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a strong tabernacle, placed at the centre of the high altar; but it maybe placed upon a side altar, if that side altar is dignified and easily seen. Again, the tabernacle may be placed on the altar at which Mass is said facing the people; in this case the tabernacle should be small.

The cross and candlesticks will be placed upon the altar in the customary way; in certain circumstances, however, the bishop may allow them to be placed alongside the altar. The sedilia, or seats for the celebrant and sacred ministers, should be easily seen by the faithful, and the celebrant's sedile should be so placed as to show that he is presiding over the Mass as the assembly of the People of God. There should be an ambo (lectern or reading-desk) -- clearly visible to the faithful; from which the readings from Scripture are to be made. It should be observed that many of these changes can be effected only when new churches are planned; where possible, the sanctuary of an existing church should be adapted in accordance with the Instruction of the Central Commission.

The sacrifice of the Mass

In the rite of the Mass, the following are the changes already announced:

1. The celebrant does not say privately those parts of the Proper of the Mass which are sung by the choir, recited by the people, or proclaimed by the deacon, sub-deacon or lector. The celebrant may, however, join with the people in singing or reciting parts of the Ordinary of the Mass --as, for example, the Gloria and the Credo.

2. Psalm 42 is omitted from the prayers to be said at the foot of the altar at the beginning of Mass. Whenever another liturgical service immediately precedes the Mass, all these opening prayers are omitted.

3. The "secret" prayer before the preface is to be said or sung aloud.

4. The "Doxology" at the end of the Canon of the Mass (that is, the prayer "Through him, and with him . . . ") is to be said or sung in a loud voice. The signs of the Cross, formerly made during this prayer, are omitted, and the celebrant holds the host with the chalice, slightly raised above the corporal. The "Our Father" is said or sung in the vernacular by the people together with the priest. The prayer which follows -- is called the Embolism (that is, an insertion or interpolation) and was originally added to the Mass as an extension of the last petition in the "Our Father:" a prayer to be freed from evil, and for our sins to be forgiven. This prayer is also to be said or sung aloud by the celebrant.

5. The words spoken by the priest when giving Holy Communion have been shortened to "Corpus Christ" -- "The Body of Christ;" the person communicating says "Amen" before receiving Holy Communion; and the priest no longer makes the sign of the Cross with the host.

6. The Last Gospel is omitted, and the prayers formerly recited at the end of the Mass (the "Leonine" prayers) are no longer said.

7. Provision is made for the Epistle to be read by a lector of by one of the servers; the Gospel must be proclaimed by the celebrant or by a deacon.

8. At all Masses attended by the faithful on Sundays and Holydays, the Gospel is to be followed by a homily, or explanation reading from the Scriptures. This homily may be based upon some other text of the Mass, taking account of the feast or mystery which is being celebrated.

9. After the Creed, provision is made for what is called the "community prayer" sometimes called the "prayer of the faithful." In some countries this prayer is already customary; in most places, however, it has not yet been introduced. In due course the form of this community prayer will be announced by the Central Liturgical Commission.

10. In accordance with the changes outlined above, the Ordo Missae issued in January 1965 states that, as a general rule, the celebrant will say the opening prayers at the foot of the altar; when he has kissed the altar, he will go tot he sedile or seat and remain there until the prayer of the faithful has been said before the offertory leaving it for the ambo if he himself is to read the Epistle and Gospel but returning to it for the Creed.

11. At a High Mass the subdeacon no longer wears the humeral veil; the paten is left upon the altar, and the subdeacon joins the deacon in assisting the celebrant.

12. Suitable translations of parts of the Mass are to be prepared by regional or national councils of bishops. When these translations have been confirmed by the Holy See, they may be used when Mass is said in the vernacular. The extent to which the vernacular is used varies greatly. Generally speaking, its use is permitted for the first part of the Mass -- the "Service of the Word" -- and for certain prayers in the second part -- the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

Another important change concerns the Eucharistic Fast. Until recent years, this Fast was from midnight. Then it was reduced to three hours. Finally it was altered to a fast of one hour from food and drink; this hour is to be reckoned from the time when Holy Communion is to be received, and not from the time Mass starts. Those who receive Communion in the Mass of the Easter Vigil, or at the Midnight mass of Christmas, may also receive Communion on the following morning (That is, Easter Sunday or Christmas Day).

The Sacraments and Sacramentals

Among the changes which have been introduced into the rites for the administration of sacraments, the following points should be noted.

1. The rites themselves are to be modified and adapted to the needs of modern times, so that the true meaning of sacramental signs may be readily grasped.

2. The vernacular may be used (a) throughout the rites of Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, and Matrimony; and in the distribution of Holy Communion; (b) in conferring Holy Orders, for the allocution, or opening address, for the "admonitions" to those receiving Orders, and for the ritual "interrogation" of a priest who is about to receive consecration as a bishop; (c) in funeral ceremonies, and in all blessings known as "sacramentals."

3. The ancient ritual for adults who are receiving instruction in the Catholic faith was called the "catechumenate." This ritual is to be brought into use once more, and will extend through several distinct stages, with an interval of time between each stage. In missionary regions some features of local "initiation rites" may be introduced, provided that they can be adapted to Christian principles.

4. The rite of infant baptism is to be altered, to express the fact that an infant is receiving the sacrament, and to emphasize the duties of parents and godparents.

5. Confirmation should be administered within the Mass, following the Gospel and sermon. Those to be confirmed should renew the promises made at baptism.

6. The rite and formula for the Sacrament of Penance are to be altered, to give clearer expression to the nature and effects of this sacrament.

7. Similar revisions are to be made in the Sacrament of the "Anointing of the Sick." The Council has ruled that this phrase should be used in preference to the former name, "Extreme Unction." The prayers and the number of the annointings will be altered, to correspond with the changing conditions of the sick person. In countries where provision has not yet been made for a continuous rite for the Sacraments of he Sick (that is, when the illness is such that the sick person is to receive the Last Blessing and Holy Viaticum) instructions have now been given for the for the use of this continuous rite.

8. The Sacrament of Matrimony is to be celebrated within Mass, unless there is a good reason for the marriage to take place outside Mass. The Mass known as the "Nuptial Mass" (Missa pro Sponsis) must be said, or at least commemorated. The homily, or address, may never be omitted, and the Nuptial Blessing is always to be given, even during those times when the solemnization of marriage has been excluded, and even if one or both of the parties has already been married.

A new rite has been introduced for the celebration of Matrimony outside Mass. This rite consists of a short address, the reading of the Epistle and Gospel (taken from the Missa pro Sponsis), a homily, the celebration of the marriage, and the Nuptial Blessing. A hymn or other chant may be sung, and the "prayer of the faithful" -- adapted to include prayers for the newly married couple -- may be said before the Nuptial Blessing is given.

These instructions concerning marriage have been made for Catholic weddings; that is, when both parties are Catholics.

9. In the past, the right to give many blessings had been reserved, in such a way that without special authority a priest could not give these blessings, With some exceptions these blessings may now be give by any priest. The exceptions are: the blessing of Stations of the Cross; the blessing of a church bell of the foundation stone of a church; the blessing of a new church or public oratory, or of a new cemetery. Papal blessings are still reserved.

Further instances of the adaptation and simplification desired by the Council are the abbreviations in the elaborate ceremonial which, in the course of centuries, had been built around the Cardinalate. While the number of cardinals has greatly increased, the ceremonies have been shortened. The Pope no longer places the large red hat on the head of a new cardinal; instead, the hat is delivered to his residence in Rome by a Vatican messenger. The ceremony, in which the Pope places the red biretta upon the cardinal's head, has now been incorporated within one comprehensive ceremony, which is still called a "public consistory," during which the Pope and the newly-created cardinals join together to concelebrate Mass. Some simplification of the ecclesiastical dress of cardinals, bishops and other prelates, as well as simplification of the ceremonies at which they pontificate, also indicates the manner in which the Church is anxious to adapt itself to present-day values.

The concelebration of Mass

a custom which has always been found in the Church -- signifies the unity of the priesthood. Until the Second Vatican Council, however, the custom had usually been restricted to the Mass for the ordination of a priest or the consecration of a bishop. The Council has extend the custom of concelebration to other occasions, such as the Mass on the evening of Maundy Thursday, and Masses celebrated at meetings of priests. Similarly, the Council has recognized that in certain cases, clerics, religious and lay people may receive Holy Communion under the species of wine as well as of bread. Examples given in the Constitution on the Liturgy are: newly ordained clerics in the Mass of Ordination; newly professed religious, in the Mass of profession; and newly baptized adults in the Mass which maybe said following their baptism. The Apostolic See reserves the right to determine these cases, and to issue rules both for concelebration and for receiving Holy Communion under both kinds.

The Divine Office

The following are the main changes introduced by the Council in the signing or recitation of the Divine Office.

1. The sequence of the "hours" of the Office is to be restored to its traditional form, so that each hour is in fact related to the time of day at which it is said; in this way the recitation of the Office will better express its purpose, to sanctify the whole course of the day.

2. The hour of Lauds represents the morning prayer of the Church; while Vespers is the hour of evening prayer. These two hours are to become once again the principal hours of the day's Office. Compline is to be revised so that it will become a suitable prayer for the end of the day.

3. The hour of Prime is suppressed. When the office is recited in choir, the three "little hours" of Terce, Sext and None are to be said. Those who are not obliged to recite the Office in choir may select any one of these three hours, according to the time of day.

4. When recited in choir, the hour of Matins is to be regarded as the night prayer of the Church; but this hour is to be reconstructed with longer scriptural and other readings and fewer psalms, and adapted so that it may be recited at any time of the day.

5. The Latin language remains the official language of the Western Church; but in individual cases, where Latin is an obstacle, bishops and other superiors may authorize the recitation of the Office in the vernacular. This is because the Divine Office is, first and foremost, a prayer offered to God.

The Council has recognized that, in some cases, the use of the Latin tongue can be a hindrance of devotion and can make it difficult for a person to pray the Office as it should be prayed.

The Liturgical Year

1. The Constitution recalls the unchanging practice of the Church of celebrating every Sunday the paschal mystery -- the mystery of the passion, death, resurrection and glorifying of Christ the Lord. Sunday is the original feast day, the center of the whole liturgical year.

2. The liturgical year is to be revised, both to preserve the age-old customs and instructions of the holy seasons, and also to adapt those customs, where necessary, to the conditions of modern times. Detailed rules are provided for this revision; the rules are based upon the pastoral nature of the liturgy -- the need to keep before the minds of Christians the mysteries of salvation in Christ.

3. The Constitution declares that there is no objection to fixing the date of Easter -- provided other non-Catholic Christian communities reach agreement. Similarly, a "perpetual calendar" is acceptable, if it is based upon a reckoning which retains a seven-day week with Sunday, and provided that it does not insert extra days which are considered to belong to no week.

Sacred Music

1. The Council drew attention to the age-old tradition of sacred music and singing, closely linked to the liturgy; and the Constitution declares that worship becomes more noble when it is carried out with solemn singing, especially when the celebrant, ministers and people take an active part.

2. Great attention is to be paid to the teaching and practice of sacred music, in harmony with training and instruction in the liturgy.

3. Gregorian chant is especially suited to the Roman liturgy, but other kinds of sacred music must not be excluded. In mission lands where the people have their own characteristic musical traditions, these traditions also should be incorporated into Christian worship.

4. In the Latin Church, the pipe organ is recognized as the traditional musical instrument, but other instruments maybe used provided that they can be adapted for use in divine worship.

Sacred Art

1. Things that are set apart for use in divine worship should have dignity and beauty, because they serve as symbols and signs of the supernatural world. The highest achievement of the fine arts is sacred art, which is man's attempt to express the infinite beauty of God and to direct his mind to God.

2. The Church has always been the patron of the fine arts. The Church reserves the right to decide whether an artist's work is in keeping with divine worship.

3. Artistic styles vary from one time and place to another. Modern art is the expression of our times; provided that it is in keeping with divine worship, a work of modern art and may be used for sacred use.

4. Bishops and others responsible for churches and holy places should remove from those places all objects which lack true artistic value, or which may be out of keeping with divine worship. Similarly, they should see that the number of statues and pictures should be moderate, and that they should be placed in such a way that a true sense of proportion is observed.

5. All things destined for use in divine worship should have simple dignity; lavish display doe snot accord with the worship of God. Each diocese should have its own Commission of Sacred Art; ecclesiastical laws, relating to the building of churches, are to be revised wherever necessary.

The Constitution on the Church

The First Vatican Council, ending so abruptly in 1870, is known as the Pope's Council, for it defined the dogma of papal infallibility and stressed the supremacy of the Holy See. It is likely that the Second Vatican Council will go down in history as the Council which explained the organic structure of the Church. This explanation is centred upon the Constitution De Ecclesia -- dealing with the Church itself. The main points of this Constitution are outlined below.

1. Too often in the past, the sacramental nature of the Church has been lost to view. Some theologians used to describe the Church in terms of a perfect, independent society, often in competition with other social systems. Others preferred to see it as a complexity of legal systems, issuing laws to control man's spiritual destiny. Others, again, looked at age-old institutions, its fine buildings and palaces, the splendour of its ornaments, vestments and ceremonies, and saw in all these things evidence of triumph and victory -- "ecclesiastical triumphalism."

2. The Constitution sees the Church, not as any of those things, but as "the sacrament of union with God, the sacrament of the unity of the whole of the human race." A sacrament is a sign which brings about what it signifies. The Church is the sign of unity. Through it, Christ, its founder, shows the power and presence of God, acting upon society, upon mankind, upon the world itself; and the action is the same as Christ's action on Cavalry -- bringing mercy and pardon to men.

3. The Church is the sign because it is the community of the People o God. Divine redemption and the power of the Holy Ghost, act in and through God's people to save all mankind. The People of God are being sanctified; yet they remain weak and human, subject to temptation, liable to sin. This is not a Church of triumph, whose members can lord it over others, while remaining secure within its walls. It does not compete with other social systems and other cultures; it adapts itself to these systems, because it is an instrument which God uses to save mankind. It is a missionary Church -- the People of God are missionaries. They seek that union with God which is true holiness; they are the instruments through whom God unites and sanctifies mankind.

4. The Catholic Church professes that it is the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church of Christ; this it does not and could not deny. But in its Constitution the Church now solemnly acknowledges that the Holy Ghost is truly active in the churches and communities separated from itself. To these other Christian Churches the Catholic Church is bound in many ways: through reverence for God's word in the Scriptures; through the fact of baptism; through other sacraments which they recognize.

5. The non-Christian may not be blamed for his ignorance of Christ and his Church; salvation is open to him also, if he seeks God sincerely and if he follows the commands of his conscience, for through this means the Holy Ghost acts upon all men; this divine action is not confined within the limited boundaries of the visible Church.

6. The Constitution then turns to the structure of the hierarchy which Christ established in his Church. It uses the word "college" in the sense of a unified, corporate body of men (just as cardinals are said to belong to a "sacred college"). Christ formed his Apostles "after the manner of a college," and over this college he placed Peter, whom he had chosen from their midst. The mission which Christ entrusted to the Apostles must last until the end of the world; accordingly the Apostles chose others to succeed them. It is therefore by divine institution that bishops have succeeded the Apostles. The college or body of bishops, however, has authority together with the Pope as its head. The Pope is the foundation of unity, of bishops as well as of the Faithful; so that supreme authority can be exercised by the college of bishops only in union with the Pope and with his consent.

7. Bishops give to other individuals a share in the ministry. Priests and bishops are united in the priestly office. At a lower level is the hierarchy are deacons. When regional conference of bishops deem it necessary--and when the Pope consents--bishops can confer the diaconate upon men of mature years, even if these men are married.

In the third session of the Council, practical applications of the principle of collegiality were left over to await discussion in the draft scheme concerning bishops. These practical applications affect such problems as the division of dioceses and the powers to be used by episcopal conferences. Another important problem, related to the principle that the bishops and the Pope together form a "college," is the establishment of a central advisory council of bishops. The form which this advisory council takes is likely to resemble a "cabinet" in a civil state, in which the president or prime minister chooses a group of ministers and advisers. When Pope Paul VI, in February 1965, created many new cardinals and greatly increased the number in the "Sacred College" of cardinals, he spoke of the great importance of this senate of the Church. Since each cardinal is consecrated bishop (if he is not already a bishop), and since the College of Cardinals includes representatives from every part of the world, it seems to many observers that the cardinals themselves will form the "central advisory council," in which the collegiate responsibility of the bishops will be expressed.

The Holy See has also continued the work of "reforming" the roman Curia, adapting its structure and activities to bring it into harmony with the needs of modern times and including among its officials a greater proportion of non-Italians. An important instance of this reform is in the Holy Office, which now includes bishops of dioceses in France and in the United States.

The Decree On The Eastern Churches

At the close of the third session, the Vatican Council gave overwhelming approval to the Decree on the Eastern Churches.

1. The Catholic Church reveres these Eastern Churches, which are "living witnesses to the tradition which has been handed down from the apostles through the Fathers." The whole Church of Christ is made up of a number of particular Churches or rites; many of these Eastern Churches are joined in full communion with the Apostolic See.

2. The traditions of each Church should be preserved intact, while adapting itself to the different necessities of time and place. Each Church has the duty and the right to govern itself according to its traditional discipline. In each Church the rights and privileges of patriarchs must be preserved and, where necessary, restored. But all Churches are entrusted tot he supreme pastoral care of the Roman Pontiff as the successor of Saint Peter.

3. All Eastern Catholic Christians must follow the rite, as well as the discipline, of their respective Churches. In many places, Catholics of different rites are intermingled. in those places, priests should have faculties for hearing confession may absolve the faithful who belong to other rites. In certain circumstances Baptism and Confirmation may be administered to people of other rites, and marriages contracted between Christians of different rites may also be valid, when the marriage contract is made in the presence of a sacred minister. Similarly, the Council recognizes the validity of Holy Orders conferred in the Eastern Churches, and permits Catholics to receive Holy Communion and the Anointing of the Sick from priests of other rites, when the need arises and when no Catholic priest is available. These permissions express the desire of the Catholic Church to promote union with the Eastern churches which are separated from Catholic unity.

The importance which the Holy See attaches to the Eastern Churches, and the great desire for reunion, were evident throughout the sessions of the Council. Apart from the Greek Orthodox Church, all the separated Eastern Churches sent observers to the Council. Patriarchs of Eastern Catholic Churches were given a special place of honour, and some took a prominent part in Council debates. The Consistory held in February 1965 for the creation of new cardinals, raised the number of cardinals of Eastern rites to six. The Eastern patriarchs ranks as cardinal bishops.

Unlike other cardinals, they are not allotted titular churches in Rome, nor are they given titular sees in the province of Rome; instead, they retain the title of their patriarchal sees. This compromise has not been welcomed by every Eastern Catholic; for, in the hierarchy of the Church, a patriarch possesses the highest authority, to which the cardinalate can add nothing.

Similarly, the decree on the Eastern Churches has been criticized on the grounds that, while it is ostensibly addressed to the Churches which are in full communion with the Holy See, in reality it is directed to the Orthodox Churches whose members consider that the Eastern catholic Churches are obstacles to reunion.

The Decree On Ecumenism

Over the centuries differences between Christians have led to profound divisions, but modern times have seen a great movement towards unity; and the decree begins by saying, "Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. One of the principal concerns of this Council is the restoration of unity among all Christians."

1. All who have been "justified by faith in baptism" are members of the Body of Christ; they all have the right to be called Christian; the children of the Catholic Church accept them as brothers.

2. The Catholic Church believes that the separated Churches and communities "are efficient in some respects." But the Holy Ghost makes use of these Churches; they are means of salvation to their members.

3. Catholics are encouraged to join in Oecumenical activity, and to meet non-Catholic Christians in truth and love. The task of "Oecumenical dialogue" belongs to theologians, competent authorities representing different Churches.

4. Catholics should not ignore their duty to other Christians --- they should make the first approach. Even so, the primary duty of the Church at the present time is to discover what must be done within the catholic Church itself; to renew itself, to put its own house in order. Catholics sincerely believe that theirs is the Church of Christ; everything necessary must be done that others also may clearly recognize it as Christ's Church.

5. The ecumenical movement can make no progress without a real change of heart. Theologians and other competent Catholics should study the history, teaching and liturgy of separated Churches. All Christians have a common purpose -- to confess Christ before men. Practical expression must be given to this, by relieving the distress which afflicts so many of the human race: famine, poverty, illiteracy, the unequal distribution of wealth, housing shortage.

6. In appropriate circumstances prayers for unity should be recited jointly with non-Catholic Christians. Catholics are to be directed in this by their bishops, subject to the decisions of the Holy see.

7. Between the catholic Church and Western non-Catholic Christian communities, important differences remain; these differences are most evident in the interpretation of truth revealed by God. But the bonds of unity are already strong; their strength must be put to use. The bonds are, chiefly, the fact that Christians believe in the divinity of Christ and the fact of reverence for God's word revealed in the Bible.

8. In the cause of ecumenism, the Catholic must always remain true to the Faith that he has received. Impudent zeal in this matter is a hindrance to unity and not a help. So also is any attempt to achieve a merely superficial unity.

Other Problems

By the close of the third session, in November of 1964, the Council had voted in favour of two Constitutions and three Decrees. The Constitutions were those dealing with the liturgy and with the Church; the Decrees were on Ecumenism, on the Eastern Churches, and on "Means of Communication" (dealing with modern mass media, such as the Press, cinema, radio and television; this Decree was generally regarded as excessively clerical, abstract and unworthy of its important subject).

Of the schemata outstanding at the end of the third session, the principal ones were those dealing with priests and seminaries, religious, the missions, the "pastoral duties of bishops," Divine revelation, and "the Church and the Modern World." Intensive and prolonged drafting, debating, amending, further debating followed by further amending, have marked the path of each of these topics. They have also manifested the will of the Council that everything possible must be done to make this the Council of renewal in the Church.

Among the outstanding topics, those contained in Schema 13 command the greatest interest. For this is the schema on the Church in the modern world. The Council must show that in its debates it is not moving on the abstract plane; the Church is in this world, committed to it by a divine commission. Of all the topics discussed, probably none has been more widely awaited. No schema has passed through more stages, none has suffered greater amendment. This schema is entrusted to two commissions working together -- the Commission for Theology and the Commission for the Lay Apostolate. In February 1965 the revised text (that is, the text in its fourth form) was examined by the mixed commission, and a further meeting was to be held before the text was to be sent to the bishops. In this text there are stated the questions and problems that the modern world puts to the Church, and the fields in which it seeks the Church's co-operation. Then the text outlines the things on which the Church is competent to pronounce, while a brief analysis of history shows how mistakes have been made in the past when the Church became involved in political systems. Under the headings of anthropology, sociology and cosmology, the text then details the attitude of the Church to the modern world.

The extreme complexity of these problems is shown by the fact that seven distinct sub-committees are at work. These sub-committees deal with
(a) the basis in theology;
(b) the general manner of presentation;
(c) the question of man's presence in society;
(d) marriage;
(e) social and economic questions;
(f) peace and war -- including nuclear war and disarmament; and finally
(g) questions of modern culture.

During the third session, many other important issues were raised. Among them were the declaration on religious liberty, and a further declaration concerning those who are not Christians (including a declaration on those who belong to the Jewish faith).

These declarations were returned for further revision, and action for approval was postponed until the fourth session.

The question of mixed marriages was also raised (that is, marriages contracted between Catholic and non-Catholic Christians). The Council Fathers decided to submit this question to the Pope for a ruling, and expressed the hope that this ruling would be given in advance of the promulgation of the reform in Canon Law. While the general question of marriage is included in the schema on the Church in the modern world, Pope Paul VI has reserved to himself the decision as to whether any change should be made in the teaching of Pope Pius XI (which was repeated by his successor, Pope Pius XII) concerning means of birth control. Pope Paul enlisted aid from distinguished theologians and doctors to assist him in forming his judgement on this question.


The fourth and last session of the Council opened September 14th, 1965, and closed December 8th. By far the most active of the sessions, it issued two constitutions
(divine revelation, modern problems of the Church),
six decrees
(duties of bishops, seminaries, life of religious, apostolate of the laity, priestly life, missions),
and three declarations
(the Church and non-Christian religions, Christian education, religious liberty).

The Council witnessed a dramatic demonstration of ecumenism on December 7th, when Pope Paul and the Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I formally expressed their regret for the mutual excommunications pronounced by their predecessors. Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Cerularius, in 1054.

The documentary work of the Council, the fruit of laborious committee study, many preliminary versions, and countless revisions, is represented by sixteen final drafts, as follows:

Four Constitutions

"On the Sacred Liturgy" (Dec. 4, 1963),
"On the Church" (Nov. 21, 1964),
"Divine Revelation" (Nov. 18th, 1965) and
"the Church in the Modern World" (Dec. 7, 1965)

Nine Decrees

"The Instruments of Social Communication" (Dec. 4, 1963),
"Ecumenism" (Nov. 21, 1964),
"The Eastern Catholic Churches" (Nov. 21, 1964),
"The Pastoral Duty of Bishops," (Oct. 18, 1965),
"On Priestly Formation" (Oct. 28, 1965),
"On the Apostolate of the Laity" (Nov. 18, 1965),
"On the Ministry and the Priestly Life" (Dec. 7, 1965),
"On the Missionary Activity of the Church" (Dec. 7, 1965), and

Three Declarations

"On the Relationship of the Church to non-Christian Religions" (Oct. 26, 1965),
"On ChristianEducation" (Oct. 28, 1965) and
"On Religious Freedom" (Dec. 7, 1965).
T. B.McD.

Also, see:
Ecumenical Church Councils

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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