Forty nine years ago, the Catholic Church entered into the age of “aggiornamento”, an opening up to the evolving modern world of the 1960’s. To place the state if the world in perspective, John F.Kennedy was President of the United States and Blessed John XXIII was Pope and the Catholic world used Latin as the primary language for liturgical celebrations and global communications. Pope John XXIII convened the Council in an earnest attempt to bring the Catholic Church into the modern age of the 20th century. Since this monumental day in the history of Catholicism, things have never been quite the same; however our foundations of Catholic faith remain the unchanged traditions and beliefs that have been handed down since the Apostolic Era.

John XXIII wanted the Church to integrate itself more intimately with the roots of the ancient Church, restore clarity to the manner in which the Church prayed and develop an ecumenical movement that would attempt to end the Counter Reformation declarations and anathemas enacted by the Council of Trent, placing the Catholic Church in the forefront of global pursuits of human rights and freedoms. The opening date of the Council was not chosen in an arbitrary manner either. In the Roman Calendar that was in use at the time, the date was a Marian feast day, The Maternity of Mary, the Mother of God, which tied the II Vatican Council to the date the Council of Ephesus declared Mary, as Theotokos ,God Bearer and dedicated the Council’s deliberations and actions to Her for guidance and inspiration.

October 11, 1962 was marked with great pageantry and splendor, all of the Council Fathers wearing copes and miters processed into Saint Peter’s Basilica with hopeful expectations that would change the Church in a positive direction in relationship to a world still recovering from the effects of the carnage of the Second World War, the tragedy of the Holocaust and the daily political and military tensions between the United States in the ongoing Cold War. In an ironic twist of history, the Cuban Missile Crisis would start on October 14 and peacefully end on October 28th, while the Catholic Church’s hierarchy was sequestered in prayer and deliberations that included the topic of global peace and harmony among nations.

The initial purpose of the Council as envisioned by Pope John XXIII was one that modernized the Catholic Church’s celebration of its sacred rites and rituals and open an opportunity to meet in ecumenical dialogue with separated brethren faiths, the Orthodox Church, the various branches of Protestantism which emerged during the Reformation and a reexamination of the intimate relationship the Catholic Church shared with the Jewish people, the recipients of the first covenant with Abraham and Catholic ancestors in the history of salvation. One of these tasks would be a monumental understanding, the deliberations evolved and produced changes in not only sacramental practices, but a radical change in the Catholic Church’s perspective of how it viewed not only itself, but also how the Catholic Church viewed its relationship with the world and the emerging global identities beginning to emerge in the modern world. Later in the Council, the document, Gaudium et Spes, The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World would elaborate on that relationship.

Most Catholics remember the Second Vatican Council primarily because of the radical changes in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the transition from Latin as the Church’s language of celebration to the usage of the local vernacular language (English in the United States); however the Council in hindsight was more prophetic and insightful during deliberations and set the platform for the Catholic Church to emerge transformed and refortified in the late 20th century and now the early 21st century.

Since the end of the Council the Church has become a dynamic presence and influence in global politics. Individuals that during the council then considered periti or theological advisors have become household figures universally recognized for their expertise and direction of the Church’s theological development into the notion of the People of God. Theologians, Rahner, Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), Wojtyla (now Blessed John-Paul II) and Schillebeeckx were the architects of change and development propelling the Catholic Church into the modern world.

In the United States, hundreds of American Bishops attended the Second Vatican Council. They brought the liturgical reforms back to their respective dioceses and archdioceses and faithfully implemented the precepts of the Council in fulfillment of the axiom, “lex orandi, lex credendi,” the Church prays as the Church believes. The last forty-nine years for the Catholic Church has been a period of great loyalty and faithfulness of our American Bishops that were present for the entire Second Vatican Council. We are still blessed with Archbishop Phillip Hannan; Archbishop Emeritus of New Orleans was the last Father of the Second Vatican Council to witness the great manifestation and transformations of the Holy Spirit since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. Keep him in your constant prayers, Archbishop Hannan died on September 29, 2011 and was the last American to hold the esteemed title of Council Father in regards to the Second Vatican Council, a few weeks short of the 49th anniversary of the Council’s inception.

With the beginning of the Church’s new liturgical year on the first Sunday of Advent, the ongoing developments of the Second Vatican Council will again be apparent with a new edition of the Roman Missal, that returns to translations more consistent with the Latin texts developed by the Council Fathers. Pope Benedict XVI, a theological consultant during the Council, is now the Church’s leader. Ironically, during his papacy, permission has been universally granted to celebrate the Latin liturgy that was in place when the Second Vatican Council convened. Most commonly and erroneously called the Mass of the Council of Trent, it is now called The Mass of Blessed John XXIII and illustrates how the Church grows and develops in Her understanding of liturgy, theology and human progression towards a final eschatology with God and eternal life.

As we approach the Golden Anniversary of the Second Vatican Council in 2012, we should celebrate and reflect on the positive and transformative events of the past 49 years , identifying ourselves as a Church as a pilgrim people, ever growing and intensifying our identity of Catholic faith as future hope for a renewed and invigorated Church poised to prosper in the 21st century.

Hugh J.McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist that reflects on Catholic topics and issues. Hugh studied both philosophy and theology at Philadelphia’s Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary. He is currently in an advanced theology & history degrees program at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia. He writes daily at , . Hugh writes on his Irish Catholic parochial experiences at
He also contributes writings to The Irish Catholic, Dublin, British Broadcasting Company, and provides Catholic book reviews for multiple Catholic periodicals and publishers, including Vatican Publishing House.
Hugh lives in Delaware’s Brandywine Valley with his wife and daughter.
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