Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture

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Vatican II @ 50

An ongoing series of lectures, studies and events to mark one of the most historic and transformative events in the story of the Catholic Church

Vatican II Council

In February 2012, the Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture launched a new program which will run throughout the coming years: ‘Vatican II @ 50’, which will feature an ongoing series of lectures, studies and events to mark one of the most historic and transformative events in the story of the Catholic Church.

If you go to Rome and visit St Peter’s Basilica at the heart of the Vatican, built over the tomb of the Apostle Saint Peter, himself, one of the many wondrous things you will see inside that enormous church is the body of a small rotund yet genial man inside a glass case beneath one of the many altars dotted around the basilica. They used to say in Italy that a fat Pope would always follow a thin one. In the 1950s that was certainly true and in 1958 when this man, born Angelo Roncalli in 1881, was the surprise choice to be elected as pope he followed the taller and leaner (some would say meaner!) Pope Pius XII. Angelo Roncalli took the name John XXIII and served as pope for but five years between 1958 and 1963. There are many wonderful stories about this genial and kindly man, who welcomed Christians from other churches and people of other faiths and who sought to build more harmonious relations for the church with all the peoples of the world. One favorite is when an interviewer asked him ‘How many people work in the Vatican?’ His response was ‘About half…’.

Although many thought he had been appointed merely as a safe pair of hands caretaker Pope who would do nothing spectacular or risky until he went to meet his maker, and despite that all too short time spent as successor of Saint Peter, Blessed John XXIII, as he now is, would turn out to be arguably the twentieth century’s most significant pope in terms of the impact his decisions had upon the church. He was the pope who took everyone in the church, but especially the Vatican curia, the church’s civil service so to speak, by surprise when, 1959, he announced the plans to hold the Second Vatican Council which took place between 1962 and 1965 at the Vatican itself in Rome.

The Council was a gathering of leading bishops and leaders of religious orders, accompanied by an army of theologians and related specialists, along with many there to ‘observe’ proceedings from within and without the church - which was to usher in something of a revolution. The event marked a watershed moment in modern church history when the church consciously sought to fling its doors wide open to the world. Pope John XXIII, with reference to the church and its leadership and mission that, ‘We are not the curators of a museum’ and he called for the church to open up the windows and ‘let in some fresh air’. The watchword for the Council was to be aggiornamento, an Italian term which means ‘bringing up to date’, ‘renewing’, ‘making new’. Pope Paul VI (Giovanni Battista Montini (b. 1897, pope from 1963-1978) would lead the Council through to its completion, famously making dialogue a guiding principle for the Church in his very first teaching document.

The church’s organisation, liturgy, outlook, teaching and self-understanding were all left transformed by this council. Above all else, the sense of the church as a pilgrim people influenced the Council throughout. The Church’s relations with other Christians, with other faiths and with peoples of no explicit faith were likewise radically changed for the better. So the church became a more open church in many respects and it sought to engage in dialogue with the modern world and differing peoples around the globe in a proactive fashion, vowing to learn from the ‘signs of the times’. The role of lay people in the church was equally transformed and the sense of the Church as having a sacramental mission to help promote and protect love, justice and righteousness was to the forefront of much of the Council’s discussions and achievements.

But the story is neither as exclusively positive nor radically revolutionary as some accounts suggest. Many opposed the changes which Vatican II brought in and have continued to challenge aspects of its legacy down to this day. Many have since wondered whether the vision of Vatican II was ever truly implemented throughout the church in full, despite many aspects of Vatican II’s ecclesial vision having flourished at the grass roots level of the church. There are differing historical interpretations of the Council, its significance and in relation to its essential character as being ultimately a council of revolution, continuity or a mixture of both.

We were delighted to have such a distinguished theologian here at USD to deliver the first lecture in this new program on Thursday, February 23, 2012. A  globally renowed expert on the church (ecclesiologist), Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley S.J. Chair in Catholic Studies and is Professor of Religious Studies at Fairfield University and Director of Fairfield’s Center for Catholic Studies and the undergraduate academic minor program in Catholic Studies. The title of Professor Lakeland’s talk, then, was a fitting one in so many ways: ‘Vatican II Fifty Years On: What Would the Four/Fore Fathers Say Now? The four "forefathers" in question were those giants of 20th century Catholic theology and especially of the Council who were all born in 1904: the French Dominican, Yves Congar, and three Jesuits, one German, one Canadian and one from the United States, respectively, Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan and John Courtney Murray.

Professor Lakeland’s talk was very well attended and faculty, staff, students and many members of the local community have expressed their deep gratitude for his insightful talk and for the evening’s program as a whole. You can link to the page about his talk here.

Over the coming years the Catholic Church will be celebrating many anniversaries associated with the Council and also looking back in order to look forward in relation to how the work of the Council might best be continued and indeed expanded as the Church, which the Council understood as a pilgrim people journeying toward God’s loving destiny for all people, continues to abide by the Vatican II mission of discerning the signs of the times. The Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture will be honoured to help people across the USD and wider communities learn about and commemorate the story as well as the ongoing work and legacy of the Council.

The principal tool of ecclesial reflection today is description, conducted by one who tries to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, loving and open to change Paul Lakeland, Church: Living Communion p.130

Talks in this Series

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Massimo Faggioli, PhD Assistant Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN.

Ursula King, PhD - Professor Emerita of Theology and Religious Studies at University of Bristol, vice president of the World Congress of Faiths, and professorial research associate at Centre for Gender and Religions Research, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Paul Lakeland, PhD - Aloysius P. Kelley S.J. Chair in Catholic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies at Fairfield University.