(Re)discover documents of Vatican II


Looking back is for old folks and historians. Young people in a hurry might feel that way. However, when the past is treated as nothing more than nostalgia or fodder for heavy books, everyone loses.
We can’t answer simple questions like: Why do we do that? What’s the purpose of this? Where did that come from? And we flounder badly with the harder questions: Why am I the way I am? How could I do better? What’s wrong – and right – with us? Looking back and remembering, learning from the past, is what humans do to grow.
This week is an anniversary that means something for Catholics of all ages. October 11 marks the 50th year since the beginning of a revolution. It wasn’t called that at the time, but on looking back, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council appears to be as much a turning as it was an opening of windows, the figure of speech preferred then. From the inside, we threw open windows to let in fresh air. From the outside, from a transcendent perspective, a great ship was changing in its course.
That council, the 21st such assembly of bishops in Church history and known in shorthand as Vatican II, was the most significant religious event the Western world had seen in centuries. It is being celebrated now with programs in parishes and other Catholic institutions that will show younger generations how much energy there can be hidden within those two religious words, Holy Spirit.
When Pope John XXIII announced in 1959 that he felt the need for a council of all the world’s nearly 3,000 bishops, he couldn’t know what might be let loose. He trusted that the Spirit lives, as Jesus might have said, where two or three thousand gather in my name.
They came to Rome, to the great basilica of St. Peter, beginning on this date in 1962. It was the start of drama that drew the attention of news columns and cameras from all over the world. In four acts each autumn until its conclusion in December of 1965, the council members – bishops, patriarchs, cardinals all known as “fathers” – debated, worried, applauded, sulked, celebrated, conspired, learned, experimented and in general created a freshened Church.
They spoke of renewal, reform, co-responsibility, collegiality, liberty, ecumenism – terms not common in Catholic talk. And during the formal council sessions as the bishops met in St. Peter’s they did it in Latin. New needs and possibilities were prayed about and debated with the old language. The contemporary was not divorced from the ancient; it was stitched into a garment modified for a changing body.
This month, and at times probably for the next four years, there will be programs for learning about the council. Take advantage of these. They should not be dull: that council was a great human drama as well as significant for our religious life. The “spirit” of Vatican II was a palpable presence for Catholic adults in the 1960s.
In the Davenport Diocese we already have two events scheduled that deserve attention. The first is Oct. 21, a week from this Sunday, in Davenport at St. Ambrose University’s Rogalski Center. Richard Gaillardetz, a theologian at Boston College and co-author of the recently published book “Keys to the Council,” will speak at 2 p.m. On Tuesday, Oct. 23, Bill Huebsch, a writer known for making complex religious topics understandable through ordinary language, offers a workshop at St. Patrick parish in Iowa City. That event runs from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and has a cost of $12, which includes lunch. The Gaillardetz talk is sponsored by women’s religious communities in the region and is free to the public. The Huebsch workshop is sponsored by the diocese.
Wonderful things occurred 50 years ago, and we are different now because of them. Take a little time to discover – or, if you’re old enough, remember – why and how this happened. Read about Vatican II, read the documents it produced, attend the special events recalling the council. Understand better how we got where we are today.
Frank Wessling

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