It seems all too appropriate that the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council officially began in the latter half of the 20th century. This is because the prevailing attitudes of the time seem to fall in line with the council’s theme, which was summarized by Pontiff John XXIII in one word: aggiornamento. In this one word, which literally translates to mean “to get up to date”, Pope John XXIII was declaring a revival of both faith and family. To this end, Church teaching was revisited, and the course of Church history was altered by allowing Christians of different stripes to participate. Though this updated approach is looked down upon even today by those who consider themselves traditional Catholics, the progress made by this council had a profound impact on Church history, and can be seen to have birthed the Catholic Church as it lives today.
With an eye on modernization, one of the first issues dealt with during the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council was the updating and reviving of the liturgy, or public worship. In an effort to include more laymen in Catholic services, the liturgy, which was traditionally carried out in Latin, was permitted to be spoken in vernacular languages. Although this decree did not abolish Latin as the official language of the liturgy, as per Church teaching, it nonetheless signified a major shift in the course of Church history. With the inclusion of more commonly spoken languages, a greater number of people could celebrate Catholic Mass. This inclusionary attitude can be seen in many areas of the council including in what is perhaps its crowning achievement: “The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” a document which outlines fundamental Church teaching, and also makes it clear that God welcomes all those who believe in him.
The second Dogmatic Constitution to emerge from this Ecumenical Council is known as “The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.” A critically important document in its own right, it is here that the council laid out what it felt ought to be the role of scripture in theological life. While this did not necessitate any changes in church teaching, it did seek to modernize the modern day Catholic’s approach to scripture reading and interpretation. This document urged that while scripture was divinely inspired, it was also communicated to men and written in human hand. Therefore, it was decided that those who study scripture need be vigilant in order to discover what the writers of the text were trying to tell us. In recognizing that these sacred writings were composed in different forms of discourse, the council recognized that a fresh form of interpretation may be helpful. However, it also stressed that Church history and tradition must be adhered to when performing this task.
As much as the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council did revive and refresh the Catholic Church as we know it, it must also be said that the council reaffirmed what had been considered essential Church teaching throughout Church history. This can be seen in the council’s take on the Eucharist in the eyes of the Church. Referring to the Eucharist as a funnel through which we receive grace, the council made it clear that the acceptance of this holiest of sacraments was now, as at all times in church history, an integral part of Church teaching. In reaffirming the place of the Eucharist in the Church, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council made it clear that, while a certain manner of change was in the offing, core teaching and beliefs would remain unchanged.
The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council brought forth a new look Church that seemed to be ready and willing to modernize. While some longstanding traditions in Church history were deemphasized, however, Church teaching that was considered fundamental to Catholic life was reaffirmed, cementing the legacy of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council as one of revival, not rebirth. Through the inviting of members of different branches of the Christian faith, the Church showed its willingness to unite with its brothers and sisters in Christ, no matter what doctrinal differences may exist between them. It was this display of unity that made this council truly remarkable in the eyes of history.
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