Fifty years ago today, Blessed John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council, stating:
In calling this vast assembly of bishops, the latest and humble successor to the Prince of the Apostles who is addressing you intended to assert once again the Magisterium , which is unfailing and perdures until the end of time, in order that this Magisterium, taking into account the errors, the requirements, and the opportunities of our time, might be presented in exceptional form to all men throughout the world.
So began what I think might be The Best Thing Ever.
The Second Vatican Council has always given me something to be proud of. When people find out my religious background they often want to badger me about the Crusades, or sex abuse, or something else in the history – and present – of the Church that makes us less than proud.
But I know something they don’t know. I know that “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” I know that fifty years ago, people came together to talk about things, to open the doors to the outside world and to trust that our well-formed consciences and the Holy Spirit could guide the church to “new habits of mind” that would bring the light of Christ to the world.
I was raised in this optimistic Church. I was raised to believe that yes, there is a hell, but that it’s up to God who goes there, not us. I was raised to believe that God wants what’s the best possible us, not that God wants to punish us. I was raised to believe that what we do in the liturgy is the summit and source of faith. I was raised to believe that the Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in other faiths, that the Church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church, and that subsisting is delightfully ambiguous.
I grew up believing that the purpose of the Church – the purpose of my life – was to bring light to the world, and I could do this by loving and serving those around me. I was not raised on limitless rules and Syllabi of Errors and things-to-be-against. And that made me want to be good.
Having something beautiful and hopeful that I am a part of has been the great joy of my life. I don’t know how I would have related to the Church if we were still fighting to regain Christendom, if we hadn’t decided fifty years ago that we had lost the French Revolution, and that it was time to change the rules of the game.
Unlike the First Vatican Council, Vatican II was not about getting all our power back. It was about recognizing the power we still have – the Spirit, Scripture, Tradition, the witness of the Saints, the unconquerable love in our hearts – and setting about our work of using that power to transform the world.