This year we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. This great council convened by Blessed Pope John XXIII is one of the most profound movements of the Holy Spirit in the history of the Church. We are still very much living in the wake of the Council, and in many ways, the dust is still settling even after almost half a century. To commemorate this great anniversary, Pope Benedict XVI has called a Year of Faith in which he explicitly calls the Church to rediscover the gift of Vatican II as the great grace and sure compass for the Church in the Third Millennium. But what do we know about Vatican II today and what is its legacy? Let’s take a brief look at just a few of the more profound contributions of Vatican II to the life and mission of the Church.
1. The identity and mission of the Church: Undoubtedly one of the great contributions of Vatican II would be its teaching on very mission and identity of the Church. From this flows the powerful Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium meaning “Light to the Nations”. Lumen Gentium teaches us nothing new about the Church, but gives us a greater insight and understanding of the Church’s identity and mission: to be the visible presence and instrument of Christ, to be the great “sacrament” of salvation that brings in a real, living, and tangible way the very presence of Jesus Christ and his mission of salvation to the world. As Lumen Gentium states: “Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission.” (1) This does not mean that there is an eighth sacrament, but that the Church itself is the sacrament, the one visible instrument who Christ himself established to be his saving presence and vehicle of grace working in the world. It is through the Church that the seven sacraments flow and it is also within the Church that we as the People of God are also called to be instruments of salvation through our faith, witness, and holiness. This sacramentality of the Church stands as the very foundation of the Council’s vision of the mission and identity of the Church.
2. The Role of the Laity in the Church: Flowing directly from this vision of the mission of the Church as the sacrament of salvation also comes the Council’s teaching on the role and mission of the laity. This also is one of the greatest contributions of Vatican II. The laity through baptism are intimately joined to the triple mission of Christ as priest, prophet, and king, and are prepared by Christ and called by him to be his witnesses of the gospel especially and uniquely in the secular culture. As Lumen Gentium states:
But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. (31)
Thus, the Council empowers the laity to be a living witness and presence of Christ in the ordinary places in the world where only they can be the effective witnesses of Christ. The role of the laity is very crucial if the new evangelization envisioned by the Vatican II is going to be successful and this role must realized and lived daily by the lay faithful.
3. The Enrichment of Faith: This is another theme that is at the heart of the vision and mission of Vatican II and one that was also very much emphasized by Pope John Paul II. The enrichment of faith resides on two principles that were set forth by Pope John XXIII at the beginning of the Council: ressourcement and aggiornamento. Ressourcement means that to be effective in teaching, spreading, and living the gospel, we must return to and have direct contact with the sources of the faith: Sacred Scripture, the Church Fathers, Sacred Tradition, and the spirituality and writings of the saints. The council brought to the forefront in its teaching this richness of faith found in these sources that should always be at the heart of our journey of faith seeking understanding. At the same time but not opposed is the idea of returning to the sources of the faith is aggiornamento which means “opening up” and is a missionary openness to the modern culture and the world. Thus, strengthened and empowered by the truth of Christ, the Church is called to go out into the world and engage the culture in a dialogue of faith, brining the teachings of Christ into the world and shaping and influencing the modern culture. This vision of the Council Fathers is the foundation of the “new springtime of evangelization” in which the faith is to be renewed, enriched, and more faithfully lived through effective catechesis, evangelization, and works of charity.
4. The Universal Call to Holiness: This is the key to understanding Vatican II. The universal call to holiness is the main focus and motivation of the Council Fathers. All of us, no matter our calling or state in life, are called to be holy, to be like Christ, and to live forever in his presence and love. No person is exempt from this ultimate and high calling. As Lumen Gentium states: “Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society.” (40)
Thus, all that Vatican II taught and did, the reform of the liturgy, the teaching on the mission and identity of the Church, the focus on the enrichment of faith, all of that was to bring about more profoundly the holiness of the Church and each of its members. Vatican II was and is all about bringing each person into a deeper communion with Christ. This should also be the ultimate goal of anything we do in the Church! If we learn anything from Vatican II, it is that the goal of any activity, planning, catechesis, or work in the Church should be holiness! Let us not forget this call to holiness each and every day of our lives.