In October 2012 the Church will observe the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Like every anniversary, it is a time to look back and to look ahead. There will be many articles and talks on the history of the council and its true meaning.
As well there should. Among those who took a leading part in the council was a young bishop named Karol Wojtyla, later known to the world as Pope John Paul II. He called the Second Vatican Council "a unique and unrepeatable experience." The future pope also referred to the council as "the seminary of the Holy Spirit" and added that it is "historically a thing of the past, but spiritually still in being." In other words, this historic gathering of bishops from all over world was not just a gigantic strategic planning meeting for the future of the church. Rather this gathering of the world's bishops in union with the Holy Father was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and in the power of the Holy Spirit continues to shape the life of the Catholic Church going forward.
All too often, the importance of the council was reduced to one little phrase, "the changes." The council was seen as the engine that drove the changes Catholics experienced beginning in the mid- to late-1960's. And the change that everyone noticed is that Holy Mass was no longer regularly celebrated in the Latin language but rather in one's native tongue. Mass also began to be celebrated "facing the people." Catholics were also told that, thanks to the council, the church would now be more open to the world — to the spirit of the times. We also associated the council with less formality in the church. Priests were to be regular guys. Sisters donned lay clothes. And family life also began to change — and often to change drastically. Strict doctrine was replaced by a variety of theological opinions.
To be sure, the Second Vatican Council did open the door to various practical changes in the life of the Catholic Church and did call upon its members to engage the world more robustly. But sometimes that was taken to mean that the Second Vatican Council constituted a complete break with the past. It was as though the church had reinvented itself circa 1965. Everything prior to that was deemed by some to be old and outdated. Everything going forward was new and fresh and of the Holy Spirit. In fact, a phrase was coined to express this point of view, namely, "the spirit of the council." We were sometimes told not to pay too much attention to what the documents of the Second Vatican Council actually said but rather to be more attentive to its spirit.
Actually, there is a better way for us to appreciate the council. Pope Benedict XVI calls it a "hermeneutic of continuity" — not exactly a household phrase. What he means is that the best way to delve into the authentic meaning of the council is to see its connections with Christ, the Scriptures and the whole of the Catholic Church's tradition. The Second Vatican Council doesn't represent a break with the past but rather an organic development flowing from all that the Church has believed and taught through the centuries. You can see this clearly if you stop to consider how many times the Second Vatican Council refers to the councils that preceded it, to the teachings of popes, doctors of the church, ancient liturgical texts, and masters of the spiritual life. In their wisdom, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council understood that the best way to respond to the modern world was not to give up the church's heritage but rather to understand and treasure it more deeply. We are best equipped "to read the signs of the times" — to discern "the joys and hopes, the grief and anxieties" of our age by opening ourselves to the fullness of the church's tradition, especially our adherence to the Person of Christ from whom flows what we believe, how we worship, how we live our lives, and how we pray.
For some 2,000 years the church has been journeying through history and, obedient to the mandate of Christ, has proclaimed the Gospel in every epoch, culture, language and place. To be sure the church has grown and her teaching, worship and discipline has developed — but organically. What is new is integrally connected to what went before. We don't get to make up the church's teaching and worship out of whole cloth with each passing generation.
This has nothing to do with one's being "liberal" or "conservative." In fact, those terms, which are borrowed from politics, have done a lot of damage to the church's unity. St. Paul reminds us there is "one Lord, one faith, one baptism." The Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church — a statement of the Catholic Church's faith and of Catholic doctrine — has set forth the teaching of the church in a way that is complete, reliable, life-giving and beautiful. May each of us open our hearts to Christ and to all He teaches us in and through our beloved church.
Archbishop William E. Lori is head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this article originally appeared in the Catholic Review.