Background to Vatican II



Upon his election as Pope in 1958, Pope John XXIII astonished many when he issued a call for an Ecumenical Council in January 1959. In his papal role, he sensed a divine calling to lead the Church and confront the complexities and possibilities of the contemporary world. His approach involved actively engaging with the people of his era, aiming to alleviate their hardships and draw them nearer to God.

Vatican II, officially the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, convened under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, stands as a pivotal moment in Roman Catholic Church history. This landmark event, held from 1962 to 1965, brought about substantial reforms and alterations to the Church’s doctrines and rituals. Vatican II aimed to: 

  1. address the Church’s relationship with the modern world – embrace everyone with understanding and love, sharing the Good News that Jesus, the Son of God, came not to condemn but to bring the message of salvation to the world.
  2. and to promote greater unity among Christians.

Prior to the formal commencement of the council, preparatory commissions, comprising Bishops and theologians, were formed to collect insights on diverse subjects, including divine revelation, liturgy, the role of the laity, ecumenism, and the Church’s interaction with the contemporary world.

With over two thousand Bishops present, the Second Vatican Council officially opened on October 11, 1962. In his opening address, Pope John XXIII underlined the importance of openness and dialogue, advocating for the use of the remedy of mercy over the tools of severity within the Church.

Sadly, following the close of the first session of the Council, Pope John XXIII fell seriously ill and, on June 3, 1963, he passed away. He was succeeded by Pope Paul VI, who carried on the Council’s work. Under his guidance, the remaining three sessions of the Council were successfully concluded.

The Second Vatican Council produced four major documents:

  1. The Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum (Divine Revelation) on the importance of Scripture in the life of the Church.
  2. The Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium (on Sacred Liturgy), which addressed liturgical reforms, encouraging the use of vernacular languages in the Mass.
  3. The Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium (on the Church) wherein the nature of the Church was redefined, emphasizing the role of the laity and the Church’s mission to the world.
  4. The Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes (on the Church in the Modern World) wherein the Church’s relationship with the contemporary world was addressed.

Vatican II also marked a significant shift in the Church’s approach to ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. It encouraged dialogue with other Christian denominations and recognized the positive elements present in non-Christian religions.

The council concluded on December 8, 1965, after several sessions. The impact of Vatican II was profound, leading to changes in liturgy, theology, and the Church’s engagement with the world. It promoted a more inclusive and open stance, encouraging dialogue and collaboration.