Torrential rains trailed off by nine o’clock, and the morning sun blazed down on 2,500 white-clad Roman Catholic bishops as they wound through St. Peter’s Square for the historic opening of the Second Vatican Council. It was October 11, 1962. Pope John XXIII, who convened the council, had been elected pope at age 77, and few had expected a dramatic tenure. Instead, he had surprised everyone in calling this council, attributing the idea to a sudden inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

As the bishops found their places in the basilica, the old man slowly rose to speak. He reminded his audience that the church now lives in a modern age. Though the “deposit of faith” is unchanging, how it is presented is another matter. Forms, methods, and attitudes must be updated.

For the next three years, the bishops thought and debated and agonized and prayed. Lines were drawn between Conservatives and Progressives. Pope John died on June 3, 1963; but Paul VI, his successor, carried on. In the end, 16 documents were overwhelmingly adopted. Catholic liturgy was simplified, with permission given to celebrate the rites of the church in the languages of the peoples rather than in Latin. More Scripture was to be used, with greater participation by worshipers. Biblical exposition and congregational singing were encouraged. A new emphasis on freedom became an overarching theme of the council.

Equally important, the attitude of Catholics toward other Christian bodies shifted. In calling Vatican II, Pope John had dreamed of dialogue and fellowship with the “separated brethren” of East and West, of a new unity in Christendom. November 21, 1964 was the solemn close of the third session, and three documents were approved on that day including the Decree of Ecumenism, adopted by the council by a vote of 2,137 to 11. It declared that both Catholics and Protestants share blame for divisions in the church, and it extolled the growth of the ecumenical movement. Dialogue with other Christian groups should replace suspicion and competition, said the decree.

While no basic doctrines were revised at Vatican II, the changes made in attitudes and approaches changed the Catholic Church forever.

But a time is coming, and it is already here! Even now the true worshipers are being led by the Spirit to worship the Father according to the truth. These are the ones the Father is seeking to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship God must be led by the Spirit to worship him according to the truth. (John 4:23,24)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Nov. 21.

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