A call to study Vatican II Print
Year of Faith
Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012 -- 12:00 AM

By Michelle Nilsson

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The Year of Faith was called for by our Holy Father to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.

In the years following Vatican II, the council’s purpose and the documents it promulgated were poorly understood, leading to a vast range of interpretation and division. It is important to note that the “spirit” of Vatican II that is often referenced is none other than the Holy Spirit who has maintained unity and guidance to the Church and our Sacred Tradition both before and after Vatican II.

It is only fitting that our current Holy Father has called for this year as a year to revisit the Council and her documents and, as a result, grow in faith and in unity with one another under the guidance of the Holy See.

What is Vatican II and why was it called?

The Second Vatican Council was called by Pope John XXIII shortly after he was elected and installed as the new pontiff in 1959. John XXIII took several years to prepare for the council, which began in October of 1962.

The Church has a rich history of gathering its teaching authority, the Magisterium (all of the bishops in communion with the Holy Father), for ecumenical councils. Vatican II was the 21st Ecumenical Council and was preceded by famous councils such as Nicea, Ephesus, and Trent. Traditionally an ecumenical council is called for by the Roman Pontiff to address heresy and to correct errors that may be surfacing amidst the Church.

But the situation was different surrounding the call for a council by John XXIII. Vatican II was intended to be a response to the changing world in which we were living. John XXIII was looking to the future, and with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, offering guidance to the Church on how to maintain the truths of Sacred Tradition in an ever-changing world.

In his opening speech to the council he states, “The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the Sacred Deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously. That doctrine embraces the whole of man, composed as he is of body and soul. And, since he is a pilgrim on this earth, it commands him to tend always toward heaven.”

He goes on to explain that the Church does not intend to neglect the “discoveries of human genius” or intend to prevent progress in the world, but humans must always “raise their eyes to God the source of all wisdom and all beauty.” Vatican II was meant to help man maintain the tradition of 20 centuries of the Church while preparing all people for the modern world.

The council consisted of a series of four sessions in which all the bishops, cardinals, and selected Periti (experts) were there as theological support. Also in attendance were representatives from many Protestant denominations and Eastern Orthodox Churches.

The first session was opened by John XXII on October 11 and lasted to December 8 of 1962. Preparations for the 1963 sessions were started by the Holy Father but were halted upon his untimely death in June of 1963. He was succeeded by Pope Paul VI, who announced that the council would continue. The second session lasted from September to December 1963, the third from September to November of 1964, and the fourth from September to December of 1965.

Each of those in attendance were assigned to specific commissions that were responsible for presenting a schema (draft document) of what would then become the 16 documents promulgated from the Second Vatican Council.

An opportunity to study

While addressing the Church at the opening of the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the importance of the faithful to read and study the documents of the council this year: “The documents of Vatican Council II are, even in our own time, a compass guiding the ship of the Church as she sails on the open seas, amidst tempests or peaceful waves, to reach her destination.”

The pope continued with a personal reflection on being at the council and urging the faithful: “I was able to witness the living Church . . . which places herself at the school of the Holy Spirit, the true driving force behind the council. Rarely in history has it been possible, as it was then, to touch almost physically the universality of the Church at a moment of peak fulfillment of her mission to carry the Gospel into all ages and unto the ends of the earth.”

In response to our Holy Father, opportunities to study more about Vatican II and its documents are being offered at various locations throughout the Diocese of Madison. The Office of Evangelization and Catechesis will be offering an Introduction to the Council as well as four sessions to study the constitutions promulgated at Vatican II.

See for more information and to register.

Michelle Nilsson is associate director of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis for the Diocese of Madison.