|(Photo courtesy of Catholic News Service)|
The Second Vatican Council issued 16 documents but Pope John Paul II suggested that the key for understanding the four-year event might be the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations).
Approved in 1964, the document considers the Church as both a mystery, with elements hidden from the human eye, and an institution, with a visible structure. It sets forth an understanding of the Church that has profoundly shaped beliefs and practices for the past 50 years. Here are five significant developments from the document.
(1) Universal call to holiness. The council said that the purpose of the Church, and of all human life, is holiness. This is the fundamental call of all Christians, and it will be lived out in various ways, depending on one’s state in life and personal gifts. This emphasis on the call to holiness prompted a spiritual re-awakening among the laity. Many renewal movements blossomed in the wake of the Council. Lay Catholics began to study the Bible, explore various forms of prayer, and seek spiritual guidance. As the U.S. bishops observed, “The laity’s hunger for God’s word is everywhere evident” (Called and Gifted, 1980).
(2) The Church as the People of God. The Council emphasized that we are saved not just as individuals but as a community – the People of God. As a result, we have seen a renewed understanding of the family as “domestic church,” the primary community in which the faith is nurtured. Moreover, within many parishes small faith communities have formed, along with support groups and a deliberate focus on welcoming a diversity of cultures and generations.
(3) The role of the bishops. While the First Vatican Council (1869-70) emphasized the papacy, the Second Vatican Council emphasized the dignity and authority of the bishops. The word “collegial” expressed the Council’s understanding of the role of the college of bishops in leading the Church. It declared that the bishops, always in union with the Pope, “have supreme and full authority over the universal Church” (#22). Collegiality has had practical implications for church governance. For example, it has led to the establishment of the Synod of Bishops, through which the Pope periodically consults with representatives of the world’s bishops. The most recent synod, on the topic of the New Evangelization, was convened in October 2012.
(4) The permanent diaconate. Two paragraphs in LG have had a huge impact, especially in the U.S. They authorize the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry. That is, mature married men can be ordained as deacons to assist bishops and priests in their pastoral ministry, including preaching and officiating at baptisms, weddings and funerals. Many U.S. dioceses have taken full advantage of this opportunity. The U.S. leads the world in the number of permanent deacons; nearly 15,000 serve in active ministry, and over 90 percent of them are married.