Seasonal Reflection: Fifty Years Since Vatican II

HNP Communications Features

As Catholics around the world recognize this month the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council in Rome, a friar with an extensive theological background shares his personal thoughts on the impact of the gathering and the changes in the Church after the 1962 – 1965 event.

When the Second Vatican Council dramatically opened half a century ago, I was a high school junior at the Province’s seminary in Callicoon, N.Y. Like most American Catholics, I had no idea what this event would mean. Perhaps Cardinal Spellman’s pronouncement, as he was boarding the ship to sail for the Council, that nothing would be affected on this side of the Atlantic, was the view of most of us. That comment from a senior churchman turned out to be less than prescient.

Alterations and Adjustments
Changes did indeed come, and many of the changes that came to the small and insular seminary community on the Delaware River were mediated through dynamic young friars such as Regis Duffy, OFM, and Rene Ouellette. Of course the most visible changes were in the liturgy. I remember the beauty of the first concelebrated Eucharist. Everyone was slightly awkward and stumbling (poor Liguori Muller, OFM, was a wreck) but there was a majesty to it that was breathtaking. Regis introduced fantastic music. We sang the beautiful settings of the psalms and canticles by Gelineau and Deiss. We had the Peoples Mass book in our hands and belted out great hymns such as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” (by Martin Luther no less) and “Now Thank We All Our God.” Regis had also introduced the haunting hymnody of Clarence Rivers, redolent with African-American melodies.

Drawing the decree “Dei Verbum,” I remember Regis preaching about the fact that the heart of revelation is that God shares God’s very self with us — revelation is an invitation to shared life, communion, and companionship. These ideas were startling. And, of course, we began to give more attention to the Scriptures. There was a feeble attempt to do that in the classroom but the community began celebrating Bible Services, as they were then called. We had moved beyond proof texting. The Scriptures came alive, especially through the inspired preaching of the younger friars.  Fifty years later, I can still remember the powerful images that allowed us to hear the sacred texts as if for the first time.

Of course, the seminary routine did not change at all. I was the senior student and still had to beg for free nights from study hall. An unnamed prefect threatened to dismiss me, because I slipped down to watch “Batman” on TV. He called me contumacious, a word I like and still use. But what did change under the influence of the council was the intellectual environment. The vision of “Gaudium et Spes” began to take hold. The invitation to ecumenism, to dialogue and to engagement with the world enabled us to hold different kinds of books in our hands. There were of course periodicals such as Critic and Jubilee, which opened us up to a larger world. But it was the books! Many of you will remember these titles: “That Man is You,” Michel Quoist’s “Prayers,” anything by Teilhard de Chardin, Fromm’s “The Art of Loving,” Cox’s “The Secular City,” Michael Harrington’s “The Other America,” and William Lynch’s “Christ and Apollo.” The European masters became more available, works by Karl Adam and Romano Guardini. We read American Catholic writers like Thomas Merton (who never went out of style), Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy.

The Aftermath
It was a heady, exuberant time as the vision of the Council entered gently but insistently into our lives. It was an exciting time to be a Catholic, an exciting time to be preparing to be a Franciscan and a priest. Andrew Greeley’s book on young priests shaped by the Council was titled “The New Breed.” That was exactly how many of us understood ourselves.

Now, I am clearly a member of the “old breed.” My Medicare card testifies to that. I have no interest in revisiting the last 50 years nor do I want to evaluate what Congar would call “l’etat des choses” [the state of things] of the Church in 2012.

My prophetic skills mirror that of Spellman. But I feel the winter chill. I simply want to say that much of the initial irruption of the council 50 years ago continues to shape my life and convictions about life in the Church. 1) There is nothing more central to the life of faith than the liturgy beautifully and reverently celebrated, and that singable, well-chosen music is essential to the quality of that celebration. 2) A life without sustained and prayerful study of the Scriptures in unimaginable to me. 3) Reading widely in literature, history, philosophy, poetry, and of course, theology (both traditional and contemporary) is essential to any vital ministry. 4) And finally this. I agree with John O’Malley’s assessment that one of the great transformations of the council was that of ecclesial rhetoric. The absence of harshly juridical and judgment language is quite clear. The council fathers presented the complex and compelling mystery of Catholic Christianity in a language that spoke to both the head and the heart, that was gentle, respectful inviting, and persuasive. I hope and pray that it is a model which, even in my autumnal mystery, I will not relinquish.

— Fr. William, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., is associate pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh, N.C. A priest since 1973 who received his doctorate in theology from Vanderbilt University, he served as president of Siena College in Upstate New York from 1989 to 1996, and professor of religious studies from 1997 to 2001.Previous to his time at Siena, he taught at Regis University, the University of Montana, and the Washington Theological Union.

Editor’s note: The HNP Communications Office welcomes friars to submit reflections about holidays, feast days and other topics of a timely nature. Those interested in submitting a reflection for consideration for a future issue of HNP Today should contact communications director Jocelyn Thomas by email at