“What does Christmas mean to you?” This is a common question posed during the Advent season, and one that evokes in many of us fond memories and feelings of gratitude.This week, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council, similar feelings have pervaded me. Many thoughtful and inspiring reflections are being shared in Catholic circles, and in the spirit of Advent I would like to join my voice to the choir of those singing praise for the great religious event that was Vatican II.And so I ask myself, “what does Vatican II mean to me?”In a way I feel a bit like St. Paul, who was so totally convinced of the truth of the resurrection and the salvific work of Christ, having never met Jesus of Nazareth in the flesh. He must certainly have been an enigma to the Apostles who knew Jesus personally.I wasn’t at the Council. I was born in the 1980’s, some twenty years after it closed. I didn’t know anything significant about it until I was an adult. Yet, I’ve become convinced through faith, reason and a study of history that the Council was a truly inspired event.Some would call me naïve. I wasn’t around for the tumultuous 60’s and 70’s. I didn’t experience the rapid and jarring shifts in the Church, the memories of which—for better or for worse—still linger in the hearts and minds of Catholics of those generations.Undoubtedly, I arrived on the scene after things had settled down. I’ve only ever known the “Vatican II Church." So it would be easy, perhaps natural, for me to take it for granted. I find this is generally the case with Catholics of my generation.But in a way this allows us to look at the Council with fresh eyes; we don’t carry a lot of ecclesial baggage. And this, I think, can be helpful on this anniversary when the whole Church is remembering an integral part of its recent history.What does Vatican II mean to me? It means a lot and here’s why:Simply put, Vatican II re-articulated the Gospel and the role of the Church for the modern era. In its reflections and proclamations, it was able to capture the revolutionary spirit and missionary impulse that permeate the Gospels. Anyone who studies and prays the Gospels using the methods encouraged by the Church will clearly see the connection between them and the sixteen Council documents. The Spirit was so at work in this process that we now speak often of Vatican II as a “new Pentecost.” The Council challenged itself to do what it must always do: go back to the source and conform itself to the founder. The consequences of doing this are, like the founder himself, revolutionary.This leads to a related point about the Council that has struck me in a profound way. It’s difficult to articulate. By going back to the source, that is, by doing what the Church must always do, the Church, at Vatican II, did what it has always done. The nuance of this should not obscure the enormous historical fact that lies behind it.If we agree that Vatican II was revolutionary—for better or for worse—we have at least to conclude that this revolution is strangely common to our Tradition. When we look at the history of the Catholic Church we find over and over again in the Tradition this perpetually reincarnated revolution.It is a paradox. And when we comprehend it, we then notice a corresponding irony. We tend to think of revolution as being decidedly unfaithful to the Tradition. Revolution typically means revolt against the established order. And interestingly, Vatican II is sometimes categorized this way: as a revolution that went too far; a revolution that compromised too much; a revolution that was unfaithful in some ways to the Tradition; a revolution that was not entirely orthodox.But the truth is that Vatican II was a revolution precisely in its achievement of conforming the modern Church to Christ and the Tradition. Orthodoxy, properly understood, is the thousand little Vatican IIs that have happened over and over again throughout the Church’s history. The Council should be seen in this light: as a recent revolution in a long line of faithful revolutions going all the way back to Christ.That, in a nutshell, is what Vatican II means to me. And I am grateful for it. In a remarkable way it has brought me closer to Jesus and helped me understand why I’m a Catholic. The really wonderful thing about the Council is that it didn’t happen so long ago. Only 50 years later we are compelled to remember it, study it, and immerse ourselves in it so that we can faithfully discern where the Holy Spirit is leading the Church. The Council is a sure signpost.Thank you, Vatican II.
On Further Reflection
In the complex world of the 21st century there are more questions than answers. The challenge for the Church is to find new and effective ways of bringing the Gospel message into the conversation. For her part, the Church can act as a much needed voice for dialogue, reason and charity. On Further Reflection invites readers to go beyond the headlines to see the deeper realities affecting the church and society. Sebastian Gomes is a producer and host at Salt+Light TV.