When Pope John XXIII announced the creation of the Second Vatican Council (also known as Vatican II) in January 1959, it shocked the world. There hadn’t been an ecumenical council – an assembly of Roman Catholic religious leaders meant to settle doctrinal issues – in nearly 100 years. In his first encyclical Ad Petri Cathedram, June 29, 1959, he stressed that the Council was meant primarily to promote the increasing of the faith, the renewal of traditions, and the updating of ecclesiastic discipline. Papal Infallibility was affirmed in 1870, and people thought with that there was no need for any more councils. So Vatican II came as a surprise to many.

The council called between 2,000 and 2,500 bishops and thousands of observers, auditors, sisters, laymen and laywomen to four sessions at St. Peter’s Basilica between 1962 and 1965.

Cultural changes in the aftermath of World War II spelled a need to reconsider church practices.

These meetings did just that  – 16 documents in total came out of it, laying a foundation for the church as we know it today

In Pope John XXIII’s opening statement, on October 11, 1962, he declared that the main aim of Vatican II was to keep and to teach in the most efficient form the sacred consignment of Christian doctrine.

“The Council wants to transmit pure and integral doctrine, without attenuation or distortions.”

This sure and immutable doctrine, faithfully respected, must be deepened and presented in a way that answers the needs of our time. The Pope distinguishes between the substance (entire, precise and immutable doctrine), ” fidele obsequium est praestandum,” and the form (the presentation), (quae cum magisteriom cuius indoles praesertim pastoralis est, magis congruat)”(12).

The pastorality of Vatican II consists in the studding and deepening the doctrine, expressing it in a way in which it can be better understood, accepted and loved.

Vatican II marked a shift in the perspective of the church.

With Vatican II, the liturgy was celebrated in the vernacular, and for the first time in History, Catholics were encouraged to foster friendly relations with non-Catholic Christians and even to pray with them. The Church entered into formal dialogues with other churches and revisited doctrines that had divided the churches for centuries.

With Vatican II, there was an attempt to shift from the siege mentality which Catholics had been harbouring since the crusades started in the 11th century, and as Pope John XXIII stressed in his opening address, the council was to distance itself from the suspicious attitude towards the world that had pervaded Catholic thinking – that everything modern was bad.

The Church was exhorted to use the medicine of mercy, rather than that of severity in dealing with everyone and should distance itself as far as possible from the language of condemnation.

Vatican II also hoped to changed the mindsets of Catholics who held on to the Middle Ages’ fantasy of an idealised Christianity, rather than engaging with the world as it is. Vatican II also saw for the first time in the history of the Church, the extraordinary phenomenon of the presence at the Council of a hundred odd representatives of the Protestant and Orthodox Churches, which has never happened before.

The Vatican II documents thus do not exist as discreet units, but have to be taken together, as a single, though complex, testament.

Lumen Gentium was the 3rd document that came from Vatican II following Sacrosanctum concilium, Constitution On the Sacred Liturgy 1963 and Inter Mirifica, Decree On the Means of Social Communication, 1963.

With the voyages of colonisation and discovery in the 15th and 16th century, came the shock of large populations and different cultures that had previously not been heard of in Christianity.

Christianity in part due to the influence of the Roman empire, was somehow seen as through the lens of a Western bias. The discoveries of other peoples impacted and challenged the claims of universality.

A rigourous programme of evangelisation followed, but these somehow took the turn as westernising mechanisms where every case entailed the simultaneous introduction of Western traditions (Not Catholic tradition, but in the culture sense) and values. The 19th and 20th centuries saw missionaries bearing “the white man’s burden” of bringing Western ways to their flocks.

Vatican II was instrumental in gently and firmly repudiating this nonsense of the White Man’s Burden.

This was affirmed with the words, “The Church cultivates and fosters the qualities and talents of different races and nations” and admits their customs ‘into the liturgy itself, provided they harmonise with its true and authentic spirit.’

Vatican II’s essence was also that of reconciliation and ecumenism. Catholics were bid to respect the beliefs of those not in communion with the Church and to foster the restoration of unity among them. This was a reversal of the mindset which set out to condemn all Christians who were not Catholics.

Lumen Gentium

Taking its name from first two Latin words, Lumen gentium – which means “light for the nations” – the constitution’s first assertion is about Christ. “Christ is the light for nations.”

1)As Christ is light for all the nations, so the Church is called to bring that light to all of mankind. How we bring Christ light to all, is to proclaim the Gospel to all.

2) Jesus, the light of the world (Jn 8:12), fulfils Israel’s vocation to be light for the nations (Is 42:6 and 49:6), as Simeon proclaimed (Lk 2:32). This highlights the unity of God’s plan of salvation, and the fulfilment of the plan in Christ.

3) The Church relates to Christ as John the Baptist to Jesus. John is not the light; his mission is to bear witness to the light (Jn 1:7-9). So too, the Church exists in order to bear witness to Christ. John defined himself in terms of Christ and thus the Church defines herself in terms of Christ.

By Brian Bartholomew Tan