The following is an excerpt from
The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan
The Second Vatican Council
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The twenty-first ecumenical council of the Catholic Church was first announced by Pope John XXIII on January 25, 1959. He opened
the council on October 11, 1962, and closed the first session on December 8 of the same year. After Pope John's death in 1963, his successor,
Pope Paul VI, reconvened the council, which had three more sessions in the fall of each succeeding year. The closing session ended on
December 8, 1965. A combined total of 2,865 bishops and prelates attended the council, which issued sixteen formal documents as follows:
- Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) sought to adapt more closely to the needs of our age those
institutions which are subject to change, to foster Christian reunion, and to strengthen the Church's evangelization.
- Decree on the Media (Inter Mirifica) defined the modern means of communication as those which can reach not only single individuals
but even the whole of human society. It declared that the content of the media must be true, and - within the limits of justice and charity - complete.
- Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) explained the Church's nature as a sign and instrument of communion with
God and of unity among men. It also clarified the Church's mission as the universal sacrament of salvation.
- Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum) encouraged Eastern Catholics to remain faithful to their
ancient traditions, reassured them that their distinctive privileges would be respected, and urged closer ties with the separated Eastern
churches, with a view to fostering Christian unity.
- Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratia) made a careful distinction between spiritual ecumenism, mainly prayer and the
practice of virtue, and practical ecumenism, which actively fosters Christian reunion.
- Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops (Christus Dominus) urged bishops to cooperate with one another and with the Bishop
of Rome and to decide on effective means for using the modern means of communication.
- Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis) set down norms for spiritual renewal and prudent adaptation, legislating
community life under superiors, corporate prayer, poverty of sharing, distinctive religious habit, and continued spiritual and doctrinal education.
- Decree on the Training of Priests (Optatam Totius) centered on fostering vocations, giving more attention to spiritual formation,
preparing for pastoral work and developing priests with a filial attachment to the Vicar of Christ, and loyal cooperation with their bishops and fellow priests.
- Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum Educationis) told all Christians that they have a right to a Christian education,
reminded parents they have the primary right and duty to teach their children, and warned believers of the dangers of state monopoly in education.
- Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) urged Catholics to enter, with prudence
and charity, into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions.
- Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) distinguished Sacred Scripture from Sacred Tradition, declared that
the Bible must be interpreted under the Church's guidance, and explained how development of doctrine is the Church's ever-deeper understanding
of what God has once and for all revealed to the human race.
- Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem) is a practical expression of the Church's mission, to which the
laity are specially called in virtue of their Baptism and incorporation into Christ. It recognizes that the laity have the right to establish and
direct their own associations, on the condition that they preserve the necessary link with ecclesiastical authority.
- Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) affirms each person's liberty to believe in God and worship Him according to
one's conscience and reaffirms the Catholic Church's revealed freedom for herself and before every public authority.
- Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes Divinitus) defines evangelization as the implanting of the Church among
peoples in which she has not yet taken root. It urges even the young churches to engage in evangelization as soon as possible and stresses
the importance of adequate training of missionaries and their sanctity of life.
- Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis) defines priests as men who are ordained to offer the Eucharistic
Sacrifice, forgive sins in Christ's name, and exercise the priestly office on behalf of others in the name of Christ. Priestly celibacy is reaffirmed,
and priestly sanctity declared to be essential.
- Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) identifies atheism as one of the most serious problems
of our times, gives the most extensive treatment of marriage and the family in conciliar history, and declares the Church's strong position on
war and peace in the nuclear age.
The best English translation of the documents of the Second Vatican Council is the one edited by Austin Flannery, O.P. In his introductory preface,
Cardinal John Wright stated, "It is the collection of Council documents and their authentic interpretation that is indispensable for the serious student."
Printed with permission of
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C.R. Inter Mirifica