The New Era: Vatican II
The most drastic changes that the Church had recently experienced and that finally modernized it took place thanks to Pope John XXIII, who was elected in 1958. John ushered in a new era of tolerance, openness, and dialogue in the Church by convening a general council that ran for four sessions, from 1962 to 1965. This council is known as Vatican II.
By the time Vatican II concluded, 2,500 Church leaders had engaged in vigorous debate during the four 3-month sessions. As a result, the council issued sixteen documents that would introduce sweeping changes; their repercussions are felt to this day. At last, the Church was moving into the modern world.
John XXIII set the tone of the council by expressing optimism and belief that all members of the Church, particularly the bishops, could open up dialogue within the Church, with other Christian faiths, and with nonreligious groups everywhere. The goal of all this dialogue was to find areas of common ground and to tackle common problems.
John XXIII asked the bishops from all over the world to set the agenda for the council and to have a share of influence as great as or greater than the Curia in determining issues and exploring directions. At this council, for once, the liberals prevailed. Even though Pope John XXIII died before the council was finished, his successor, Paul VI, carried on in the same spirit.
Here are some of the primary changes that the Vatican II Council made possible:
Liturgy is now conducted in the vernacular language of each church's parishioners and not in Latin, so that the service is accessible to all laypersons who are given the opportunity to fully participate.
For centuries, the writings of the Church focused on who had what power over whom. The Church emphasized the importance of hierarchy: pope over bishops, bishops over clergy, clergy over the laity. Since Vatican II, the power lies in the common priesthood of the faithful, and the clergy's role is defined as service to the community of the Church.
The Church also changed its outlook toward other Christian denominations. It is no longer the Church's goal to try to convert Protestants back to Catholicism. Instead, the Church recognized the status of all Protestant communities, apologized for contributing to Christian disunity and the mistakes made during the Counter-Reformation, and urged all Christian communities to work together to solve social problems.
Writings that were once accepted as divine revelation to an individual and that were rigidly adhered to received new interpretations. The Church accepted that written works are always influenced by historical context and may not have as much relevance for succeeding generations.
Rather than expressing skepticism, or even condemnation, of new forms of government or new social movements, the Church is now more open to accepting and embracing them. Its new position is one of service to humanity, and it has become committed to working with all groups for human rights and dignity.