Related: Catholic issues, Religion, Social Justice Issues

Vatican II and the Modern World


I admit I’m old enough to have memories stir at the whisper of, “Et introibo ad altare Dei…”  Those words were the opening of the old Latin Mass, “And I will go to the altar of God.”  I remember the priest saying mysterious words with his back to the people.  I remember feeling very, very jealous of the altar boys with their crisp red cassocks and white surplices who knew all of the Latin words — confiteor, kyrie, Pater Noster, suscipe.  (Later, much later, my brothers admitted they mostly mumbled what they did not memorize and the old monsignor in our parish was too deaf to hear them anyway.)

More important, I remember the great change — the day that the priest turned around and greeted the congregation in English, and we could all give the responses together in language we understood.    Vatican II was upon us!  With the change from the distant Latin Mass to the accessible Mass “in the vernacular” we no longer felt such a great distance between the priest and the people.  We understood so much more about what was going on in the liturgy.  The nuns at St. Margaret’s Parish School seemed so very happy as they drilled us in how to answer the priest in unison.

And some people (ok, Dad, but he wasn’t alone!) warned that this was the beginning of the loss of our faith.

Ironically — or not? — in the same week that the Catholic Church observed the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), a report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life entitled “Nones” on the Rise revealed that 20% of Americans now say they have no religion.

In the long view of a half century now, was Dad right?  Did they “…open the window and throw out the faith?”

Bishops from all over the world gathered in Rome last week in a special meeting called a Synod. Already underway for over a week, the bishops have wrangled with many topics, but perhaps none so urgent as questions about the rise of secularism, declining numbers of Catholics and assaults on religious liberty and religious people around the world.

Washington’s own Cardinal Donald Wuerl gave an opening address to the Synod in which he warned of the “tsunami of secularism” engulfing religious belief.

This may be the first Synod to have its own rather robust YouTube channel.  YouTube also figured prominently in the Synod when a bishop from Ghana showed a 7 minute video clip on the rise of Islam around the world.  Needless to say, the very use of a video caused a stir, but the particular topic — alarmist and questionable data about Muslim populations apparently intended to stir-up Christian concern — also provoked irritation among some participants who thought it inappropriate.  I think the episode mostly tells us that the Church must live in the modern world, like it or not!  The medium is the message…

Controversy abounds about the legacy of Vatican II and the direction of the Church today.  Some people believe that the promise of Vatican II has dissipated in a long period of increasing conservatism in the Church.  Others believe that the Church is only regaining its bearings after what they view as the utterly destabilizing effects of the Vatican Council.  Vatican II was as much a social phenomenon for Catholics as it was a religious event, and as with most revolutions, the dialectic inevitably moved against the radical changes of the moment.

This month’s Synod is unlikely to resolve these long-term issues about the legacy of Vatican II; nor will it settle more immediate issues around the role of women and the laity.  Some bishops have dared to speak of the need for a more urgent and effective response to the sex abuse crisis.

What seems most important, from all that I’ve read about the Synod thus far, is that the bishops are having earnest and important conversations on these and other topics of concern, and the diversity of viewpoints being expressed does send a signal that the Church’s leadership is aware of and engaged with the most difficult topics for Catholics today.

I’ll have more on the topic of the Synod and Vatican II later this week….  please add your comments by clicking the link below or send me an email at

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
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