Witnessing Second Vatican Council’s impact

Cardinal Rigali, who was part of historic assembly, calls documents ‘more important than ever’

PLACE IN HISTORY Cardinal Justin Rigali points to the section in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome where he served bishops attending the Second Vatican Council. Cardinal Rigali was a 27-year-old priest assistant and participated every day in the first two years of the council. As a student of Vatican II, he has authored a book on the subject titled Reliving Vatican II: It’s All About Jesus Christ. Photo by Dan McWilliams

In October 1962, as the Cuban missile crisis gripped the world and civil rights icon James Meredith registered for classes at Ole Miss under federal marshal escort, Pope John XXIII convened the first ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church in nearly 100 years.

In the 50 years since the Second Vatican Council opened, the Catholic Church has been guided by documents forged during the momentous event while theologians continue to debate its effect on the Church.

But Vatican II isn’t a distant memory for Cardinal Justin Rigali, and there is no debate by him about its legacy. The historic assembly that began a half century ago this month comes alive every day on the walls of his office at the Knoxville Chancery and as he carries out his daily devotion in performing Christ’s mission.

Cardinal Rigali, former archbishop of St. Louis and Philadelphia who is in residence in Knoxville, had a backstage pass to the last ecumenical council, serving as a young priest assistant to the bishops who created the 16 documents defining Vatican II. And the historic images hanging in his workspace are windows into history, offering glimpses of the Church at work at its highest level.

The significance wasn’t lost on the then 27-year-old Los Angeles priest who considers it a privilege to have played a “minor” role in the Second Vatican Council, the 21st such ecumenical council held by the Church in its history.

It was an experience that has shaped his career spanning more than 50 years as a priest, bishop, archbishop and cardinal who has worked closely with Popes Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II. He participated in the election of Pope Benedict XVI as a member of the College of Cardinals and continues to work in the Vatican.

“Yes, it was a privilege to play a minor role in Vatican II. But it was an immense personal enrichment that brings with it everlasting memories and also a sense of having heard what went on and having seen how seriously the bishops worked under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,” said Cardinal Rigali, who, with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ blessing, responded to a call for young priests to assist the bishops attending the council in Rome.


It’s all about Jesus Christ

Cardinal Rigali vividly recalls 2,500 bishops from around the world filing into St. Peter’s Basilica in procession on Oct. 11, 1962, closely followed by Pope John XXIII, to open the council, which concluded Dec. 8, 1965. Cardinal Rigali processed into St. Peter’s Basilica behind the pope.

As the young Father Rigali settled into his assignment, he began working closely with the bishops and cardinals in attendance, a list that reads like a Who’s Who among Catholic leaders.

A young priest named Joseph Ratzinger served as a theological consultant and would later become Pope Benedict XVI. An archbishop, Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, took part prior to becoming Pope John Paul II, as did the future Pope Paul VI, Milan Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini. And Bishop Albino Luciani, the future Pope John Paul I, also was in attendance. They were joined by such luminaries of the day as Bishop Fulton Sheen and Cardinal Francis Spellman.

Cardinal Rigali still quotes John XXIII in the pope’s opening remarks to the Second Vatican Council, “The principal aim of the Vatican Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be more effectively guarded and taught.”

“In other words, Vatican II was there with the teaching of the bishops and the pope to emphasize once again everything that we believe,” Cardinal Rigali said. “There was a question of bringing forward all the teaching of the Church in its entirety, in its fullness, in its beauty, so that the Church would enter into a stage of reflection on its teaching as it’s been passed down to us from the time of the apostles.

“Then Pope John XXIII ended his speech by saying, ‘To Jesus Christ, our most loving redeemer, immortal king of peoples and of times, be love, power, and glory forever and ever.’”

According to Cardinal Rigali, Pope John XXIII, in convening the council, was trying to present to the entire Church the person of Jesus Christ and his teaching, which has been preserved for the people since the very beginning.

“And this was to be the beginning of a new era in the Church in which we would renew our fidelity to Jesus Christ and to his teaching in every sphere of our lives,” Cardinal Rigali said.

Reflections on the purpose of Vatican II and the documents that arose from it prompted Cardinal Rigali to write the 2006 book Reliving Vatican II — It’s All About Jesus Christ. The book’s 16 chapters correspond to the 16 documents of Vatican II.

The documents and year when they were completed are:

  • Sacrosanctum Concilium, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 1963.
  • Inter Mirifica, Decree On the Means of Social Communication, 1963.
  • Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution On the Church, 1964.
  • Orientalium Ecclesiarum, Decree On the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite, 1964.
  • Unitatis Redintegratio, Decree on Ecumenism, 1964.
  • Christus Dominus, Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops In the Church, 1965.
  • Perfectae Caritatis, Decree On Renewal of Religious Life, 1965.
  • Optatam Totius, Decree On Priestly Training, 1965.
  • Gravissimum Educationis, Declaration On Christian Education, 1965.
  • Nostra Aetate, Declaration On the Relation Of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, 1965.
  • Dei Verbum, Dogmatic Constitution On Divine Revelation, 1965.
  • Apostolicam Actuositatem, Decree On the Apostolate of the Laity, 1965.
  • Dignitatis Humanae, Declaration On Religious Freedom, 1965.
  • Ad Gentes, Decree On the Mission Activity of the Church, 1965.
  • Presbyterorum Ordinis, Decree On the Ministry and Life of Priests, 1965.
  • Gaudium et Spes, Pastoral Constitution On the Church in the Modern World, 1965.


Meeting the world

Amid renewed interest in the Second Vatican Council with the anniversary, the cardinal said it is important to know what Vatican II is — and what it is not, noting that the ecumenical council was not for the presentation of new teaching.

The council was a new effort to present existing doctrine.

“It’s Jesus Christ yesterday, today, and forever, and we were going to try to present him more effectively. … There is so much that is new and challenging in the world, so we have to come to meet the world, bringing something that is relevant, and what is relevant is the teaching of Jesus Christ as applied in so many different ways,” Cardinal Rigali said.

At the time, European countries healing from the scars of World War II were in the crosshairs of the Cold War, and the United States, with its only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, was squaring off with the Soviet Union in the arms and space races. The turbulent ’60s had only just begun.

So, at a time of global unrest, Pope John XXIII convened an uncommon council to re-emphasize Christ’s teaching and the ways he has revealed himself.

Cardinal Rigali believes the most important development from Vatican II was the document on the Church because it delved into the nature of the Church as the people of God, the mystical body of Christ, the bride of Christ. It also treated the Blessed Mother as the mother of the Church and addressed the men and women religious of the Church, the laity, as well as the clergy.

“It is the greatest of these, because it is so important, it is so central in that none of this makes sense unless we understand the Church. It is the Church, the dogmatic constitution of the Church, that is so important,” Cardinal Rigali said.

Other documents dealt with revelation, liturgy, the Church in the modern world, communications, ecumenism, the eastern churches, missions, Christian education, the relationship with non-Christians, and religious freedom.

The cardinal attended each session of Vatican II for two of the four years the council met before accepting another assignment in the Vatican. Having spent much of his priesthood studying Vatican II, the cardinal wants Catholics to understand that Christ’s teaching was not altered by the council, just re-emphasized, although important changes did take place in liturgical discipline, or the way Mass could be celebrated.

He said the bishops and the pope agreed the time had come to take the risk of making the liturgy available to people around the world in their own languages. So, in U.S. parishes, for example, churches began celebrating Mass in English.

“We had had Latin, it was one language and we were able to control it. However, the fathers of the council thought the time had come when more people could participate and understand the word of God better when proclaimed in their own language rather than having to read it out of a book,” Cardinal Rigali said. “That’s just one example. It really wasn’t Vatican II that did all that. Vatican II just opened the door.”

He cited as another example the move to use permanent deacons.

“We sometimes talk about Vatican II making permanent deacons. It didn’t. Vatican II didn’t make any permanent deacons. Vatican II suggested that there be permanent deacons and they had a long discussion of the pros and cons of it. I was present and that was it, they suggested it. But it took the pope to work out all the details,” the cardinal noted.

Another change attributed to Vatican II that was a modification in liturgical discipline was the shift from priests facing the altar during Mass to facing the people. Vatican II also prompted active participation of more people during Mass and led to a three-year cycle of scriptural readings instead of a one-year cycle, which means a greater percentage of the word of God is presented to the people.

Cardinal Rigali explained that bishops at the Second Vatican Council worked in concert with Pope Paul VI in approving the 16 documents. The content was discussed and debated, but there was never formal opposition or vetoes of key items.

It was an immense amount of work, the cardinal remembers, with many people helping to prepare drafts of each document for the bishops to vote on. As head of the council, the pope had to approve all the documents for them to take effect.

Cardinal Rigali said there were very few times when the pope would intervene personally, but he recalls one instance when a text was going to be presented to the council and the pope accompanied the text with an explanation of the precise way in which it was to be understood.

“That was quite extraordinary,” he noted.


Vatican II continued

He said the implementation of ideas from Vatican II has taken much time and effort over the years and still is occurring.

With the world changing dramatically at the time, having suffered through two world wars and the Holocaust and facing more uncertainty, the cardinal still remembers a cry around the world for human dignity, peace and justice.

“Pope John wanted to offer the world something, so the best thing he could offer the world was the truth of the faith, the teaching of Jesus Christ, because this is the blueprint for finding solutions. The charity of Christ; his justice,” Cardinal Rigali said.

“Later on, Pope Paul VI would say, ‘If you want peace, work for justice. And if you want justice, defend life.’ So all of this is connected. You can’t have peace without justice. You can’t have justice by killing people. Work for life. If you want life, embrace truth because there are wrong ideas in every age that have to be counteracted by the truth of God. So, that is where the Second Vatican Council came in,” the cardinal added.

Almost as important as what Vatican II did reaffirm about Christ’s teaching is what the documents didn’t mean, according to his Eminence.

As a witness to Vatican II, he finds himself in a unique position to accurately portray what occurred during those four important council sessions over 41 months.

He continues to be concerned that the 16 documents be presented in the vein they were intended and be immune from some who take issue with Vatican II or attempt to rewrite history. He said many comments about the council and its work through the years have been without foundation.

“St. Peter himself, in one of his letters, said we must not use our freedom as a cloak for malice. Some people have even construed Vatican II as justifying all kinds of false liberties and making things that are sinful into ‘Oh, we don’t have to worry about those things anymore.’

“Vatican II was concerned with—you have to go back to the sentence—the ‘sacred deposit of Christian doctrine’…to more effectively guard it. You have to guard it. You have to make sure it’s not changed; make sure we don’t tinker with it. It’s not enough to just guard it. It must be more effectively guarded and taught or presented,” he said.

Cardinal Rigali believes it is important for the Church, when talking to people younger to older, to adjust what is taught but not change it.

He takes issue with some people who weren’t at the council and have not read the documents but interpret “the spirit” of the council as being able to do anything you want.

“It’s absurd. Vatican II was, as I say in the book, all about Jesus Christ and what he taught. It’s not about trying to liberate us from the cross or abolishing the commandments of God. It has nothing to do with that,” he said.

Complicating efforts to put the work of Vatican II into practice throughout the Church were societal changes ushered in with the 1960s, such as the sexual revolution, protests against the establishment and violence. It was a difficult era that threatened to overshadow the Second Vatican Council’s work.

“We have to admit that in the years following the Second Vatican Council, whether it be in the Church or outside of the Church, even though we had this great and beautiful treasure of all the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which people made a great deal of effort to apply, to understand, to study, there were also misunderstandings and some of them were obviously deliberate. And while there were good signs of the times during all this period, there were also other signs of the times that were anything but encouraging.

“We had the sexual revolution. We had all the craziness of 1968 and this tremendous impact on culture and humanity throughout the world. In the midst of all of this, there were people who were looking for self-justification. A number of people turned to the Second Vatican Council and would start interpreting it without reading it, so it became ‘the spirit of Vatican II.’ And someone told them, or they made it up, that the spirit of Vatican II is do what you want. No, that wasn’t it. It was a new call on the part of Christ to conversion of life, to fidelity to the Gospel, all of these things that were a part of Christianity from the very beginning,” said Cardinal Rigali, who also noted that the vast majority of the Catholic Church’s members have tried to faithfully follow the true meaning of the Second Vatican Council.

Still relevant

Fifty years later, the Vatican council documents are still as relevant today as when they were approved, Cardinal Rigali said, because the documents are about Jesus Christ, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

He noted that “tremendous energy” behind the implementation and explanation of the documents has been generated, led by Popes Paul VI, who succeeded John XXIII during the council, then John Paul I, John Paul II and continuing with Benedict XVI.

As an example of Vatican II’s relevancy, Cardinal Rigali pointed to the document on religious freedom and its timeliness to current issues—both for individual religious freedom and for the larger community.

“Are the documents still relevant? The answer is yes, more than ever, because the truth of the Gospel, Christian doctrine, the teaching of the Church, is the source of life and it’s the source of happiness,” the cardinal said, adding that there still are lessons to be learned from the Second Vatican Council.

And will there be a Vatican III?

Cardinal Rigali isn’t so sure. Dynamic growth of the Church around the world over the past 50 years has made the logistics of holding such an ecumenical council much more complex, he said, adding that smaller groups of bishops now meet at the Vatican in synods to carry out the Church’s work. Also, greatly improved communications reduces the need for the world’s bishops to gather at one place at one time.

“You just don’t have a council to get together and write 16 documents and then just say well, it’s been a while now and we have to have another council to write more. No, the council takes time to apply. And that’s what we’re still in the process of doing,” he said.

“The Second Vatican Council came about a hundred years after the First Vatican Council. The First Vatican Council came about more than 300 years after the Council of Trent. So, the people who think that it is perhaps time for a new council must remember that there’s still a lot of work to do in order to bring all the teaching of Vatican II into our lives.”

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