Vatican II


The Second Vatican Council was the most significant ecclesial event of the 20th Century. This topic introduces the Council, its background, personalities and teaching and looks at its impact on Catholic life.

Understanding the Context

Vatican II is the common title given to the Second Vatican Council, which was an ecumenical council of the Catholic church held in Rome in the 1960s. The Holy Spirit Interactive site also contains a useful introduction to Vatican II. Despite an obviously verbatim translation, this short article on the Vatican web site evokes the origins, aims and spirit of the Council.

This short article discusses the historical context of Vatican II in relation to previous Councils, especially the Council of Trent in the 16th century and Vatican I in the late 19th century. Another section of this site discusses the need for Vatican II and draws attention to its overarching themes. This is an excellent English site which explores many aspects of Vatican II much from the point of view of Dom Christopher Butler OSB at the Council.

Two important concepts of the Council are mentioned in the article aggiornomento. These expressions convey two strong complementary emphases of the Council, which was not called to correct any heresy nor to establish more firmly any particular religious truth, but from:

  • a desire to create a new and positive relationship with whatever was good in the modern world and in modern thought
  • a desire to purify and simplify the life of the church by turning again to the sources of its life and faith: scripture, liturgy and its foundational theology.


Use the sites suggested in the preceding paragraphs to respond to the following Vatican II Quick Quiz:

  • ‘Ecumenical’ is a word meaning:
    1. world wide
    2. bringing about Christian unity
    3. Inhabited
    4. a council of the Pope and all the bishops
    5. All the above
  • How many Councils have there been in the Catholic Church’s 2000 year history?
    1. 121              2.          51          3.           21         4.         101
  • What was the name of the first Council of the Church (after New Testament times)?
    1. The Council of Constantinople
    2. The Council of Ephesus
    3. The Council of Nicaea
    4. The Council of Trent
  • The Second Vatican Council was called by:
    1. Pope Paul VI
    2. Pope John Paul II
    3. Pope John XXIII
    4. Pope Pius XII
  • The Second Vatican Council was held in Rome in:
    1. 1970–71
    2. 1870
    3. 1962–65
    4. 1959–60
  • Vatican II was attended by:
    1. Approximately 2500 bishops
    2. Approximately 500 bishops
    3. Approximately 3000 bishops
    4. Approximately 900 bishops
  • Vatican II was called to:
    1. Correct heretical ideas
    2. Clarify church doctrine
    3. Express the faith of the church in contemporary ways
    4. Reinforce church identity
  • Interview some older people about their lives as Catholics prior to Vatican II.
  • Interview som people who remember Vatican II and the Church prior to it. This may be done as an individual research task, or one or two people might be invited along to speak with the class as a whole. In both cases students prepare questions that explore:
    1. aspects of Catholic life prior to the Council remembered with affection
    2. aspects remembered with less enthusiasm
    3. relationships with non-Catholics prior to the Council
    4. experiences of Mass and other liturgies prior to the Council
    5. parish life and the role of lay people before and after
    6. personal prayer and public devotions before and after
    7. church laws and customs, etc.
  • Listen to some Church music from prior to the Vatican Council, perhaps some Gregorian chants or some of the popular hymnody of the time.
  • Reflect on what is conveyed by this music and/or this hymnody.
    1. What sense of the church is conveyed?
    2. What themes and emphases are explored?
    3. How do themes and styles differ from present day religious music?
  • Find out why Mass was said in Latin until Vatican II. What language was used at the first celebrations of the Eucharist? In the third century? In the eleventh? What languages are the words Alleluia, Amen, Kyrie Eleison, Gloria in Excelsis, Hosanna derived from and what do they mean?

Introducing the Personalities

As we saw in the previous section, Vatican II did not happen in a vacuum even though many were taken by surprise when it was announced. Various intellectual, scriptural and liturgical movements had been alive within the Church, preparing the ground for the deliberations of the Council. Within these movements were theologians and thinkers whose contributions and experiences were particularly significant.

Aspects of the Council’s preoccupations can be traced back as far as the 19th century to John Henry Newman, the great English convert sometimes called the ‘Father of Vatican II’. His study of the origins of the early church, his emphasis on the intrinsic importance of the laity, his openness to, and genuine friendships with, those of other Christian traditions, his intellectual convictions about the development of doctrine and the relationship between faith and reason, all anticipated important trends and teachings of the Second Vatican Council. An interesting conversation on Newman’s ideas can be found on Radio National’s Encounter program site.

Theologians of the twentieth century whose work influenced Vatican II were Karl RahnerYves Congar (read his thoughts on the laity), Henri de LubacHans KungTeilhard de ChardinJohn Courtney Murray and Paul Couturier. Some of these, for example Rahner, were periti (theological experts accompanying bishops) at the Council. Josef Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was present as theological adviser to Cardinal Frings of Cologne.

Apart from the theologians and movements whose thought and study over decades provided an intellectual and spiritual grounding for the Council deliberations, the two popes of the Council, the bishops and the cardinals were themselves the chief contributors. Take a look at an introduction to the various roles of the Council participants.

Of course the individual who, above all others, was fundamental both in the calling of the Council and in determining its style was Pope John XXIII, Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli. When Roncalli was elected many saw him as a ‘caretaker’ pope—he was already 77 years old—but within one hundred days of his election he had announced his intention of calling a Council of the Church. ‘Good’ Pope John’s broad pastoral experience as priest, bishop and cardinal had convinced him that the Church needed to re-express her relationship to the world, to reframe her relationship to the other Christian traditions and to recouch her message in terms of her original mandate from Jesus Christ.

Once the Council was underway various personalities came to the fore. Cardinals Suenens, Bea (largely responsible for ecumenical initiatives at the Council), Lienart, Frings and Konig were among those arguing for renewal. Cardinal Ottaviani was the leader of the Council Fathers who advocated little change in the Church’s program. He, with his motto ‘Semper Idem’ (Always the Same), has come to symbolise that group.

When John XXIII died after the first session of the Council, Pope Paul VI reconvened it and directed the completion of its work.


  • Find out why John Henry Newman is sometimes called the ‘Father of Vatican II’.
  • Have the students use the online stories of some of the theologians/personalities of the Council mentioned above to construct ’Who Am I?’ games with four or five levels of facts, e.g.:
    1. I was born in 1881
    2. As a boy I was fascinated with rocks and fossils
    3. I became a Jesuit priest and geologist
    4. I devoted myself to exploring the relationship between science and religion
    5. I died on an Easter Sunday in New York
    6. I am ….? (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin).
  • As a class prepare an illustrated ‘Pope John XXIII “This Is Your Life”’ big book. Class members in groups could research and contribute the different stages in Pope John’s life:
    1. Childhood and youth
    2. Studies, ordination and secretary to Radini-Tedeschi
    3. Military service/the Bulgarian posting
    4. Second World War years and their aftermath
    5. Patriarch of Venice
    6. Election as Pope and Vatican II
    7. Impact and influence.
  • Devise five important questions which you would like to have asked Pope John XXIII about his plans for an Ecumenical Council.

Focusing on the Events

A good way to orientate yourself with regard to the events of the Council is to look at a Vatican II timeline. This one includes reference to world events taking place at the same time.

Bishop Denis Hurley wrote an episode by episode account of his experience of the Council. It mentions key ideas like aggiornomento and some of the key figures as well as describing the small details that contribute to the interest of a great moment in history. It is a first-hand, non-academic introduction to the themes and work of the Council.

Generally speaking, it seems that the most effective way participants have found to convey their sense of the Council is through describing it and recording their reactions. Hence another short article includes the key memories of four American participants, conveying a lively impression of the work of the Council.

According to Cardinal Konig ‘four trail-blazing, creative and lasting stimuli’ characterised the work of the Council:

  • the sense of universality of the Church—no longer simply a European phenomenon
  • the support for ecumenism
  • the emphasis on the role of the laity
  • the new relationship established with non Christian religions.

Why Vatican II was Necessary is an opinion piece which, in setting out the events of Vatican II and the context in which it took place, tries to answer the question implicit in its title. An interview with George Lindbeck, a Lutheran observer at the Council, gives an insight to its impact on thoughtful Protestant onlookers.

As a result of the deliberations of the Council sixteen documents were produced: four constitutions, three declarations and nine decrees. The constitutions deal with core matters of the life, faith and worship of the church. They are the key documents of the Council. The declarations are statements of the Council on matters somewhat external to the church’s direct jurisdiction, such as non-Christian religions, education, religious liberty. The decrees are statements which apply some of the general principles of the constitutions to particular aspects of church life: priesthood, missionary activity, the laity, etc.

Vatican Documents are usually referred to by their first word or two in Latin, e.g. The Constitution on the Modern World is often called simply Gaudium et Spes (The joys and hopes). You can get an idea of the themes of Gaudium et Spes in this brief introduction to this famous document.

The Second Vatican Council was also one of the great ‘news’ stories of the 20th century. And the Church Becomes News, an article by an Italian journalist of the time, conveys a sense of the Council from a secular point of view, and notes also how the role of the Press was crucial to the Council


  • To familiarise students with the terminology of the Council, construct (or have them construct) word games, crosswords, wordsearchs or word/definition mix and matches for terms such as:

aggiornomento, ecumenical, Vatican,  observer, peritus, session, orthodox, protestant, liturgy, ressourcement, dialogue, renewal, documents, Lumen Gentium, auditor, pastoral, constitution, bishop, schema, signs of the times, Gaudium et Spes, collegiality, vernacular, etc.

  • Using one mitre to represent 20 bishops, prepare a graph showing the proportions of bishops at the Second Vatican Council from Europe (green mitres), North America (red mitres), South America (yellow mitres), Africa (purple mitres), Asia (pink mitres) and Oceania (blue mitres).
  • Imagine you are a bishop returning to your diocese after Vatican II. What would you say to the people in your first homily after your return?
  • Look carefully at the scenes from Vatican II that introduce this unit.
    1. Imagine that the European bishop and the African bishop are discussing the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. What points might they be making to each other?
    2. Draw the scene in St Peter’s basilica that the bishop using his binoculars might be seeing?
    3. What might Pope Paul VI be praying about as he lights that taper at the beginning of his pontificate and just before the opening of the second session of Vatican II? Write his ‘prayer’.
    4. What might this nun be saying to the bishop? What role did women play in the Council itself? Devise a dramatic sketch to express the results of your investigations.
    5. The observers from other Christian traditions (they included Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican/Episcopal, Presbyterian observers as well as others from smaller reformation churches – choose one) survey the scene in St Peter’s and listen to the proceedings? Suggest what they may be thinking as they look on.
    6. What is the photographer Lothar Wolleh suggesting in his photograph of the bishops seated inside St Peter’s at a session of the Council? Produce your own visual image/collage of the Council and its work and significance.
    7. Suggest a range of topics the bishops from round the world might have chatted about on the bus as they drove to the Council sessions. Some commentators have suggested that these kind of interactions were among the most significant aspects of the Council—Explain in what way this could be true?
    8. List some of the changes that the child praying would have experienced in the life of the Church since Vatican II.
  • Many papal and Vatican documents are known by their first couple of words in Latin. This is true of the 16 documents of Vatican II. Match the Council Documents to their correct titles:

On the Church in the Modern World                       Nostra Aetate
Dogmatic Constitution on the Church                     Inter Mirifica
Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation       Sacrosanctum Concilium
Declaration on Religious Freedom                       Perfectae Caritatis
Decree on Ecumenism                                           Ad Gentes
Decree on the Churches of the Eastern Rite         Gaudium et Spes
On the Relation to Non-Christian Religions        Gravissimum Educationis
Decree on Mission Activity of the Church            Lumen Gentium
Declaration on Christian Education                      Orientalium Ecclesiarum
Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops              Optatus Totius
Decree on Apostolate of Lay                                  Dei Verbum
Constitution on Sacred Liturgy                        Apostolicam Actuositatum
Decree on Renewal of Religious Life                   Dignitatus Humanae
Decree on Ministry of Priests                              Unitatitis Redintegratio
Decree on Priestly Training                                 Christus Dominus
Decree on Means of Social Communication         Presbyterorum Ordinis

  • Read the first paragraph of each of the four constitutions of the Second Vatican Council

Sacrosanctum Concilium
Lumen Gentium
Dei Verbum
Gaudium et Spes

To whom is each addressed, and what does each tell us about the scope, aims and hopes of the Council?

  • You are a Lutheran observer at Vatican II. Write a letter to your children describing your experiences and feelings about the Council.

Examining the Consequences

What was the immediate effect of the Council? The first signs of the effects of the Council were registered in parishes across the world as the liturgical renewal was implemented. These signs, however, reflected a more fundamental development, a renewed understanding of the Church. This renewed understanding is explored further in the page entitled Approaching a New Era on the Dom Butler site. Another special characteristic of the Council was a new attitude towards those of other Christian traditions and other faiths.

Of course the renewal occasioned by the Council led to confusion and discomfort too, and there are still those within the church who have found it difficult to accept the models of the Church proposed by Vatican II, as well as those who have interpreted the teachings of Vatican II as though there was no Church teaching of much value until the 1960s.

An entertaining conversation on The Religion Report between Australia’s Fr Frank Moloney SDB and Fr Joseph Komonchak on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of the Council focuses on some of the fresh understandings that came out of Vatican II.

Challenging examples of contrasting interpretations of the Council are expressed by John O’Malley SJ in the article A Break from the Past.

Another perspective on the immediate achievements and disappointments of Vatican II is expressed in the article What did the Second Vatican Council do for us? This article suggests that patience and perseverance are needed in working out and applying the teachings of the Council, and that what it was all about will become clearer with time. Finally a  reflection Vatican II: 40 Years Later by a Sister of Mercy traces the personal impact of the Council on the life of an individual Catholic.


  • Choose two world events which occurred at the same time as Vatican II (i.e., during the 1960s) and compare the impact of each of the three on the world, on Australia, and on your class. As a class, brainstorm responses to the following points in relation to each event:
    1. the number of people affected by each
    2. immediate effects
    3. ongoing effects and repercussions
    4. historical significance
  • Record responses on board/butcher paper/overhead and debate which has been the most influential event in terms of people’s lives.
  • What were some key new understandings that emerged from Vatican II?
  • Why were some Catholics disappointed, confused or angry about the Second Vatican Council?
  • List the ways Sr Camille’s life changed in response to Vatican II.

Exploring the Impact in Our Own Time

A serious examination of Vatican II, its achievements and its failures, is Prof. Nicholas Lash’s Vatican II: Of Happy Memory and Hope

Pope Benedict XVI’s pre-Christmas address in 2005 asked the question ‘Why has the reception of Vatican II been so difficult?’ The Pope outlines the trends and questions and interpretations which have led to difficulties and divisions in the church as a result of the Council.

The Holy Father’s question prompts another question: ‘Has Vatican II been received with difficulty?’

Overall it seems that Vatican II has been well received by many of the faithful, especially in view of the immense impact on day to day Catholic life which it had. Perhaps a more difficult question is ‘Why has such a positive moment in the history of the Church coincided with a great turning away from the Church in the Western nations, at least?’

The church is, above all, the ‘congregatio fidelium’, the gathering together of all the believers in Jesus. We are ‘all called to make a difference’, he says. Where the world is in the future, where the church is, will depend on us, the whole community of the church, the people of God, the body of Christ.


  • Pope Benedict XVI has committed himself to implementing Vatican II. What aspects of the Council’s teaching do you think need further development?
  • ‘Vatican II was a 1960s thing that needs to be put behind us.’ Discuss.
  • Salvador Dali painted this painting which he titled The Ecumenical Council in 1960, two years before the the opening of Vatican II. Can you express a response to Vatican II in music or song, paint or collage?
  • How would you describe the relationship between the pre-Vatican Church and the post-Vatican Church?
  • What issues might occupy a future Council of the church?
  • ‘The church is like a ship full of unruly passengers who always seem to be on the point of wrecking it’ (Henri de Lubac SJ). What do you think he meant? Discuss his comment in relation to the variety of Catholic responses to Vatican II.
  • What if Vatican II had not happened?