Oct. 26, 2016
By Father William Muench
Today as I write this, Oct. 11, is the Feast Day for Saint Pope John XXIII, one of my favorite saints. He had a profound influence on my life. I hope that you all remember Pope John XXIII.
So, a little bit about Pope John XXIII, especially for you younger readers:
Pope John XXIII was born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli; as a younger priest and bishop, he served as a papal legate in several countries. Then, later in life, as a Cardinal, he became the Archbishop of Venice. In the conclave that followed the death of Pope Pius XII, he was elected Pope, surprising to many since he was 77 years old.
Then, Pope John XXIII surprised the whole Catholic world when he proposed and called an Ecumenical Council, a meeting of all the Bishops in the world.
Pope John XXIII’s Feast Day was chosen as October 11th because October 11, 1962 was the opening day of the Second Vatican Council.
Throughout the years of the history of the Catholic Church there have been 20 such Ecumenical Councils during which important decisions for our Church were made. The last previous council, the First Vatican Council, was called by Pope Pius IX in the 1850’s. So you can see why everyone – from Church leaders to the laity – was surprised when Pope John XXIII announced that another Council, the Second Vatican Council, would be convened.
I still remember well the picture of the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica with all the Bishops seated there. I also remember that many thought this meeting of all these Bishops would be a mere formality. That was not to be so. Right from the starts there was discussion, even debate. It turned out the meetings continued for four years.
The Council would publish ten Dogmatic Constitutions which announced for all to hear the teachings of the Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII was to die shortly after the first session of the Council. However, thanks be to God, Pope Paul VI continued the work of the Council in the spirit of Pope John XXIII.
At the beginning of the Council, Pope John XXIII spoke of this time as a time for throwing open the windows of the Catholic Church. It was to be a time to allow the Holy Spirit to bring new light on the ways the Catholic Church approaches the modern world. In fact, that is exactly what happened. The Bishops boldly worked together, advised by brilliant theologians, to make our Catholic Church alive – with the life of the Holy Spirit – a life that continues today, 51 years later.
The immediate noteworthy decisions made by the Bishops for us, ordinary Catholics, were the changes in our Catholic liturgy of the Mass. Many of you remember what the liturgy of the Mass was before the Council. I believe that these changes were significant and inspired. They certainly put new life in my ministry as a priest. I often thank God for giving us Pope John XXIII and his Council.
First of all, there was the use of the vernacular for the prayers at Mass. The Second Vatican Council opened up the opportunity for each country to us the vernacular language of their place for the prayers of the Mass. So here we could use English. I saw this as meaning that everyone at Mass could understand the Mass prayers and could join in the responses and prayers.
In addition, the Council’s changes included that the celebrant priest of the Mass would now face his congregation. For me, this united in a special way a close relationship with the people who joined me in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
Truly these changes in our Catholic liturgy truly made a great difference in me, as a priest of the Lord Jesus. The Mass became a real celebration for me. I discovered a close relationship with the people at the celebration of the Mass.
This was only a small part of all that the Second Vatican Council accomplished. The Council Fathers discussed the message of Jesus and of our Church. The documents of the Council are a solid foundation of our faith as Catholics. We must continue to read them and study them again and again. Our young people need to discover this message of our Church through the documents of the Second Vatican Council.
Pope John XXIII’s Council has made a phenomenal difference in our Church then and continues to do so now. We must never lose the wisdom and the importance of the message of the Second Vatican Council.