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Father Muench Says...

Considering the council

January 25, 2023

By Father William Muench
NCC columnist

This afternoon, I was at the computer and decided to wander through YouTube. I came upon a documentary about the Second Vatican Council. I think that you know that the days of this council were the most important days in my lifetime as a priest of the Catholic Church. It was 60 years ago. The Second Vatican Council transformed our Catholic Church and transformed my life. Somebody must have believed that it is still time to look back on the council when they put this up on the YouTube.

So, today, I think that this is sort of a sign that this would be a good time for me to remember again with you the Second Vatican Council. I have never forgotten anything about it. It was a powerful moment for me personally, and I continue to write about it often. I love seeing again that picture of those two thousand bishops from every country in the world sitting there in St. Peter’s Basilica with Pope John XXlll as they considered the future of our Catholic Church.

So, please join me as I remember some things about the council. I entered the seminary after high school. The pope then was Pope Pius XII. In those days, he was the only pope I had known. Also, this was the time when the Mass was celebrated in Latin, and the priest celebrated the Mass with his back to the congregation. Something had drawn me to want to become a priest.

In my third year in major seminary, Pope Pius XII died. Then the conclave elected Pope John XXIII as our new pope. One of the things I remembered was that Pope John XXIII was rather elderly. So, someone told me that because he was older, he would not attempt anything major for the Church. The Catholic world was very surprised when Pope John XXIII announced that he was calling an Ecumenical Council – a meeting of all the Catholic Bishops throughout the world.

I was excited! I imagined how much this council would influence our Church. Pope John XXIII described his hopes for the Council: this would be a breath of fresh air for the whole Catholic Church. He told us that this council would throw open the windows of the Church and allow the Holy Spirit to enter. It sounded exciting to me.

I remember wondering how all these bishops from all over the world would feel joined with the pope at the Vatican. At the beginning, they were given ten fundamental documents for them to accept. However, in the first weeks of the meeting, the bishops reacted as a group and rejected all these prepared documents. They requested the opportunity to rewrite and redo these documents. This was a very major moment. How would the Pope react? Pope John XXIII accepted this change. I think he loved what had happened.

The result was that the work of the council was extended for three more years. This council was to publish several important documents. It was a time of intense, even hard work by the gathered bishops and a new destiny for our Catholic Church. These documents continue to give an important foundation for our Catholic Church.

What we ordinary Catholics learned was the wonderful changes in the liturgy of the Holy Mass. After the Council, Mass is to be celebrated in the vernacular, the language of the people in each place. The priest celebrant would now face the congregation during the Eucharist. I was a very young priest in those days. For five years I had offered Mass in Latin and now all these changes. Now I would look up as I prayed at the altar – look up in the eyes of the congregation and realize that they would truly understand each word that I was praying.

The teachings of the Second Vatican Council are found in the several documents developed by the Council Fathers. So, there is so much more to talk about as we remember the Council. I will be getting busy studying again those documents and remind you of the teachings of this most important Council in our lifetime in the next few weeks.

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