The Catholic Church tends to get a bad rap when it comes to change – quite unfairly, too. The Church isn’t likely to make major changes every few years – or even each generation, at that – but looking at the roughly 2,000 year history of the Christian faith, we can see that the Catholic Church has undergone a wide array of changes, both subtle and dramatic. For pretty much any religious group, making alterations to important teachings, and extremely sacred rituals and ceremonies isn’t going to be done lightly or without contest.
One of the most important rituals that take place in the Church is the Mass, taken in a few different forms but all of which deliver the message of Christ’s sacrifice and the sense of thanks, reverence, and humility that it should bestow. Mass is an integral part of the Catholic Church, but that doesn’t mean it has stayed the same throughout the centuries. In fact, as recently as the mid-1960s the Vatican created changes within the Church that affected the Mass and, in order to understand these changes, we need to take a closer look at the council that enacted them.
While the name implies that the Church has only held two major council meetings in all its history, it actually only alludes to the fact that this particular meeting of the Church’s ecumenical council was the second to be held specifically at the Vatican. In fact, what is commonly referred to as “Vatican II” was the 21st such major council meeting.
The significance of this meeting is that the last such meeting to take place at the Vatican occurred in 1868, marking nearly a century since any major changes had occurred within the Church. The overriding objective of Vatican II was to reinvigorate the Church in the modern world of the time so that Catholics and potential converts could come to understand the teachings of the Church in more relatable terms.
Vatican II was also special in the fact that it was a bit more inclusive, having more representatives from outside the typical European Catholic countries like Spain and Italy – such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and various nations in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It also brought in female religious representatives, who, while unable to vote or take direct action within the council, did consult on much of the topics discussed throughout the period of Vatican II.
Many of the topics that women contributed to were those that directly affected the way in which the average Catholic parishioner could relate to the teachings of the Church and what the realities of modern life were like for everyday Catholic people. This certainly helped to bridge the gap between the Church hierarchy and the average person that they might be a bit disconnected from.
What Vatican II set out to do didn’t involve making any major doctrinal alterations within the Church. Many of the traditionalist opponents to the declarations put forth by the council argue that the changes made by the council have “destroyed” the Mass. This is far from the case, however, especially when you understand that none of the teachings, important symbolic representations, and spiritual effects of the Mass have changed.
As stated before, the major focus was in creating a more modern Church that not only made more sense to people, but that also functioned properly in a more technologically advancing world.
Before Vatican II, the Mass was conducted entirely in Latin, a language that isn’t widely understood and hasn’t been since perhaps the Middle Ages – and even then it was known only by the educated. For average people, having Mass performed in a language that they couldn’t understand made it more difficult to grasp what the ritual was teaching them.
It also created a significant disconnect, as many people tended to feel that the whole of the proceedings were very impersonal and just too far removed from their own spiritual reality. This was a major issue that the council sought to rectify by introducing vernacular language into the service.
Vernacular language, simply speaking, is the everyday language of any people. So, while Latin is still the official language of the Church and the religious ceremonies it implements, the language of each nation, whether it’s English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, etc. was approved for use in the Mass so that more people could come to understand and value its teachings.
By approving the use of vernacular language, the Church made it possible for people to once again feel close to the spiritual teachings presented to them, thus heightening their religious experience during the Mass.
It’s important to note that while the use of vernacular language was approved by Vatican II, it didn’t make it mandatory or forbid the use of Latin. In fact, many churches will use both Latin and the vernacular in the Mass.
For example, a priest might use Latin for particular prayers or important ceremonial parts of the Mass, and then use the vernacular when reading from Scripture. This dual use of language not only lends a sense of the sacred and official through the use of the Church’s official language, but it also allows for a more logical use of common language in order to make the lessons from Scripture and the Gospel understandable, relatable, and practicable.
The way in which priests behaved and interacted with their parishioners dramatically changed after Vatican II. Before the meeting of the council, the way in which people viewed priests, especially during the Mass and other religious ceremonies, tended to reflect the sense that the priest was very separate from the rest of them – too separate, even.
During Mass, priests would be facing away from the congregation, not only speaking in Latin, but speaking so low that many people present couldn’t even hear what he was saying. Before Vatican II, there didn’t seem to be a great call to address such issues, with the result being that many people present at the Mass had a tendency to feel detached from the priest and the rituals he was enacting.
Vatican II thus sought to not only modernize the administration and wider viewpoints of the Church, but to modernize its priests and other religious officials as well. Priests now will most likely stand facing the congregation, known as versus populum, rather than ad orientum, where they face away from the congregation to the east.
Technology has also been more thoroughly embraced so that now priests will speak into microphones that allow everyone in the church to hear precisely what he says all throughout the Mass. These alterations have created an atmosphere in which parishioners now feel like they’re more a part of the ceremony taking place, and that the priest is directly including them in the sacredness of the Mass.
Another change implemented by Vatican II has made it possible for women to have more of a part in the rituals of the Mass. Prior to Vatican II, women would not have been seen as readers, Eucharist ministers, and various other types of servers, but, thanks to the council’s reforms, were able to experience a more inclusive atmosphere within Catholic churches. This change has helped deliver the message that everyone is worthy of revering and worshiping God and Jesus Christ.
The New Aesthetics of the Mass:
The various sensory experiences of the Mass also changed after Vatican II, again in an effort to be more relatable to modern tastes and aesthetic appreciations. The vestments seen during Mass certainly had a marked change, as beforehand they were always very ornate and richly embroidered.
The changes made by the council mean that nowadays we’re more likely to see priests and servers wearing vestments that are much simpler than and nowhere near as rich as what would have commonly been seen in the past. Many people like this change because they feel that it’s less ostentatious and more in keeping with the concept of humility and the idea that worldly riches are nowhere near as important as a richness of spirit.
That being said, ornate vestments have not been banned, so they’re still worn by priests who do so in response to what their own parishioners would like to see, their own personal preference or for very special religious occasions.
New music was also introduced after the reforms of Vatican II. Music has a very powerful emotional and psychological effect on people and is therefore a key element for any religious service.
A more diverse range of music was approved by the council, as well as ways in which churches could be adorned or even designed. It’s now more likely than before that you could walk into a Catholic church and see a space that isn’t anywhere near as extravagant as older cathedrals and churches, with artwork and adornments that reflect simpler tastes.
Other Significant Changes from Vatican II:
Apart from the reforms that brought about major changes to the Mass, the council also agreed upon certain declarations that espoused official views toward various issues, both religious and secular.
One very important declaration that came out of Vatican II was the dignitatus humanae, or Declaration on Religious Freedom. With the declaration, the Church created a new foundation for how it would approach the wider world and modern society as a whole.
It declared the righteousness of religious freedom and tolerance, and the importance of nations to uphold these freedoms for the sake of the people. The Church also made it clear that the Christian faith is something that must be accepted willingly by individuals after their own careful consideration.
The Catholic Church and Judaism have had a long and bitter history with one another, and Vatican II sought to create closure and lay the groundwork for a more respectful friendship. Historically, Catholics and other Christian groups have blamed the Jews for the death of Christ, and this is something that the council made a point of addressing.
It stated that an entire people could not and should not be condemned for actions of the few, especially for actions committed by people two thousand years ago. The Church also gave thanks to and showed appreciation for the role that the Jews played in helping to create the basis for the Catholic Church, specifically through the teachings of Scripture and the Gospel.
Vatican II also worked to create friendlier relations with the Muslim world, and to soothe hostile feelings present between both groups. The council created an important message of respect and shared purpose for the reverence of God, as well as an enduring message of hope regarding a future where violence between Muslims and Christians would have no place in the world.
The council urged Catholics and all other peoples to interact with Muslims – and, indeed, all faiths – with a sense of understanding, compassion, and goodness.
While there are certainly those who contest the changes made by the Second Vatican Council, the overall effect of the reforms implemented by the council has been positive. The council created not only the building blocks for a modern Church, but also created important precedents for how to administer its own teachings, as well as how to interact with various cultures and faiths around the world.
The messages that have come out of Vatican II have created a greater sense of dedication to the ideals of equality, brotherhood, peace, and generosity that everyone, not only Catholics, can take to heart. More than anything, what Vatican II accomplished was the creation of a mentality that helps people remember that faith and dedication are important, but change and a willingness to hear the need for it is every bit as valuable.