October 11 marked the 60th anniversary of one of the most significant dates in modern religious history: the opening of the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council. In recent days, journalists and theologians have revived old debates over the meaning and authority of Vatican II.

The frail and elderly Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI released a rare letter praising it to a conference in the United States:

When I began to study theology in January 1946, no one thought of an Ecumenical Council. When Pope John XXIII announced it, to everyone’s surprise, there were many doubts as to whether it would be meaningful, indeed whether it would be possible at all, to organize the insights and questions into the whole of a conciliar statement and thus to give the Church a direction for its further journey. In reality, a new council proved to be not only meaningful, but necessary.

Pope Francis also praised its achievements, but noted with some pain that it is still provoking dissent and ill-feeling within the Catholic world.

How often, in the wake of the Council, did Christians prefer to choose sides in the Church, not realizing that they were breaking their Mother’s heart! How many times did they prefer to cheer on their own party rather than being servants of all? To be progressive or conservative rather than being brothers and sisters? To be on the “right” or “left”, rather than with Jesus? To present themselves as “guardians of the truth” or “pioneers of innovation” rather than seeing themselves as humble and grateful children of Holy Mother Church?

With all the commentary, especially in Catholic circles, many ask: what is the meaning of Vatican II? Perhaps one approach might be to consider: what exactly happened on October 11, 1962?

Pope John XXIII opening the Second Vatican Council in 1962 / WikiMedia Commons

On that day, Pope John XXIII presided over the solemn opening of the Council. A procession of some 2,500 Council fathers, mostly bishops, made their way from the Vatican palace, through the wide expanse of St Peter’s Square and a vast crowd of faithful, and into St Peter’s Basilica. John XXIII was in the rear of the cortege, clothed in splendid vestments and carried on a ceremonial throne, signs of an earlier age of papal splendour.

The spectacle certainly caught the attention of the media and the world as a whole. Sixty years later, beyond the pageantry, the event endures as an unforgettable moment for the Church as well as for the world at large. A return to some of the words of John XXIII himself on that day—in his address Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (“Mother Church rejoices”)—remains one of the best ways to understand the importance of this anniversary and the Council as a whole.

The speech was bold and deeply grounded in tradition. Ecumenical Councils are nearly as ancient as the Church herself, a way of clarifying points of belief, consolidating unity, and fostering new vitality.

In the middle of the 20th century, John XXIII deeply felt that, in the face of the wars and bitter divisions, the Church needed to serve as a sign of unity: not just of unity within the institutional bounds of the Catholic Church herself, but also with other Christians and all humanity. Each time the Church celebrates a Council, John XXIII noted, it gains new spiritual strength and makes a valuable contribution to the life of society as a whole.

“Illuminated by the light of this Council,” the Pope said, “the Church will be increased in spiritual riches.” She would find “new strength” so as to “bravely look to the future.” With the proper changes and mutual cooperation, he went on to assert, the Church would help persons, families, and nations turn to the things which are above.

Pope John went on to describe the renewed attitude which he desired for the Church. He recognized that many zealous Christians believe that calamities surround them. This is a perennial temptation for: to long for an earlier era in which living the faith presented fewer challenges.

Certainly it was true that persons could be so occupied with politics and economics that they turn away from God. But the Pope challenged Catholics to recognize the hand of God in the new order of things.

He called upon the Council Fathers to present “the entire Christian doctrine, without taking away any part of it,” yet at the same look to the new conditions and ways of life. These conditions, the Pope commented, had opened up new paths for Catholic evangelisation. In unforgettable words, he called for the Church to show herself, not merely as an authority and enemy of error, but as “a most loving mother of all, kind, patient” towards other Christians and all humanity.

Over four years, the Council sought to turn this attitude into a living reality. Throughout, the Council Fathers challenged one another to expand their vision and become more attuned to the needs of the world, while at the same looking deeper into the Church’s spiritual riches.

This process couldn’t help but be a bit messy – but ultimately it was successful.

In a spirit of communion and dialogue, the Council was able to articulate the pillars of the Christian faith in a way that was both traditional and fresh. Christ, as the Council famously affirmed, “fully reveals man to man himself.”

It produced some brilliant documents: an affirmation of the liturgy as the privileged place of Christ’s presence (Sacrosanctum Concilium), a keener awareness of the mystery of the Church (Lumen Gentium), the power of the Scriptures (Dei Verbum), and the Church’s concern for the world (Gaudium et Spes). These continue to be vital for the Church today – although they are more referenced than read, unfortunately.

The last 60 years have brought more challenges and crises. Yet it’s precisely because of those difficulties that Catholics need to look to the authentic spirit and teaching of the Council. The grand endeavour initiated by John XXIII remains a basic reference point for the Church and for so many others who earnestly seek truth and the common good.

Fr Joseph Thomas

Fr. Joseph Thomas is Chaplain of Mercer House in Princeton, New Jersey. He is the author, most recently, of Salvation Theology (Scepter Publishers).