On March 1, Pope John Paul II called it “the most influential ecclesial event in our century,” especially “on its teaching regarding the dignity, vocation and mission of the laity.”
But the Second Vatican Council has been greatly underestimated by many outside the Church.
This immensely important event (1962-1965) was not even mentioned in the top 100 news stories of the 20th century recently rated by journalists for the Washington, D.C.-area “Newseum.” In fact, no prominent Church newsmaker or Catholic event was included — though the founding of Microsoft (No. 97), the surgeon general's warning about tobacco (No. 100) and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal (No. 53) all made the list.
Needless to say, when history looks back at our times, the Church's story will dwarf Bill Gates, cigarette labels and the president's travails.
It has been a century of withering attacks on the Church. From the rise of materialist philosophies, to the martyrdoms in the world wars to our present, woeful state of separation of the Church from the public square, the 20th century can be seen as a steady attempt to drive the Church out of acceptable society — and to drive the faith out of the daily lives of Catholics.
At Vatican II, the Church countered this trend in a forceful way. It encouraged the laity to “raise the eyes of the temporal realm” to heaven.
Today, the problems in the “temporal realm” have reached a high-water mark. The Holy Father has written encyclicals on the most important ones. The civilized world has embraced a culture of death and rejected the gospel of life, it has embraced a current of intellectualism that distorts both faith and reason, and it has adopted a morality of misunderstood tolerance that denies the splendor of truth.
But the Pope seems certain that these obstacles can be overcome by the Church — but only, he says, if its lay members cooperate with the Holy Spirit by living the faith and bringing it to bear on the world around us every day.
In his March 1 remarks, the Pope provided an examination of conscience for the laity, which included these questions: “What have I done with my baptism? How am I responding to my vocation? What have I done with my confirmation? Have I allowed the charisms of the Spirit to flower? Is Christ still present in my life?”
And, last: “What has been my contribution to building a way of life that is more in keeping with the dignity of man and to the inculturation of the Gospel in the most important changes taking place at this time?”
Catholics know the value of an examination of conscience, and these questions are special. They do not ask what we have done wrong — but what we have failed to do.
Those 100 top news events might have been very different if the laity had responded immediately and vigorously to the call of the Vatican II — and their contribution would have been impossible to ignore.
However, the Pope is certainly not despairing about the state of the lay mission in the Church. He said the Jubilee will reveal an “epiphany of the laity” in the next millennium and concluded, “The world needs the witness of ‘new men’ and ‘new women’ who by their words and works make Christ more intensely present.”
An examination of conscience can also turn its attention to what we have done right. On that same list of news events, we see several where Catholics have worked to good effect.
No. 13: Communism collapses with the dissolution of the Soviet Union — and, we might add, after the apostolate of prayer that so many lay people aimed at Russia throughout the 20th century. No. 27: The Berlin Wall falls, in no small part as the result of a lay movement in Poland and the shock waves it caused all over Europe. No. 38: Roe vs. Wade legalizes abortion — and Catholics, from the beginning, led a movement to oppose it, keeping it a live and prominent part of public debate.
Already, said the Pope, one of the most evident fruits of Vatican II has been “the promotion of the laity, their participation and co-responsibility in the life of the Christian community, in its apostolate and in its service to society.”
But, he warned, “I do not want the laity to shy away from this examination of conscience; they must cross the threshold of the Holy Door of the third millennium penetrated by the truth and holiness of the disciples of Christ.”