Viewing Vatican II Through a Eucharistic Lens

COMMENTARY: The challenge articulated by St. John XXIII at the opening of the Council, to help people today to grasp Jesus as the ‘center of history and life,’ was ultimately to help them ground themselves in the Word-made-flesh on the altar.

Pope John XXIII waves a hand in blessing at Roman Catholic Ecumenical Council at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, Oct. 11, 1962.
Pope John XXIII waves a hand in blessing at Roman Catholic Ecumenical Council at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, Oct. 11, 1962. (photo: Raoul Fornezza / AP)

The aim of the Second Vatican Council, the chief subject of its four constitutions, three declarations and nine decrees, was, as Pope St. John XXIII announced in his opening address 60 years ago Oct. 11, to strengthen the faith and transmit it more effectively. 

“The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously,” he said. 

The Council sought, first, the “renewed, serene, and tranquil adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness,” together with a “step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and formation … in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine.” He emphasized, “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.”

Pope John emphasized that “the great problem confronting the world after almost two thousand years remains unchanged”: to recognize Jesus Christ as the “center of history and of life” and choose to believe in him, follow him and be with him. The renewal he hoped the Council would catalyze would, therefore, be to help people better find their root, center and self-understanding in Christ and to enable believers better to propose him to the world Christ had entered to redeem. 

This Christocentric and missionary focus was bound to lead to a focus on the liturgy and, more specifically, on the Eucharist. 

Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is not merely a historical figure born during the reign of Herod the Great, executed under Pontius Pilate and risen from the dead, as the apostles and many other witnesses testified. But thanks to his wondrous self-gift that he foretold in the Capernaum synagogue, established during the Last Supper and brought to completion on Calvary, Christ remains with us always until the end of time. 

The entire work of the Council, therefore, can be looked at through a Eucharistic key. 

In the dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the Council Fathers emphasized that “taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice … is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life” (11). The constitution on the sacred liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), made the same point for the Church as a whole

The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (10). 

Christ in the Mass is, therefore, the Alpha and the Omega, the starting point and goal for the whole of the Christian life and the life of the Church. 

So when we look at the main teachings of the Second Vatican Council, we can view all of them through such a Eucharistic lens. 

The “universal call to holiness,” emphasized in Lumen Gentium (40), finds its post-baptismal nourishment in the transformational encounter with Christ in the Eucharist. 

The renewal of the word of God in the life and the mission of the Church, called for by the dogmatic constitution on divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, is connected explicitly to the Eucharist. The Fathers state, “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God's word and of Christ's body” (21). They call clergy and faithful both to greater love and study of the word of God, transmitted above all in the liturgical celebration. 

The Christocentric renewal of humanism found in the pastoral constitution of the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, is implicitly Eucharistic, since the way Christ fully reveals the human person to himself and makes his supreme calling clear through the unselfish gift of himself to others (22, 24) happens when someone, encountering Christ in the Sacrament of Charity, adopts a lifestyle in which he gives his flesh, blood, sweat, tears, all he is and has to others. 

The renewal of the priesthood summoned by the Council in the decree on the ministry and life of priests, Presybterorum Ordinis, was geared toward helping priests find in Christ in the Eucharist the “root and center of [their] whole life” (14), since the sacred liturgy is, as the decree on priestly training, Optatam Totius, stated, “the primary and indispensable source of the truly Christian spirit” (16). It therefore urged priests to “form their people to participate in the celebrations of the sacred liturgy in such a way that they become proficient in genuine prayer” (5). 

The decree concerning the pastoral office of bishops in the Church, Christus Dominus, summoned the successors of the apostles to “labor without stint [so] that the faithful are nourished with spiritual food through the devout and frequent reception of the Sacraments and through intelligent and active participation in the Liturgy” (30.2). 

The enhanced role and mission of laymen and women, as the decree on the apostolate of the laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, emphasized, was geared, the Council Fathers said, toward charity, which is “communicated to them and nourished in them by the sacraments, above all the Eucharist (3). 

All of these texts make clear that the renewal of the Church that the Second Vatican Council sought to spur would find its source, summit, root and center in Christ in the liturgy, where, just as in the Gospels, he calls people to be with him and from which he sends them forth (Mark 3:14). 

The ancient aphorism lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi — meaning that the way we pray informs what we believe and how we live — highlights how important the prayer of the Mass is for Christian faith and life. The challenge articulated by St. John XXIII at the opening of the Council, to help people today to grasp Jesus as the “center of history and life,” was ultimately to help them ground themselves in the Word-made-flesh on the altar. 

Therefore, it’s unsurprising that the main impact of the Second Vatican Council in the life of believers would be liturgical, since the liturgy is, the Council Fathers taught, a “sacred action surpassing all others” (SC, 7). They sought to help foster the “devout and active participation” (14) of all the faithful in the liturgy, which meant ultimately to pray the Mass in such a way that they might be transformed to live the Mass and take its fruits to the world for the “sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God” (10). 

It's also unsurprising that the liturgy would become the chief battleground in the interpretation and implementation of the Council: whether the Council was aimed at reform in continuity with the sacred deposit that preceded it, as St. John XXIII indicated opening the Council, or directed toward a reform in rupture with the past, justified by appeals to the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” that went far beyond the letter of the conciliar documents. 

The Council Fathers had voted for greater use of sacred Scripture, homilies rather than sermons, removal of liturgical duplications, the prayers of the faithful, training the faithful to say and sign all the Mass parts in Latin, and, under certain circumstances, openness to concelebration and Communion under both species. 

They did not call for changing the direction of the altar, removing tabernacles from sanctuaries, Communion in the hands, the iconoclastic “wreckovation” of churches, jackhammering high altars and Communion rails, whitewashing of sanctuaries, the substitution of sacred music with saccharine and occasionally heretical hymns, hideous banners, “clown” Masses and liturgical free-for-alls, all seemingly justified by the undefined spirit of the Council. 

The fact that many today associate the Council principally with these distortions and the unmoored spirit of rupture that justified them — rather than with the actual changes called for by the Council, its articulated aims, Eucharistic Christocentrism and missionary purpose — is something that the Church must remedy as we mark the 60th anniversary of the Council’s opening. 

And as the Church in the United States enters more deeply into its Eucharistic Revival, rediscovering the genuinely Eucharistic dimension of the Second Vatican Council is pastorally crucial, since the distortions mentioned are among the reasons why the Revival is urgently needed.