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Riley's Ramblings - Vatican Council II: Part 1
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September 03, 2012

On October 11 we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, reputed by many to be the greatest religious event of the twentieth century. Twenty-five hundred bishops from every corner of the world, representatives of practically every Christian Church (or sect, as they were called in those days), and several hundred theologians and periti (experts in various aspects of theology who served as consultants to the bishops) responded to the invitation of Pope John XXIII to gather in Rome to talk to each other. These “conversations”, Pope John hoped, would assist the Catholic Church to be more responsive to the world in which it found itself in the middle of the twentieth century.

I was a freshman in a Catholic high school seminary in upstate New York when the council opened and I graduated the year the council closed. At breakfast every morning while the council was in session, one of the students read  articles  from the New York Times and other, more ”Catholic” periodicals, about what was going on in Rome,(we ate most of our meals in silence in those days). Little did I, at 14 years of age, know how profoundly this meeting would influence the Church and my life in the coming decades. My studies, and my approach to most issues, from then on were rooted in the texts and the “spirit” of the council.

Each summer for the last thirty years I have taught graduate courses in church history and in the history of Catholic education in the United States here at Ursuline. In the recent past most of the students in my classes were born many years after the Second Vatican Council closed. For them this council is as real to them as the First Vatican Council (1870) or the Council of Trent (1545-63). They (we) live in a Church imbued with and undergirded by the teachings of Vatican II. It is like the fish in an aquarium who doesn’t recognize the water which is his environment. As I teach my students about the council, its history, the world and the church in which it was born, its significant personalities, the controversies during the council and its major teachings, they get excited. They want to know more about it.

I have decided to dedicate “Riley’s Ramblings” during this academic year to the history of the council whose 50th anniversary we are now celebrating. I will reflect briefly on some of the following topics: the world and the church in 1962, the personalities who made major impacts on the council, major tensions, issues and controversies, the contributions of the Catholic Church in the U.S.A. to the council, major results of the council, and in what sense was it a council of continuity and in what sense was it a council of rupture and change. I hope these reflections will prove to be helpful in understanding issues facing us today.