The 21st official council in the history of the Church has rightfully been described time and again as a pastoral council. In fact, this was the vision of Pope John XXIII from the very beginning when he first called for a Church council.
Previous Church councils focused primarily on matters of doctrine, discipline or policy. From the outset the goal of the Second Vatican Council (Oct. 11, 1962- Dec. 8, 1965) was to create a library of documents to engage the entire Catholic community as well as the non-Catholic world. Producing 16 separate documents, Vatican II promulgated the most extensive volume of documents of all the councils in its 2,000-year Church history.
As this “Vatican II Series” in the Catholic Spirit concludes, allow me to review some things left unsaid in my previous articles. As a theologian, my interest is to critique the Council documents against the background, history and tradition of the Church. As a priest, my role is to integrate the teachings of the Church and to re-conceptualize our precious Catholic faith in language that is appealing and comprehensible to all people. All people, and most especially Catholics, have a right to learn what the Church teaches, to assimilate it and to live it.
The documents cover most all aspects of Catholic teaching. Whether reflecting on how to grow into a more loving relationship with God, with other Catholics or with other Christians or even non-Christians, there is something for everyone in the Council documents. There are also passages throughout the documents that offer fresh insights into Sacred Scripture, the sacraments, the importance of worship, the truth about heaven, hell and purgatory, the dignity of the human person, the priority of living charitable lives, the relationship of Catholics to non-Catholics/non-Christians and the relationship of the Church to the world.
The practical problem for many, however, is the manner in which the documents are written. Translated from the Latin language, the narrative format prevents easy access to specific Church teachings as was the case in the past with the catechism format. As well, the topics addressed are not all given the same attention. Finally, the documents were not all written or edited by the same person or group of people.
Following Vatican II, and even before the Council ended, the themes treated within the Council were expanded by Pope Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. The various Vatican congregations also published hundreds of documents on topics previously treated by the Council.
One of the best fruits of Vatican II is the universal “Catechism of the Catholic Church” promulgated in 1992. Another important fruit emerged in 2011 when the new Roman Missal was implemented.
St. John Paul II once referred to Vatican II as “a compass with which to orient ourselves in the vast ocean of the third millennium.” In this regard, the 16 documents themselves remain the best fruit of the Council.
As the Church continues to examine the documents, we too, as individual believers, need to continue to examine them in order to understand and integrate this incredible resource that the Church gives us for our intellectual and spiritual nourishment. These include:
Four Constitutions
• Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium): considered the foundational document of the Council. Referring to Christ as “the Light of nations” (LG, 1),  the Council Fathers wanted to communicate their desire that the Light of Christ shine forth on the whole world.
• Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum): focuses on the truth that God reveals himself through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, which together “make up a single sacred deposit of the word of God, which is entrusted to the church” (DV, 10).
• Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium): deals with “the reform and promotion of the liturgy” (SC, 1). This document had the most impact on the lives of Catholics worldwide.
• Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes): the longest of the 16 documents, considers how the Church relates to the world. Special attention is given to the dignity of human activity and the human person.
Nine Decrees
• On the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church. (Christus Dominus): affirms bishops as the legitimate successors of the apostles. Together with the pope, and never without him, they “… exist as the subject of supreme, plenary power over the universal Church” (CD, 4).
• On the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis): emphasizes the leadership role of priests, in prayer and the sacraments but “especially by the celebration of Mass [in which] they offer sacramentally the Sacrifice of Christ” (PO, 5).
• On the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis): provides principles for the renewal of consecrated life; “the life and discipline of those institutes whose members make profession of chastity, poverty and obedience” (PC, 1).
• On the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem): describes the laity’s rightful place as helping renew “the temporal order as their own special obligation.” Led by the light of the Gospel and the Church and motivated by charity, they “act directly and in a definite way in the temporal sphere [always seeking] the justice of God’s Kingdom” (AA, 7).
• On the Training of Priests (Optatam Totius): Calling for a more integrated program of priestly formation, it reminds “those who are preparing for the priestly ministry to realize that the hope of the Church and the salvation of souls is being committed to them” (OT, 21). The entire community is to promote priestly vocations.
• On the Missionary Activity of the Church (Ad Gentes): focuses on the components of missionary work and what will later become “inculturation,” encouraging missionaries to live in the midst of the people to which they are sent to serve.
• On Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio): Opening with the theme from St. John’s gospel of Christ’s desire for unity “that they all may be one” (Jn 17: 21), it describes the relationship of the Church to other non-Catholic communities, stating that the Church enjoys “a certain, though imperfect, communion with them” (UR, 3).
• On the Catholic Eastern Rite Churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum): explores the autonomous powers of the Eastern Churches, calls for a return to authentic ancestral traditions and challenges those who have received both the sacraments of priestly ordination and marriage “to persevere in their holy vocation” (OE, 16).
• On the Media of Social Communications (Inter Mirifica): Recognizing  the media as a gift of God, the desire for a healthy relationship between the Church and all forms of media is expected. A prophetic document in light of what we currently use, the likes of which could never have been imagined in the 1960’s.
Three Declarations
• On Christian Education (Gravissimum Educationis): declares the universal right of education for all people and puts forth certain fundamental principles pertaining to Christian education, especially in Catholic schools.
• On the Church and Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate): the shortest of all the documents, it acknowledges all people as made in the image of God and as such it is contrary to Church teaching to discriminate against anyone. This is the first document to ever engage non-Christian faiths including Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Jews, even accepts some truths present in these religions.
• On Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae): offers guidelines to help the Church relate to secular affairs. Outlines “the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society” (DH, 1) while promoting the Church’s support for the protection of religious liberty.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D. serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop. Visit www.catholicspirit.com. for all his columns.