Fifty years ago on October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy went on national television to announce that the Soviet Union had placed offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba. For 13 days the United States and the Soviet Union were on the brink of nuclear war. The Cuban missile crisis was the most dangerous confrontation between the superpowers during the Cold War. Fortunately, war was averted and eventually the Cold War ended with the collapse of communism. The Cuban missile crisis and the threat of nuclear annihilation are now just a distant memory.
Ten days earlier on October 11, 1962, the opening session of the Second Vatican Council began.
The night before the Council began, Pope John XXIII, speaking to the thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, said these memorable words of fraternity and peace that set the tone of the entire Council:
Dear sons and daughters,
I feel your voices! Mine is just one lone voice, but it sums up the voice of the whole world.
And here, in fact, all the world is represented here tonight. It could even be said that even the moon hastens close tonight, that from above, it might watch this spectacle that not even St. Peter’s Basilica, over its four centuries of history, has ever been able to witness.
We ask for a great day of peace. Yes, of peace! ‘Glory to God, and peace to men of goodwill.’’
…And so, let us continue to love each other, to look out for each other along the way: to welcome whoever comes close to us, and set aside whatever difficulty it might bring.
Some historians believe that Vatican II was the most significant for the Catholic Church in the past hundred years. Certainly this church Council which brought together bishops from around the entire world in a convocation that lasted from 1962 until 1965, resulted in far-reaching changes that affected both the Catholic Church and its relationship with the wider world. The convening of the Council during the dark and fearful days of the Cold War, was a great act of confidence in the possibility of peaceful dialogue and understanding.
During the three years of the Council dialogue, reconciliation and trust were not just spoken about, but put into action. During the course of the Council, relationships between the Catholic Church and Orthodox and Protestant Christians changed dramatically. Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox, who, prior to the Council had regarded each other with misgivings, began to listen to each other’s points of view and to work and even worship together.
In a similar fashion during the Council the Catholic Church officially repudiated anti-Semitism and the hateful and false accusation that the death of Jesus was the fault of the Jewish people. This assisted in a vast improvement in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.
This ecumenical council, which brought together not only Catholic bishops from Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia, but observers from the various Orthodox and Protestant churches, was convened with great optimism and hope. Among the Catholic participants from around the world were Dermot O’Flanagan, Bishop of Juneau (which at the time included not only Southeast Alaska, but Anchorage and south-central), and Francis Doyle Gleeson SJ, who was appointed the first Bishop of Fairbanks in August 1962. Both men attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965.
Since the close of the Council in 1965 there have been many changes in the worship and prayer practices of the Catholic Church. The changes most people are aware of are the changes in the Catholic Mass. The Mass until the Council had been celebrated in the ancient Latin language, since the Council the Mass has been celebrated in a variety of modern vernacular languages.
But there were many other important, if less visible changes, as well. The decree on religious liberty committed the Catholic Church to the principle of religious liberty and human rights. For the past five decades, this has placed the Church in the forefront of the worldwide struggle for human rights, especially in Eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia. At the same time the Council’s call for peaceful resolution of international conflicts and dialogue between ideological and religious adversaries, help to make the Catholic Church an important mediator for understanding and reconciliation.
Fifty years after the beginning of the second Vatican Council, the world and the Church are confronted by a variety of new challenges and threats, from economic crisis and terrorism to starvation in Africa and the spread of AIDS. May we take courage and hope from the words of Pope John XXIII on the eve the Council who encouraged us, ‘…to continue to love each other, to look out for each other along the way: to welcome whoever comes close to us, and set aside whatever difficulty it might bring.’
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.