As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the opening of the first session of the Second Vatican Council, here is a snapshot of the world before, during and after the Council.
One cannot understand Vatican II without understanding the Church in the years leading up to the Council. And no figure was more central to the Church before the Council was Pope Pius XII.
Pius XII died in 1958 after serving for pope for nearly two decades. After his 1939 election, he led the Church during World War II, and played a role in saving thousands of Jewish people from the Nazis. He also faced challenges in the Eastern Bloc, where Catholics endured severe persecution and mass deportations of Catholic clergy. A fierce opponent of Communism, in 1949 Pius approved a document that declared Catholics who profess Communist doctrine excommunicated.
His decisions regarding the hierarchy leveled the playing field for future papal elections, most notably in 1946 when he eliminated the Italian majority in the College of Cardinals. His decisions meant that in the years to come, popes would be elected from Poland, Germany, and Argentina.
He invoked papal infallibility by declaring ex cathedra the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in his apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus. During his papacy, he penned forty-one encyclicals, including 1943’s Mystici Corporis, on the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. In 1947 he gave us the first encyclical devoted entirely to the liturgy; Mediator Dei. He promulgated the groundbreaking Humani Generis in 1950, in which he weighed in on the theory of evolution, saying it could be compatible with Catholic faith.
His final encyclical, Meminisse Iuvat, published just months before his death, asked for prayers for the persecuted Church, offering a reminder that “It is a harmful and reckless policy to do battle with Christianity, for God guarantees, and history testifies, that she shall exist forever” (no. 7), and assuring the faithful of Christ’s promise to Peter, saying, “On Peter alone He raised His Church.”
In those final months, Pius XII also oversaw the elevation of one last saint – Premonstratensian canon regular and mystic Hermann Joseph (c. 1150 – 1241) – and one last blessed, Teresa Jornet Ibars (1843-1897).
Saint Teresa Jornet Ibars (who was canonized in 1974 by Saint Paul VI) is also known as Teresa of Jesus. She was a Spanish religious sister and the founder of the Little Sisters of the Abandoned Elderly. Her beatification is meaningful to my wife Kristin and I because we have a special devotion to St. Teresa for a number of reasons. First, I work in a nursing home giving food to the elderly. She was canonized on my birthday, January 27, in 1974 – the year Kristin was born. Additionally, Kristin’s birthday is a day before St. Theresa’s death day on August 25.
Pope John XXIII took the reins and began his short tenure as pontiff in late 1958. Seen as a placeholder due to his old age, it didn’t seem likely that he would top the impact of his long-serving predecessor. The Church, therefore, was quite surprised when, less than three months after his election to the Chair of Peter, he made an announcement to the world on January 25, 1959:
“Venerable brothers and our beloved sons! We announce to you, indeed trembling a little with emotion, but at the same time with humble resolution of intention, the name and the proposal of a twofold celebration: a diocesan synod for the city, and an ecumenical council for the Universal Church.”
Pope John XXIII had suddenly declared that there would soon be a huge, Church-changing, life-changing, ecumenical council. The windows of the Church were going to be thrown open to let in some fresh air – circulated by the Holy Spirit.
Exactly 60 years ago, on October 11, 1962, the first session of the Second Vatican Council commenced. Good Pope John announced a new beginning for the Church, saying, “For with the opening of this Council a new day is dawning on the Church, bathing her in radiant splendor.” Today, the anniversary of that address, also marks his feast day.
While this happened, this also happened
As the Holy Spirit penetrated the hearts and minds of the Council fathers, what else was going on in the wider world? I think it is fascinating to look at the events that were occurring at the same time as other important historical and cultural events. Looking at all the things that were happening at once provides a unique perspective on life and history.
In the years after the Council was announced in Rome, the world continued to produce new people and also took them away. The world and the Church continued to give us books, movies, TV shows, and music. The Catholic influence on the wider culture was noticeable during this time as well. Here are a few notable works produced during that time:
1959– Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston is released and wins 11 Academy Awards and 4 Golden Globes.
1959-The song “The Village of St. Bernadette,” sung by Andy Williams, reached #7 on the Billboard charts.
1960-The Violent Bear It Away by Catholic author Flannery O’Connor is published.
1962– To Know Christ Jesus by Frank Sheed is published.
1962- The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book by J.R.R. Tolkien is published.
1965– The Greatest Story Ever Told, directed by George Stevens, starring Max von Sydow, Charlton Heston, Dorothy McGuire, David McCallum, Martin Landau, Telly Savalas is released.
1967– The Flying Nun (1967–70) airs on ABC.
When the sanctified air was soon to be released in the Church (and then hopefully from the church to the world at large), both the Church and the world continued making history around the globe – and perhaps around the whole universe. After all, two Americans named Barney and Betty Hill claimed they were abducted by extraterrestrials September 19-20, 1961, in rural New Hampshire. Perhaps the aliens were coming to spy on the upcoming Council. After all, the idea of aliens and Catholics coming together was expressed in a 1958 Hugo Award-winning science fiction book entitled A Case of Conscience. It tells the story of a Jesuit missionary on another planet investigating a conundrum – an newly-discovered alien race with an innate sense of morality despite having no religion. Surely this story was on the minds of some Catholics when the Second Vatican Council’s decree on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae (Of the Dignity of the Human Person) was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965.
While the Pope and his fellow bishops prepared the world for the greatest meeting of all time, the United States elected its first Catholic president. In the following years, the world avoided destruction by a potential nuclear war. And at the end of the decade (after the council was finished) a few men left this planet and walked on the moon.
While the bishops in union with the bishop of Rome prayed and contemplated over God’s will for the Council, world went into mourning on the day the music died in 1959 as three rock music legends (Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper) lost their lives in a plane crash. Later, in 1962, Beatlemania was born in Britain as 4 young rock musicians rose to superstardom. Year later, one of them would claim they were “more popular than Jesus.”
On November 22, 1963, the same day Sacrosanctum Concilium (the Council’s document on the liturgy was approved, first Catholic president of the United States was assassinated. Also dying that day were two prominent authors: Christian writer C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley (the author of the novel A Brave New World). The following day, after being delayed due to the Kennedy assassination news, the BBC launched one of the longest running TV shows of all time, Doctor Who.
At around the same time Pope St. Paul VI penned an encyclical about how Catholics still couldn’t use birth control in the post-conciliar era, the molecular biologist, geneticist, and zoologist James D. Watson wrote a book about the discovery of human DNA called Double Helix.
As the bishops of the Church rethought and restructured the way their Church was run, Americans soldiers fought against communism in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Fidel Castro (a Catholic excommunicated by John XXIII) established a communist government in Cuba.
As the Catholic bishops considered the relationship between the Church and the modern world (as they would outline in Gaudium et Spes), Hollywood offered us a movie about a woman teaching children to sing about their favorite things before they fled the Nazis – the Academy Award-winning The Sound of Music.
As the Church considered new ways to share God’s love, the traditional culture’s walls came down in the free love movement. And a new wall separating democracy and and communism in Germany was erected in Berlin.
This was the era when Bishop Fulton Sheen, (who participated in the council), gave catechetical lessons to people across the United States on his television show. It was also the era when St. Padre Pio was ministering and performing miracles in Italy.
At the same time the Church recognized the freedom of all people to worship where they found the light of God in Dignitatis Humanae, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading marches and delivering speeches for the dream that the human rights of Black people would be recognized.
In 1965, the year that Vatican II gave birth to the last of its 16 documents for the Church in the modern world, the future host of the Mysterious World podcast, Jimmy Akin, was born.
Also that year, when the second Vatican Council ended, the world had changed. Perhaps that year’s popular rock song by the Byrds put it best:
To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven
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Mark Wilson is a normal working guy. He has a Masters from Franciscan University and has worked at several jobs which have given him a place to pray and visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament during his breaks, including the Carmelite gift shop at the North Shore Mall in Peabody, MA, Catholic TV, and at two nursing homes. He has also taught catechism and has volunteered for a suicide prevention hotline. Mark enjoys writing, reading, and watching movies, as well as spending time with friends – and of course with his beautiful, holy wife Kristin. When he is not spending time at work or with his spouse he blogs over at The Catholic Bard at Patheos Catholic.