Vatican II: Catholics celebrate the rebirth of the church

Special to The Mountaineer
By Carol Viau | Aug 30, 2013
Photo by: Carol Viau photo INTO THE MODERN WORLD — Participants in a seminar on Vatican II discuss the need for social justice in today’s world. Pictured, from left, are Ann Simmons, parishioner of St. John’s in Waynesville, speaker Fr. John Rausch and Tom Beyer, parishioner of St. Margaret’s in Maggie Valley.

Catholics around the world are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, the historic meeting of Roman Catholic clergy held 1962-65 — that brought the church into the modern world. More than 70 people gathered Aug. 24 at St. John the Evangelist Church in Waynesville for an all-day seminar on Vatican II and the changes to the church.  The seminar was an ecumenical gathering, including members from several Catholic parishes in Western North Carolina and Episcopal and Methodist church members from the Waynesville area.

Speakers included Fr. James Cahill, retired pastor of St. Mary Church in Sylva, Fr. John Rausch, a Glenmary Home Missioners priest, social activist and director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, and Mary Keenan, parishioner at St. John.

Keenan talked about church life before Vatican II, highlighting that people going to Mass were “spectators,” with little participation in the Mass. Priests celebrated Mass with their backs to the congregation, and the Mass was said in Latin.  She described the “top down” structure of the Catholic Church, with the pope at the top, making decisions for priests and bishops, with lay people at the bottom of the pyramid.

“There were prohibitions before Vatican II,” Keenan said. “Catholics were not to attend other churches, a there was no Bible study, for fear of making errors in interpretation of Scripture. Women had no visible role in the church.”

Catholics and visitors to the Catholic Church have witnessed great change in the church due to Vatican II. In the U.S., the Mass is said in English and the altar is turned around so that the priest celebrates facing the congregation. Most churches do not have a communion rail these days, a feature of older churches, which separated the faithful from the priest. Now, the laity takes an active role in the Mass, responding to the prayers of the priest, reading Scripture to the congregation during the services and serving communion.  Women serve as lectors, Eucharistic ministers and altar servers.  All of these are changes since Vatican II.

Cahill outlined the Constitutions of the church passed during the years of Vatican II, updating the role of the laity in liturgy, encompassing the vernacular and local customs into liturgy, and the importance of Scripture.

“Before Vatican II, Catholics weren’t encouraged to do much with Scripture,” Cahill said. “Scripture is beautiful. Go out and get together with other Christians for Bible study.”

Cahill pointed out that Protestants have been studying Scripture for a long time, and their thoughts might open up minds to a sharing of interpretation.

Vatican II stressed the restoration of ties with other Christians and developing relationships with non-Christians.

“We have so much in common with other Christians,” Cahill said. “There shouldn’t be Christian denominations against one another — that’s not being Christian. We are all baptized into the teachings of Jesus Christ.  We have the human race in common.”

In addition, Cahill talked about the decree of Vatican II to “meet our world as it is, and go out to it,” especially ministering “to those who are poor and afflicted.”

Rausch spoke about the call of Vatican II to “read the signs of the times,” and get involved in advocating for social justice. His charge to the group included his thoughts on economic rights, the need for health care, welcoming immigrants, voting rights and providing education. A lively group discussion followed with various interpretations on the issues of current times in America.

“Vatican II calls us to revitalize our faith and be open to our brethren in other churches,” said St. John parishioner Lynn Jefferys.  “I understand the connection of social justice and the message of Vatican II.”

Cahill closed the seminar with the last prayer of Pope John XXIII, which calls the faithful to “love one another, seek what unites, not what separates us from one another.”

Cahill’s words seemed to inspire participants in the seminar.

“Christianity is meant to be kindness, joy and love,” said St. John parishioner Candy Keener.