Pope John XXIII convened the first session of the Second Vatican Council on this date in 1962. It was the first time Roman Catholic religious leaders had met to settle doctrinal issues in nearly a century. In 1870, the pope had been declared infallible, so people didn’t see the point of arguing about church doctrine: whatever the pope said was what the church would do and believe. But Pope John XXIII — who had assumed his duties only three months prior to calling for the council — believed that the church had become too insular for modern times. He often said it was time to “open the windows [of the church] and let in some fresh air.” He had served in the Italian army during World War I, then served as a Vatican diplomat to Turkey, Greece, and Bulgaria for nearly 20 years. During the Second World War, he was a papal ambassador in Paris. He had witnessed the whole spectrum of human nature and religious faith during those appointments, and believed that the church should not hold itself separate from the rest of the world.
Thousands of church members — from bishops down to laypeople — traveled to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City to attend a series of four sessions from 1962 to 1965. Representatives from other Christian denominations were invited to observe, although they couldn’t cast any votes. The council produced 16 documents, and the common thread running through them was “reconciliation.” The pope still had the last word, but other voices would now be heard, even encouraged. The Roman Catholic Church would now allow Mass to be celebrated in languages other than Latin. Priests now faced the congregation, not the altar, so that worshippers would feel more a part of the service. They also gradually set aside their ornate clerical regalia and dressed more simply. Some liturgical music was updated to a more contemporary style. As Thomas Ryan, director of the Loyola Institute for Ministry, put it: “Not against, not above, not apart, but in the modern world. The church sought to engage, not condemn.”
One of the most revolutionary aspects of Vatican II — as the Second Vatican Council came to be known — was the change in the church’s attitude toward other religions, and other Christian denominations. Previously, Catholics were forbidden from visiting any other houses of worship, and encouraged to look down on other religions. Now they could attend the weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals of their non-Catholic friends and neighbors. The church also acknowledged its shared history with Judaism for the first time. Before Vatican II, the Jews were viewed with suspicion and stigmatized as the killers of Jesus Christ. “It had the effect that the sun has when it comes up and interrupts the night,” said Rabbi Edward Cohn of New Orleans’ Temple Sinai. “It was no less dramatic than that. It provided an entirely new day. It changed everything.”
Not all the policies proposed by the Second Vatican Council were carried out perfectly, or carried out at all in some cases. Many church bureaucrats resisted the changes, and traditionalist Catholics still argue that Vatican II was detrimental to the church. Even mythologist Joseph Campbell, a lapsed Catholic, mourned the loss of religious mystery: “They’ve translated the Mass out of ritual language and into a language that has a lot of domestic associations. The Latin of the Mass was a language that threw you out of the field of domesticity. The altar was turned so that the priest’s back was to you, and with him you addressed yourself outward. Now they’ve turned the altar around — it looks like Julia Child giving a demonstration — all homey and cozy. … They play a guitar. They’ve forgotten that the function of ritual is to pitch you out, not to wrap you back in where you have been all the time.” But the opening up of the Mass to different languages has led to a dramatic expansion of the Roman Catholic Church in Africa and Asia.