Pope John XXIII on Oct. 11, 1962, formally opened the 21st Ecumenical Council in the history of the Catholic Church — Vatican II. This council lasted three years and carried through two papacies, with Pope John XXIII and later Pope Paul VI presiding.
But what actually is an Ecumenical Council? And how did this particular council change the cornerstone of the Catholic faith — the Mass?
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“Ecumenical Councils, whenever they are assembled, are a solemn celebration of the union of Christ and His Church, and hence lead to the universal radiation of truth, to the proper guidance of individuals in domestic and social life, to the strengthening of spiritual energies for a perennial uplift toward real and everlasting goodness.” Pope John XXIII said in his opening statement to the assembly at Vatican II.
The Catholic Mass defines the religion as a whole.
It is certain that Vatican II made its mark on the future of Catholicism by changing many elements of the expression of faith, particularly the Mass. However, an important facet of note is that Catholics believe in the infallibility of such councils — led by an infallible pope. While the pope is still an imperfect human being, when it comes to matters of faith and morals he cannot make errors.
The Catholic Mass defines the religion as a whole. It contains the Consecration of the Eucharist, which is the fundamental sacrament in the religion. The Consecration is when bread and wine on the alter become Jesus Christ’s true body and blood.
While Vatican II did not change the heart of the Catholic Mass, it did alter some key elements that Catholics still consider and question even 52 years later. Here are a few of those changes.
The Embracing of the Vernacular
Prior to Vatican II, the Mass was said in Latin — the universal language of the religion. However, with the Ecumenical Council came the acceptance of vernacular language. It decreed that scripture readings and the responses of the people could be spoken in the native tongue of the attendants. Today, the entire Mass is spoken in language of the celebrants, but with very careful translations of the original phrasing (although it is still possible to attend Latin Mass in some areas).
Earlier, the faithful could not understand what was happening.
The Liturgical Music
Previously, song during the Mass was not as present as it is now and the priest and altar boys entered the church in silence. But with Vatican II came the processional hymn as an opening to the celebration.
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The Priest Facing the Congregation
Prior to the Ecumenical Council, the priest faced the tabernacle during the Mass, not the congregation. Currently, the priest faces the people, which allows for a far better understanding of the Mass and far better communication between the celebrant and the congregation. Earlier, the faithful could not understand what was happening or hear what the priest was saying during key parts of the Mass.
A New Participation
Laity began serving as lectors, cantors and Eucharistic ministers. The addition of these roles gave lay Catholics the ability to be active participants in the Mass and allowed women as well to take part.
While basic doctrine did not and has not changed, the delivery of the sacred gifts during the Mass changed in format and tone.