Fifty-five years ago, on October 11, 1962, Pope St. John XXIII began the Second Vatican Council at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The council was not called to resolve a dispute about doctrine or dogma. It was not called amidst controversy or division. Instead, Pope St. John XXIII said that the Holy Spirit inspired the Second Vatican Council to address one “major interest” in the midst of changing times and changing cultures: “that the sacred heritage of Christian truth be safeguarded and expounded with great efficacy.”
Indeed, the Second Vatican Council did not change the teachings of the Church at all. It drew out and clarified truths embedded in the fabric of the Gospel. It offered Christian responses to new challenges. It sought new ways to express the meaning of Christ’s Incarnation, and the meaning of our own lives.
As Pope St. John XXIII began the council, he reminded the Church that “the whole of history and of life hinges on the person of Jesus Christ. Either men anchor themselves on Him and His Church, and thus enjoy the blessings of light and joy, right order and peace; or they live their lives apart from Him; many positively oppose Him, and deliberately exclude themselves from the Church. The result can only be confusion in their lives, bitterness in their relations with one another, and the savage threat of war.”
The Second Vatican Council reminded the Church of certain truths about God, and about ourselves. It taught, as scripture teaches, that God is love. It taught that man is created with dignity, and beauty, and freedom – created in the image and likeness of God. And it taught that every single person is created for holiness.
“Fortified by so many and such powerful means of salvation,” the council declared, “all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect.”
Holiness is not religious hobbyism. Holiness is not saccharine or inauthentic sentimentality. Holiness is not vitriolic or ad hominem internecine squabbling. Holiness is not a political agenda; holiness is not being liberal or conservative. Holiness is neither rigid moralism nor permissive relativism. Holiness, the Second Vatican Council taught, is “the fullness of the Christian life” and “the perfection of charity.” Holiness is living in hope, and freedom, and truth. Holiness is intimate and real love for God, poured out into generous and real love for one another.
Holiness is the fullness and joy of our humanity – sharing in God’s inner life, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Holiness is a gift from the Lord. But the Second Vatican Council taught that all who wish to be holy “must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image, seeking the will of the Father in all things.”
This isn’t easy. In fact, it is the work of a lifetime. But it is the only work that finally matters. I write about holiness inadequately, because I live holiness inadequately. St. Paul wrote that he was “chief among sinners.” Surely, I am not far behind. Few of us are. But I am convinced that the Second Vatican Council was right: that Christ can “conquer the reign of sin,” and that through his mercy, we can leave sin behind. Through his power, we can choose love. Through his grace, we can receive the gift of holiness, and live fully and freely, in joy, in this life and the next.
The message of the Second Vatican Council is that we can become saints, and that the world needs saints. That our families need saints. That our country needs saints. That our Church needs saints. That Christ’s love, working through us, can bring peace and light to people who need it. That our holiness can transform the world.
Fifty-five years ago, as he began the Second Vatican Council, Pope St. John XXIII encouraged the Church “earnestly and fearlessly to dedicate ourselves to the work that needs to be done in this modern age of ours, pursuing the path which the Church has followed for almost twenty centuries.” In that same spirit, may we earnestly and fearless dedicate ourselves to the call the council declared so clearly: the call that each one of us should become a saint.