Fifty years ago — on October 11, 1962 — the Second Vatican Council opened in Rome. It had been promulgated on Christmas Day, 1961 by Pope John XXIII, who wrote that modern society was advancing with technological and scientific progress for which there was no corresponding advance in morality. The pope said he would convene the council so that the Church would contribute positively to the solution of modern problems.Did the publication of the Council’s 16 constitutions, declarations and decrees signify the completion of the renewal of the Church that the Council represented, or did those documents mark only the beginning of a process that has not yet been completed? Did the Council mark a significant break with the past, radical precisely in its style of being Church, or was in continuity with the past? These questions are still being debated (as Massimo Faggioli shows in his book, “Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning,” Paulist Press, 2012).Certainly the Council did much to renew Catholic theology and give new direction to the Church. It changed the reigning juridical, “perfect society” model of the Church into more biblical metaphors, including People of God, Body of Christ, Temple of the Spirit, a Pilgrim Church, and the Church as a sacrament of intimate union with God and the unity of all mankind (Lumen Gentium, 1). Its doctrine on collegiality included the bishops with the pope in the government of the Church (LG, 21), reinterpreting Vatican I to say that the bishops shared with the pope in the Church’s charism of infallibility (LG, 27), and implicitly including the laity by saying that the whole body of the faithful cannot err in matters of faith when united in matters of faith and morals (LG, 12). And, it taught that individual bishops were not vicars of the pope but vicars of Christ in their own right as heads of local churches (LG, 27). In developing a theology of the laity, it reclaimed the dignity of all the baptized, teaching that they shared in the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king, as did the bishops (LG, 31). Thus, the lay faithful were not just collaborators with the hierarchy in their mission, but were themselves commissioned to a share in the Church’s mission through baptism and confirmation (LG, 33) and equipped charismatic gifts (LG, 12, 30). What was once experienced as a devotional, obligatory Catholicism has become for many a voluntary community to which people freely commit and others just as freely leave, putting more responsibility on the Church itself.For the first time the Council committed the Catholic Church to the Ecumenical Movement which had begun among Protestants; it apologized for the sins of Catholics against unity, teaching that all those properly baptized are already in a real but imperfect communion with the Catholic Church (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3), insisted that elements of sanctification belonging to the Church of Christ are to be found outside the Catholic Church, and encouraged ecumenical dialogue. In regard to non-Christians, the Council taught the universality of God’s saving grace (LG, 16) and said that the great world religions often reflect a ray of the Truth that enlightens all people (Nostra Aetate, 2), implying that interreligious dialogue is itself a religious event. Finally, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation encouraged the faithful to read the Bible, teaching the revelation is not identified with a text but is personal; it is Trinitarian in form, witnessed to by Scripture and tradition, and reaches its fullness in the person of Christ (Dei Verbum, 2). Since God’s revelation is mediated by the words of human beings, biblical interpreters need to pay attention to the historical circumstances in which the authors wrote and the literary forms they employed (DV, 12).How Catholics experience their faithCatholicism has changed considerably in the 50 years since the Council. In the United States, there have been a number of shifts in how Catholics experience their faith. What was once experienced as a devotional, obligatory Catholicism has become for many a voluntary community to which people freely commit and others just as freely leave, putting more responsibility on the Church itself. Catholics place less emphasis on fulfilling one’s Sunday obligation, more on celebrating the liturgy, and they want to be involved. No longer a ghetto church, there is a new emphasis on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue.The religious life is no longer described as the “way of perfection” or a “more perfect way,” but as ministry or “the consecrated life,” while the priest’s role is to officially represent Christ and the Church and to serve the priesthood of all believers. In the U.S., the entire ministerial culture of the Church has changed dramatically, with an explosion of lay ministries that was unanticipated by the Council, with some 38,000 lay ecclesial ministers, paid for at least 20 hours per week. Of these, 80 percent are women. There are another 18,493 in formation, with 62 percent women. There will soon be more professional lay ministers in our parishes than priests, if it is not already true. Internationally, the Catholic Church has truly become a world church, with a developed social teaching, international structures, religious orders and lay movements, synods of the worldwide episcopate, and a universal spokesman in the person of the pope. As a world Church, it is uniquely positioned to witness to the kingdom of God in an era characterized by globalization. Its center of gravity has shifted from Europe and North America to the global South, where 70 percent of the world’s Catholic’s live today. As regional churches begin to discover their own voices, there will be more tensions between them and Rome. Finally, while there is much to do in the area of social justice, evangelization remains essential to the Church’s mission and the next Synod of Bishops will address this issue. The Church has a message, a Gospel that needs to be heard. It reveals and mediates God’s transforming love.Jesuit Father Thomas Rausch is T. Marie Chilton professor of Catholic theology at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, and co-chair of the archdiocesan Theological Commission. He also has authored 19 books including “Pope Benedict XVI: An Introduction to His Theological Vision” (Paulist Press, 2009) and “Eschatology, Liturgy, and Christology: Toward Recovering an Eschatological Imagination” (The Liturgical Press, 2012).{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/1005/vatrausch/{/gallery}