At 5pm this evening (Roman Time), Pope Francis will be celebrating Mass in St Peter's Basilica to mark the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. I was looking at the liturgy booklet and thought that it might be interesting to share the conciliar texts included at the start of the booklet, along with a few personal thoughts in italics.
From St John XXII's address opening the Council Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (Mother Church Rejoices):
Mother Church rejoices that, by the singular gift of Divine Providence, the longed-for day has finally dawned when -- under the auspices of the virgin Mother of God, whose maternal dignity is commemorated on this feast -- the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council is being solemnly opened here beside St. Peter's tomb.
In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.
We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.
The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously. That doctrine embraces the whole of man, composed as he is of body and soul. And, since he is a pilgrim on this earth, it commands him to tend always toward heaven.
[T]he Christian, Catholic, and apostolic spirit of the whole world expects a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a Magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.
It's worth noting that there isn't yet an English translation of Gaudet Mater Ecclesiae on the Vatican website. Instead it's presented in Latin, Italian, Spanish and Portugese.
From the Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, 1-2:
Hearing the word of God with reverence and proclaiming it with faith, the sacred synod takes its direction from these words of St. John: "We announce to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we announce to you, so that you may have fellowship with us and our common fellowship be with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:2-3). Therefore, following in the footsteps of the Council of Trent and of the First Vatican Council, this present council wishes to set forth authentic doctrine on divine revelation and how it is handed on, so that by hearing the message of salvation the whole world may believe, by believing it may hope, and by hoping it may love.
In His goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will (see Eph. 1:9) by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature (see Eph. 2:18; 2 Peter 1:4). Through this revelation, therefore, the invisible God (see Col. 1;15, 1 Tim. 1:17) out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends (see Ex. 33:11; John 15:14-15) and lives among them (see Bar. 3:38), so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself. This plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them. By this revelation then, the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines out for our sake in Christ, who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation.
To my mind, Dei Verbum deserves more popular attention and would be my starting point in terms of explaining the theological signifiance of the Council.
From the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, 8; 10
In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord's glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Saviour, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory. [...]
[T]he liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord's supper.
The liturgy in its turn moves the faithful, filled with "the paschal sacraments," to be "one in holiness"; it prays that "they may hold fast in their lives to what they have grasped by their faith"; the renewal in the Eucharist of the covenant between the Lord and man draws the faithful into the compelling love of Christ and sets them on fire.
Given that the liturgical changes that followed the Council are, perhaps, the most immediately visible (and contentious!) results of the Council, I often think that a serious reading of Sacrosanctum Concilium would be a good examination of conscience for everyone responsible for shaping and debating the liturgical life of the Church. It sets out a vision that has yet to become manifest in many of our parish liturgies.
From the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, 1,8
Christ is the Light of nations. Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church. Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission. This it intends to do following faithfully the teaching of previous councils. The present-day conditions of the world add greater urgency to this work of the Church so that all men, joined more closely today by various social, technical and cultural ties, might also attain fuller unity in Christ. [...]
Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which He communicated truth and grace to all. But, the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, it is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word. As the assumed nature inseparably united to Him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a similar way, does the visible social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it, in the building up of the body.
There has been a huge emphasis on the Church as understood as the People of God in the post-conciliar period. My own perspective is that whilst that theme is important, what Lumen Gentium has to say about the Church being "like a sacrament" (a sign and instrument) is more theologically important and needs to be grasped before engaging with other ecclesiological expressions such as communion, People of God and, for that matter, synodality.
Note also how Christological the selections from Lumen Gentium are. One of my professors of ecclesiology took great pleasure in asking the following question to unususpecting undergraduates: The Second Vatican Council speaks of the Lumen Gentium, the Light of the Nations. Who or what is the Lumen Gentium? Often the unsuspecting student, knowing that LG is about ecclesiology, would say that Vatican II teaches that the Church is the Light of the Nations. The professor would then point to the opening of this document: Christ is the Light of nations.
I also remember that my ecclesiology exam ended up being an interesting discussion with that same professor about the analogy between the Incarnation of Christ and the visible Church in service to the Holy Spirit - how does this analogy work and how does it break down. Another point of the Council's teaching that deserves more attention.
From the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes 1; 10
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds. [...]
[I]n the face of the modern development of the world, the number constantly swells of the people who raise the most basic questions or recognize them with a new sharpness: what is man? What is this sense of sorrow, of evil, of death, which continues to exist despite so much progress? What purpose have these victories purchased at so high a cost? What can man offer to society, what can he expect from it? What follows this earthly life?
The Church firmly believes that Christ, who died and was raised up for all, can through His Spirit offer man the light and the strength to measure up to his supreme destiny. Nor has any other name under the heaven been given to man by which it is fitting for him to be saved. She likewise holds that in her most benign Lord and Master can be found the key, the focal point and the goal of man, as well as of all human history. The Church also maintains that beneath all changes there are many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, Who is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever. Hence under the light of Christ, the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of every creature, the council wishes to speak to all men in order to shed light on the mystery of man and to cooperate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time.
In some ways, because it is in dialogue with the philosophy and outlook of the world of almost 60 years ago, Gaudium et spes has "aged" less well than many of the other conciliar documents. It seems to be responding to the questions and challenges of a society that has been changed beyond all recognition. That's why it deserves to be read with particular care and an attentiveness to context. That being said, it sets out a great deal about the mystery of the Church, her mission and her response to the questions of the world that is perennial. It also has an antopological approach that greatly inspired the outlook of St John Paul II. It could be argued that much of his teaching was rooted in this document, whilst being ever-attentive to the changes in the world in which the Church has her mission-field.