Just Good Company
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Vatican II Brought Wholeness to Life

Virginia Saldanha

The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council has been described as the “opening up of the doors and windows of the Church to refreshing winds of change.” It has also been described as the Magna Carta of the Church in a rapidly changing world. For women, the poor, people of other faiths – and even atheists – it has brought a welcome change in age old attitudes of discrimination. For me, Vatican II was the Church’s greatest event in modern times, and the man who convoked it, Pope John XXIII, one of the greatest saints of the last century. His sensitivity to the signs of the times set in motion a process of change welcomed by most people the world over, by Catholics and those of other faiths – and most particularly by those of us who count ourselves members of the movement toward liberation.

I was a teenager when Vatican Council II took place. I can recall the great feeling of jubilation when the changes started coming out – unveiling of women, use of local language in the celebration of Mass, inculturation, and all other changes in liturgical celebrations. Liturgical worship became a lively, meaningful and faith-enriching experience for people. The Bible was put into the hands of lay people and we were encouraged to discover God’s message for us through the reading and meditation of The Word – another happy faith-enrichment experience. Before Vatican II, the expression of my faith was mechanical and quite meaningless. The rosary was the most meaningful form of prayer and meditation since it was recited in a language we understood. Scripture was interpreted for congregations of faithful by a few celibate males whose experience was not necessarily the same, or sometimes (as in the case of women) not even remotely close to the people they were addressing. We depended heavily on prayer books, set devotions and rituals, all ready made for consumption by the lay faithful. We tried our best to live a ‘holiness’ which was largely moralistic and governed by sets of commandments, or lists of works or mercy. People’s lives were compartmentalized into Church life (which required the fulfillment of obligations, works of charity and attendance at Church services) and life in the world. The concept of a relationship with God was alien to such a mechanical practice of faith.

Looking back, I think how fortunate I have been to be able to live as a Catholic in the post-conciliar era. I can talk of a relationship with God and of a living faith which is expressed in different and meaningful ways. My faith is fully integrated into life and therefore holistic. I have the freedom to express myself in prayer as an individual and in groups through meaningful para-liturgical celebrations.

Pre-Vatican II, women covered their heads, were considered impure after the birth of a child, could not enter the sanctuary in the Church, never had a chance to read or study scripture, could not study theology, and in general were looked upon as second class in the Church and a source of temptation and sin. The dress of religious women bear testimony to this. Saint Pope John XXIII, (I would like to call him Saint even if he is not canonized), helped to change all this. He created a consciousness in the Church of the “signs of the times” with regard to women. In his encyclical Pacem in Terris, published some 40 years ago between the first and second Sessions of the Vatican Council II, he pointed to the emerging consciousness of women:

It is obvious to everyone that women are now taking a part in public life. This is happening more rapidly perhaps in nations with a Christian tradition, and more slowly but broadly among people who have inherited other traditions or cultures. Since women are becoming even more conscious of their human dignity, they will not tolerate being treated as inanimate objects or mere instruments, but claim, both in domestic and public life, the rights and duties that befit a human person. (# 41 Pacem in Terris; reprinted in Joseph Gremillion, ed., The Gospel of Peace and Justice)

The Fathers of Vatican II apparently had this in mind when they stated in their “Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”:

Undoubtedly not all persons are alike as regards physical capacity, intellectual and moral powers. But forms of social or cultural discrimination in basic personal rights based on sex, race, color, social condition, language, or religion, must be curbed and eradicated as contrary to God’s design. It is regrettable that these basic personal rights are not yet being respected everywhere, as is the case with women who are denied the chance to freely choose a husband, or a state of life, or to have access to the same educational and cultural benefits as are available to men.” (# 29, Austin Flannery, OP Gen. Ed., Vatican Council II The Counciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents)

I am a woman and a citizen of South Asia, a place that has suffered centuries of colonialism, that has the largest concentration of poor in the world, widespread discrimination based on caste and status, where women suffer extreme violence and cultural subjugation. And so you can understand how much this document lights up my darkness. All the discrimination suffered by women and the weaker sections of society, it says, is ‘contrary to God’s design.’.In theological terms, this means it is sinful. I see Vatican II as a lighthouse on the stormy seas of domination, exploitation and oppression towards women and the poor. It points us towards the firm ground of the truth revealed by Jesus in the Gospels.

Urged on by the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, many women and lay men studying scripture and theology in the context of the signs of the times have been inspired by the Spirit of God to discover liberating messages for all marginalized peoples in the teachings of Jesus. I believe that the understanding of Jesus’ teachings from the perspective of Liberation Theology is truly the Good News that Jesus brought to us. Earlier, I always wondered how I could give the numerous poor in my country the Good News that Jesus died to save us from our sins and invite them to follow him. Their immediate concern was a hungry stomach and a number of empty mouths to feed. I wondered how the Good News could be meaningful to them. Happily I became a cathechist well after Vatican II when I realised that in the practice and expression of my faith, I had to become Good News for my sisters and brothers who are subject to the violence of poverty and social discrimination.

When I was able to obtain a copy of the conciliar and post conciliar documents I read them with great interest and concentration and lost no opportunity to bring them to the attention of my family and friends as well as use them extensively in my pastoral work.

For women, Vatican II is indeed a great event to remember and celebrate. The influence of the Second Vatican Council on us women is particularly noteworthy. Large numbers of women took up the study of scripture and theology and began to interpret it from the perspective of their life experience. Earlier women’s life experience had no relevance to their faith, but now, thanks to the many women theologians and scripture scholars, they are able to articulate a theology based on women’s life experience. I as a woman am able to see myself in a way that gives dignity to my body and my life as a woman. I feel liberated from the negativity of the early theologians’ views on women and their bodies. (I am thinking of Thomas Aquinas, Augustine and Tertullian.) Today I am able to help women rejoice and celebrate their pregnancy and childbirth, seeing themselves as co-creators with God in the on-going work of creation. This is just one example of the affirmation of woman’s dignity through the process of women doing theology.

The documents of Vatican Council II continue to give us much encouragement and impetus to live life in all its fullness – for that is exactly the Mission of Jesus – to give life in abundance to all people. We in our turn become the Good News struggling to bring life in abundance to the people of our continent.

Virginia Saldanha is the executive secretary of the Office of the Laity in the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, executive secretary of the Commission for Women of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India. She is also an executive committee member of Pax Christi International. She lives in Bombay.