This week we continue with a short history of the Church in Australia. I must clarify that this material is taken from R. Dixon (2005) The Catholic Community in Australia. Openbook Publishers: Adelaide. I hope you enjoy the reading and that you get a deeper knowledge on our identity as Australians and also as Catholics.
Peace in Jesus
The Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II, was the most significant twentieth century event in the Catholic Church. Held in Rome from 1962 to 1965, the Council was made up of the Pope (at first, John XXIII, and after his death in 1963, Paul VI) and all the bishops of the world. Its aim, as Pope John declared in announcing his plans to hold a council, was to 'open the windows of the Church'. Vatican II presented its teachings in the form of sixteen documents. These dealt with many matters such as the promotion of Christian unity, the recognition that non-Christian religions contain much that is true and holy, and the right of all people to religious freedom. But it was the four principal documents which were to bring about major changes in the practices of the Church and the lives of its members. These documents were on liturgy, Divine Revelation, the Church itself and its role in the modern world
The document on the liturgy, the first document released by the council, instigated a revolution in Catholic worship, with changes including the celebration of Mass in the vernacular rather than Latin and the redesign of churches and rituals to emphasise and encourage the active participation of all present.
For several centuries, ordinary Catholics had been discouraged from reading the scriptures themselves, and were instead advised to rely on their priests and teachers to interpret it for them. This attitude only began to change about the middle of this century. By the time the document on Divine Revelation was released, not only were Catholics not discouraged from reading the Bible, they were 'forcefully and specifically' urged to do so!
The document on the Church, instead of emphasising the hierarchical nature of the Church, with its Pope, bishops and priests, as the Church's teaching about itself had traditionally done, presented the Catholic Church primarily as part of the whole Christian community of faith, or 'People of God'. Its emphasis, therefore, was on the role of each baptised member of the Church. The hierarchy's role, still very important, was seen as one of service to the faith community.
The document on the Church in the modern world, the last and easily the longest released by the Council, has had an enormous impact on the way the Church interacts with the rest of society. It firmly situated the work and interests of the Church in the world and society: nothing that is genuinely human is to be regarded as alien to the Church. Many current Catholic movements for social justice, world development and peace, including liberation theology , owe their intellectual origins at least in part to this document.
Today's Catholic community
The outcome of all these changes in society and the Church is that today's Catholic community looks very different from that of the 1950s. Mass attendance rates have fallen; the number of priests, sisters and brothers is declining and their average age is increasing. The relationship between clergy and people has changed. Old forms of devotion like the Rosary have nearly disappeared but there has been a growth of interest in alternative forms of prayer borrowed from a variety of cultures and traditions. An array of leadership roles which were once the preserve of priests and religious -- in education, health care, parish life and many other fields -- has been filled by lay people, and lay people (by no means all Catholics) comprise virtually the entire staff at Catholic schools and the majority of students at Catholic theological colleges. Some Catholics see these changes as a tragedy which the bishops either have been powerless to stop or have conspired to promote, but most regard them as welcome evidence of a Church prepared to adapt to meet changing circumstances. Yet the changes that have taken place have primarily been changes in rules and practices. The Church's teachings have been re-interpreted in the light of modern understandings of history, sociology, the sciences and other fields of human endeavour, and then re-expressed in language more suitable for the times. By and large, however, the teachings themselves have not changed.