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50 Years After Vatican II, Transformation Continues


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, it's time for "Faith Matters." That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. In a few minutes, we will hear from an American monk who has been tapped to lead one of the most important monasteries in Tibetan Buddhism, and we think you will be interested to hear of his unusual path to his current place.

But first, we turn to an historic anniversary for the Catholic Church. Fifty years ago, the church embarked on an ambitious effort to remake itself for the modern world. It changed everything from the language of worship to the role of women, to relationships with non-Catholics. It was called Vatican II, and it was the central mission of Pope John XXIII. Joining us to take another look at Vatican II is Greg Tobin. He is the author of the new book "The Good Pope: The Making of a Saint, and the Remaking of the Church."

And he's with us now. Thanks so much for joining us.

GREG TOBIN: I'm so pleased to be here with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, for people in their 40s - whether they're Catholic or not, you know - the church created by Vatican II is the only one they really know, right? So could you give us - just as briefly as you can - a before and after? What were some of the major changes that Vatican II brought to the church?

TOBIN: Before 1962, the Catholic Church was the church it had been for 2,000 years, and the Mass was said in Latin. The priest would be facing away from the congregation; be speaking very quietly, or even mumbling, the prayers of the Mass - and the rubrics. Then the congregation came up for communion, and the Mass was over. And it was a very impersonal kind of experience.

Vatican II changed that radically, and the people were invited to participate in new and very significant ways. There were changes in relationships with the other Christian churches, with the Jews; and really, a repositioning of the church in the world.

MARTIN: I want to talk about all that in a minute but first, I just wanted to ask you - as I understand it, you have, actually, some rather vivid memories of experiencing the change brought about by Vatican II because you were a young altar boy, you know, at the time. Could you just talk a little bit about that?

TOBIN: Certainly. I was - I think - 7 years old at the time the changes began. Over a period of a couple years, English was introduced to the liturgy; the priest turned around, to face the congregation. As an altar boy, I then had to respond - in English - along with the congregation. Also a very significant change, as I recall it - and I can still see it in the Mass today - was the employment of music. The people were encouraged to sing in ways they hadn't before - and more frequently, during the Mass. And lay people were brought up to the altar - to serve in different ways - as well.

MARTIN: As we said, this is the church that people now know. But what were some of the reactions, at the time?

TOBIN: At the time, it was quite mixed. Some people were - sort of nonplussed. Some people were very much opposed to it because it wasn't the way they had grown up. They thought Latin was the way it had always been celebrated; and Latin had been the universal language of the church. And a lot of people, especially in the American church, really supported these changes because it drew them into the celebration of the Mass; into the - a more spiritual and involved experience during the Mass itself.

MARTIN: Hmm. And we're speaking with Greg Tobin. He's the author of "The Good Pope: The Making of a Saint, and the Remaking of the Church." And we are talking about the effect of Vatican II on the Catholic Church. That was 50 years ago, when the church embarked on this very ambitious and wide-ranging effort to remake itself for the modern world.

Now, this is also just two years after America elected its first Catholic president. It's very clear that many Protestant Americans were still suspicious of the church, as evidenced by John F. Kennedy's famous remarks where he said that he would not be dictated to, by Rome. Do you think that the fact that the church was engaged in this very public period of re-evaluation, helped ease some of those tensions?

TOBIN: I do, and I think that John XXIII himself was a very appealing and nonthreatening figure. And American Catholics were just over the moon by the election of John Kennedy. They gained a new sense of pride, and a new sense of identity in place and society. And I think that non-Catholics looked at the church in a very different way through the images of these two, very appealing men.

MARTIN: How did Vatican II change the role of women in the church, both the clergy and the laity?

TOBIN: It was a significant change. For example, women now are very visible in participating in the Mass itself, on the altar - as lectors, or readers, of the readings on Sunday or during the weekday; ministers of the Eucharist, meaning they serve holy communion alongside the priests, deacons and men; also, as altar servers. Young women or girls are, in many places, allowed to be or encouraged to be altar servers during the Mass - just as I was an altar boy, in my time. Some priests or bishops do not encourage that, but many do.

MARTIN: You mentioned this earlier, that - you talked about the - another major change was the way that the Catholic Church spoke about, and related to, non-Catholics, particularly the Jewish people. Could you talk a little bit about that?

TOBIN: Yes. That was probably one of the most important theological and global breakthroughs, in terms of what came out of Vatican II. The church radically changed its position on the teaching about Jews, and really opened up to dialogue with the Jewish community; and encouraged - and demanded - that Catholics not consider the Jews as "other" or enemy but in fact, as brothers and sisters under the same God. And it was a monumental shift in the position of the church, and in the teachings of the church. So it was a sea change, in terms of the Catholic Church.

MARTIN: Hmm. Now, let's bring this conversation to today. And the current church leadership, particularly Pope Benedict, are viewed - I think - by many, as having a more traditional vision for the church. So could you please, put this into context - for it. I mean, how do you - and I am asking you for your opinion, here - how does the current pope view the changes wrought by Vatican II; and how does he see himself, in relation to it?

TOBIN: Well, for one thing, he will be the last pope who was present at Vatican II, and played an active role and wrote about it - wrote about the theological developments that came out of Vatican II. He underwent, during his own life, sort of a transformation from a more liberal or progressive thinker and theologian, to a more conservative and traditionalist theologian; and was elected, in part, because he was trusted by the cardinals to take a pretty strict, solid line on theological issues. So he is probably a typical example of someone who, having experienced Vatican II, played a role in Vatican II; ultimately, I think, in his heart, he is a product of - as much as a participant in - Vatican II, in that he changed as well. And there's no turning back the clock on this. Fifty years from now, we'll - I think we'll be able to see, probably a little more clearly, how deeply and dramatically the changes worked themselves into the life, and the bloodstream, of the church.

MARTIN: Greg Tobin is the author of the new book "The Good Pope: The Making of a Saint, and the Remaking of the Church"; it's about Pope John XXIII and Vatican II. And he was kind enough to join us from member station WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. Greg Tobin, thank you for speaking with us.

TOBIN: Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.