The Second Vatican Council, known also as Vatican II, was the 21st ecumenical council, and it was called for by Pope John XXIII in 1959. The Council itself began in 1962 and lasted until 1965. This event reworked Catholic practices and dramatically changed the relationship of the Catholic Church to the world. The impact of Vatican II on the Catholic Church is immeasurable and continues to manifest in new and unexpected ways to this very day.
The Catholic Church before Vatican II was seen by some as an archaic institution – with some lamentable past actions – more intent on preserving itself than being a source of salvation in the world. The Council sought to change that perception and modernize the Church to better become an active player in the contemporary world. The changes made at the Council continue to shape the Catholic Church, its practices, and its one billion followers.
One of the most important things to come out of Vatican II was the decision to allow masses to be conducted in the local vernacular. Before this, all masses were conducted in Latin. That means that, unless you spoke Latin, you had a really hard time keeping up.
In an effort to get more involvement from lay people around the world, the decision was made to allow approved translations of mass. For the first time, a person in America could hear mass in English, and a person in Guatemala could hear mass in Spanish. In 1965, Pope Paul VI celebrated in Rome with the first-ever mass in Italian.
One of the unfortunate side effects of this change, however, was that the Latin mass fell out of favor entirely. In some areas, it was even suppressed. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI sought to expand usage of the old Latin mass, declaring in the document Summorum Pontificum that it had never been abolished nor should it ever be.
Vatican II brought about some dramatic changes in the Catholic faith, changes that not all Catholics were happy about. From the very beginning, traditionalists led by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre opposed many of the changes, especially the move away from the Latin mass. Lefebvre, and those like him, actually broke away from the Church in protest of the changes. On the other hand, progressives wanted greater changes to the Church, and would later claim "the spirit of Vatican II" to champion their own ideas. Thus, one of the unintended consequences of the Council was a great deal of post-conciliar dissent in the Church.
The Church sought to reflect upon itself and, in doing so, allow others to come to a better understanding of the Church's workings. In turn, the Church sought to emphasize its humanity. It sought to be an active source of salvation in the world, as opposed to something that was apart from or above the world. This would require a far more open dialog between the Church and the people outside of it, including (and especially) those of other faiths.
In 1962, Pope John XXIII convened over 2,000 bishops from around the globe for the 21st ecumenical council. Surprising the world, observers from the Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Churches were also invited to attend. This ecumenical council would become the most important event in the Catholic Church to occur in the modern era.
Pope John XXIII explained that the shared goal of the broadened community present at Vatican II should be attention to and preservation of a shared Christian belief system in an ever-changing world:
"The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more effectively... the Church should never depart from the sacred treasure of truth... But at the same time, she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and the new forms of life introduced into the modern world."