A reform movement more daring than anything since the Reformation.

When the Second Vatican Council opened its first session about 20 years ago (Oct. 11, 1962), most conservative Protestants paid scant attention. Four hundred and fifty years of venomous charge and countercharge had made it almost impossible to recognize Catholics even as fellow Christians, much less to comprehend that their church was about to embark upon a reform movement probably more daring than anything since the Reformation—certainly more daring than anything we might consider for our own churches or denominations. Ancient patterns of theological discourse, ecclesiastical organization, and devotional practice were to be overturned in less than a decade. The Catholic church and its witness to the gospel were to be “brought up to date” (aggiornamento in Italian).

Some of the subsequent changes are striking, even to a casual Protestant observer. Worship services are conducted in the language of the people. The priest faces the congregation as he leads them in the celebration of Communion, frequently offering them both bread and wine. The exposition of God’s Word in sermons and the sacrament of baptism are now a more prominent part of the service. An English-language version of Holy Scripture can be found in most Catholic homes, whether or not it is read daily, just as in Protestant homes. Congregational singing in some Catholic churches could easily rival that of some Protestant churches. At the main church on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” is the second hymn in the book.

All this may sound very “Protestant,” and indeed, some Catholic commentators have remarked that certain of these reforms came 500 years too late. ...

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