Bishops of the world line the main aisle of St. Peter's Basilica during the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in 1962.


Bishops of the world line the main aisle of St. Peter's Basilica during the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in 1962.

June 20, 2011

For Franciscan Father Don MacDonald, the Second Vatican Council was the impetus for seeing the Catholic faith "in a positive, attractive manner."

"It made Christian living more challenging," says MacDonald, who was ordained in 1961, just a year before the council began.

Previously, the Catholic faith had been a set of rules to be obeyed, he recalls. The council, however, brought a realization that being faithful meant knowing the faith better and living the faith better.

MacDonald will teach a course on Vatican II on Wednesday evenings at Newman Theological College beginning Sept. 7.

MacDonald, who has taught at Newman for more than 40 years, feels Vatican II has been misunderstood.

On one hand, some believe the purpose of the council was to make being a Catholic easier and to adapt to the modern world. That's wrong on both accounts.

The Church has never tried to adapt itself to the world, he said, and the council made the faith more demanding, "in the best sense of the word."

On the other hand, younger Catholics who know nothing of the pre-Vatican II Church sometimes yearn for it with "a nostalgia based on ignorance."

The Church before Vatican II was not the good ol' days. A lot needed to change.


MacDonald recalls that at the Franciscans' high-school level St. Anthony College in Edmonton, one priest who was one of the top literature teachers in the city had to get the archbishop's permission in the pre-Vatican II era before he could read the novels of Ernest Hemingway.

"Today parents would be pleased to have their children reading Hemingway compared with what else is out there," he said.

In the seminary, MacDonald recalls being taught that how a priest celebrates Mass was more important than what was being celebrated. The emphasis placed on how the priest held his hands during Mass "was almost like a phys ed exercise."

Still, there was a lot of "heroic Catholicism" and a strong emphasis on social action in the Church prior to the council, he said. "You have to have respect for that pre-Vatican II faith."

In his course, MacDonald will first examine the pre-Vatican II Church and the rise of the "new theology" that underlay the council's achievements. He'll look at Pope John XXIII's decision to call the council and the more than three years of preparation for the event.

The course will take a close look at the Vatican II documents, especially its four "constitutions" — on liturgy, divine revelation, the Church and the Church in the Modern World.

Finally, MacDonald will look at how the council has been "received" by the Church since it concluded in 1965.


Not to be forgotten are the internal dynamics of the council — how European cardinals brought leading theologians like Yves Congar and Karl Rahner to Rome to give conferences to the bishops from around the world. Those theologians were "amazed to find how hungry the bishops were for this renewed theology."

Then, there were the two popes of the council — John XXIII and Paul VI — and their struggles to maintain the unity of the Church and "keep everybody on board."

Although the council concluded before most of today's Catholics were born, MacDonald sees it as an event with continuing relevance. "My opinion is that it is still insufficiently absorbed. Vatican II has

Fr. Don MacDonald, ofm

Fr. Don MacDonald, ofm

to be re-actualized in the Church."

People are leaving the Church, he says, because their spiritual life isn't being sustained. They don't feel the Word of God is being preached well enough and they're not being spiritually nourished.

Yet, there is also a danger of Catholics falling into "pseudo-orthodoxy" or "pseudo-conformism," he says. There is a need to be true to the council's effort to overcome a fear of the world and to go out into the world with a renewed sense of mission.


"If you see the world as something primarily going to the devil, you'll do everything possible to protect Catholic people from that nasty world."

His advice on that point: "You can't change what you don't love." You can't change the world unless you first love it.

People are often critical of the exaggerations of the council that took place in the period following its end, he says. They should be equally critical of the exaggerated formalism in the pre-Vatican II Church.

"Nature always has its revenge," MacDonald says, noting that the post-conciliar exaggerations were a predictable over-reaction to the pre-conciliar Church.

The exodus of sisters and priests from their vows and from ordination were the result of a lack of preparation of people for the Church's renewal and reform.

"It's obviously the same faith," he says. But it took work to assimilate it.

That assimilation needs to continue even today, he says.

MacDonald's conclusion: "What the Church needs is more Vatican II." With his class in the fall, at least a few Catholics will get it.