The Second Vatican Council was one of the most significant events in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. As an ecumenical council Vatican II attempted to redirect the Catholic Church. Its effect was considerable, both in its intended and unintended results.
The council was called by Pope John XXIII in January 1959. He signaled the need for renewal so that the church could more effectively impact the world. The first session of the council was held in fall 1962. Shortly after its conclusion, Paul VI replaced John XXIII as pope. The council continued for three more sessions, concluding on December 8, 1965. It issued 16 documents, the most authoritative being the Constitutions on the Liturgy, the Church, Revelation, and the Church in the Modern World.
The council envisioned serious change. It directed a major revision of the liturgy, the services of the Catholic Church that had practically not changed for four centuries. It promoted the use of the Bible and emphasized its authority, mandated a restoration of the college of bishops in the governing of the church, reversed the earlier rejection of the ecumenical movement among the Christian churches, took a positive approach to other religions and to modern society, and reversed the traditional Catholic position upholding the ideal of the governmental establishment of the church.
The council opened the door to change, and a period of rapid, confusing, and often unintended change then began. For instance, shortly after the council, the liturgy began to be celebrated in the vernacular, the Eucharist was celebrated with the priest facing the people, and women stopped wearing head-coverings. For many, there was shock that the unchangeable had changed. For others, when Pope Paul VI refused to change the ruling against artificial contraception in 1967, there was shock that the changes would not include the elimination of many unpopular teachings and practices. Many Catholics took a secularizing approach, many a conservative resisting approach; many clergy and laity left, and soon there was a common conviction the Catholic Church was in crisis.
Pope John Paul II, who had participated in the council as archbishop of Kraków, began a process of stabilization after becoming pope in 1978. The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985 under his leadership reaffirmed the value of Vatican II and urged Catholics to avoid the deviations of extreme rejection and of promotion of secularization. As a result of his papacy, Vatican II has been accepted as the charter of the modern church and may turn out to be the source of renewal that was hoped for.