The challenge of harnessing Vatican II: Moving with the signs of the times


Young people exert a very important influence in modern society. Their living conditions, their mental attitudes, their relations with their families, have been completely transformed. Often, they enter too rapidly a new and social environment. While their social and even political influence is on the increase daily, they seem unequal to the weight of these new responsibilities.

The growth of their social importance demands from them a corresponding apostolic activity; and indeed their natural character inclines them in this direction. Buoyed up by their natural ardour and exuberant energy, when awareness of their own personality ripens in them they shoulder responsibilities and are eager to take their place in social and cultural life. If this enthusiasm is penetrated with the spirit of Christ, animated by a sense of obedience and love of the pastors of the church, a very rich harvest can be expected from it. The young should become the first apostles to the young, in direct contact with them, exercising the apostolate by themselves among themselves, taking account of their social environment.

Adults should be anxious to enter into friendly dialogue with the young. Through this, despite the difference in age, adults and young people could get to know each other and share with each other their own personal riches. It is by example first of all, and on occasion by sound advice and practical help that adults should persuade the young to undertake the apostolate. The young, on their side, will treat their elders with respect and confidence; and though by nature inclined to favour what is new, they will give due esteem for praiseworthy traditions.

Children too have an apostolate of their own. In their own measure they are true living witnesses of Christ among their companions.” (Decree on the Apostolate of the Lay People, Chapter III, Article 12)

When I think of the second Vatican Council, a broad spectrum of images comes to mind.

Scenes from the Australian ABC mini series Brides of Christ flash before me.

‘Johnny XXIII’

The dramatic changes the central character faced in her life and the life of the order

I also think of older people recalling ‘how much change Vatican II brought in’, ‘that things seemed different’, ‘that the church is no longer what it used to be.’

The strongest image I have of the impact of Vatican II had on the people of God, was when a religious sister explained how she felt when her order no longer had to wear their long gowns and habit. As she walked outside on a summer’s day, she distinctly remembered experiencing a soft gentle breeze touch the back of her knee and calf. She said she remembered how gentle, warm and soft that breeze was, and she felt the presence of God within and around her. She experienced a sense of freedom, insight and God’s presence all in one experience. She was open to that particular touch and interpretation.

There are moments in my work where I feel this breeze of God especially when I see and feel ‘a spirit of openness to the Spirit of God’. I see this spirit of openness when I am in the presence of young people. You know where you stand when you are with young people. They either say to you how it is, or, depending on how they feel for that particular day, their body language will surely tell you how they feel.

In recent months we have heard how some clergy, religious and lay people have abused young people. As a result strict guidelines and protocols have been implemented by church and state so that young people are protected. Young people are conscious that there are still many good people in the church and some are aware that it was the individual actions of some people who chose to abuse. Yet young people are still committed to enliven the church with their presence and to be involved. I asked some of the members of the Parramatta Diocesan Leadership Team, what they thought of the issue and one mentioned that it has made her stronger in her faith. Another felt that it helped him get a stronger determination to promote the other good things that Catholics do and say.

Young people have so much to offer. Their enthusiasm, skills and presence are needed in our church. Our parishes are adult driven and focused,but young people must be active participants in the structures of pastoral leadership in the parish, if the church is to be relevant and alive in the 21st century.

Recalling some specific aspects of the Second Vatican Council

The documents of Vatican II highlight the influential role young people play in church and civic society. In my work I have noticed young people expressing a real willingness to engage in ‘apostolic activity’- to engage in innovative ways to make the church accessible to all people of all ages. They yearn to build a sense of community, hospitality and belonging in their parish where all people feel at home.

The Vatican II Liturgy documents stressed that the Liturgy is the source and summit of the life of the Church. Also as the liturgy is the gathering point of the parish, I often encourage adults and pastors to seek ways of inviting young people to become involved and active participants in the Eucharist. There are some parishes in the diocese which ensure that young people are involved by sponsoring them to become Ministers of the Word and the Eucharist and other ministries such as hospitality, altar servers and money collectors. Now this is not the reality that some young people would have experienced pre Vatican II. From what I have heard and read I realise that the parish world was very different. I spoke with lay and religious people, asking their experiences of church from 1962 to 1965. Here is what Stephen who was 18 years old in 1965 said:

“The CYO had a strong presence, which was great, lots of fun. Mass was said in Latin and the priest had his back to you, formal, only one mass. Vatican II happened. Priests turned around and now mass was said in English.” He didn’t know if the change was a good thing. But the good thing was that “there was more than one mass, one in the evening, which meant that he could go out on Saturday night and then go to mass on Sunday night. Although I missed the Latin, I felt that the mass wasn’t universal as it used to be.” However he realised that the church needed to relate more to young people and felt that Vatican II tried to do that.

From my conversation with Stephen I learnt that if you were young and male you could be an ‘altar boy’, but it appears that there was little participation of the laity in the liturgy. Stephen commented that there was more choice of masses after Vatican II. He felt that even though it suited the young person’s lifestyle, he noticed that that he didn’t attend mass with his family as often as he used to. He also pointed out that the Catholic Youth Organisation was huge, especially in Sydney. Initiated by Monsignor Leonard at Summer Hill, the CYO was by far the largest parish based youth activity. The CYO provided social opportunities to get to know other young Catholics on a regular basis. Many couples dated and married through the organisation. It appears that the CYO was successful because it met a need for many young people and families at the time.

So what was the time? In her book Australia in 1960’s Bereson notes that in the 60’s: –

Weekly wages were:

Fitter and turner-$56.40

Male nurse-$60 female $52.10


Bank manager-$97.59

Also that:

Steak $2.30 a kilo

Car $2368.00


Bereson also identifies the 1960s as a decade of social revolution.

Between 1960 and 1970 Australia’s population soared from 10.3 million to 12.6 million, including1.3 million migrants.

The White Australia policy changed in 1966 to allow Asian migration.

In 1967 (there was a referendum and white Australians voted to have Aboriginal people counted as Australian citizens and included in the national census. 5 million Australians voted for change and ½ a million were against.

Karen Marder an employee of the Supreme Court of Victoria was told to lower her hemline or get a new job.

In 1964 Australia introduced compulsory registration of all 20 year-old men for National Service in the Vietnam War. The participants were chosen by ballot.

Reflections on developments over the years

It was against these social changes that Vatican II was taking place. It is not surprising that Vatican II happened in the 1960s. The main aim of the Council was to respond to the signs of the times and encourage Catholics’ understanding of their faith. The Council urged Catholics to live out their faith in homes, workplaces and places of study. During the decade of the 60s, three social teachings (Peace on Earth 1963, Church in the Modern World 1965, Development of Peoples 1967) were written encouraging people to stand for what they believed in. The social teachings of the church convey such an important message of justice, peace and solidarity – messages that young people back then and today, struggle for.

Prior to 1960s the Young Christian Workers were also very popular. Members were involved in everything from YCW football teams, marriage preparation courses to credit cooperatives, which were started up for the young people who came back after the Vietnam War. The Australian Church actively supported YCW, especially during the 1950s-60s. The YCW in Australia took part in the anti-Vietnam war protests, which the official church did not approve of since it actively supported the government’s position of the war in Vietnam. As a result of YCW’s involvement many groups were closed, some against the wishes of young people. Clearly in this situation, young people at the time felt so strongly about what they stood for, that they were prepared to make their voices known and heard.

Even today young people find expression of their spirituality through works of social justice. Why? Because of Jesus’ clear and radical stance for peace, justice and for people who are poor, oppressed and marginalised. Social justice initiatives in schools work, because students work together with other students, responding to an unjust social issue and striving to make a difference in the lives of others.

I spoke with a young man who was in his early teens during the 1970s. He remembers the changes in his Religious Education classes. There was a shift from listening to a catechetically based lesson to a more experiential ‘bean bag’ lesson. Meaning there was a high level of sharing of personal stories of spirituality in an informal fashion. He commented that it appeared to him that the church was going through a period of spiritual adolescence. The Church was trying to awkwardly embrace the new challenges that Vatican II had brought in, whilst still trying to hold on to the past traditions and practices. He became heavily involved in Young Christian Students as it was on opportunity for him to meet other young people (especially girls as he was at a boys high school) and a chance to nurture, deepen and strengthen his faith.

Spiritually and communally, young people need to affirm and support each other in living out what they believe. In the late 70s and early 80s, groups such as Antioch began to develop and work, because together the community members aim to live out their faith through talks, fellowship, music and social outings. Parent couples gave guidance and affirmation when needed.

Young people need adults to walk the walk and talk-especially in the church context. Young people often comment how appreciative they are of parents or adults who help in youth ministry, especially when adults walk with, as opposed to directing and telling them what to do. Even the council fathers knew this! They said:

“The young should become the first apostles to the young, in direct contact with them, exercising the apostolate by themselves among themselves, taking account of their social environment. Adults should be anxious to enter into friendly dialogue with the young. Through this, despite the difference in age, adults and young people could get to know each other and share with each other their own personal riches. It is by example first of all and on, occasion by sound advice and practical help that adult should persuade the young to undertake the apostolate.”

Although the CYO is no longer with us, other youth movements, programs, communities and groups (which the Council encouraged the laity to develop) such as YCS, YCW, Antioch, Josephite Community Aid, Youth, Singles and Couples for Christ, Disciples and Servants of Jesus, Encounter, Branches, Youth United for Community, Action and Networking, Edmund Rice Camps and Justice Activities, Young Vinnies, Veritas, Youth 2000 and many others are currently available across the country. There is a rich diversity amongst these movements and this parallels the diverse ways in which young people express their faith and the backgrounds they come from. These organisations do what they do extraordinarily well. They have located the pulse of ministry with youth and young adults.

So what about the parishes?

Those pastors who are prepared to place young people as their priority in their parish are doing really well. It gets around the diocese when a couple of parishes are young people friendly and have something alive, relevant and needs based. St Bernadette’s at Castle Hill is a parish where there are many options for youth and young adults. The parish is very alive especially at their Sunday evening mass which is called a Life Teen mass. Taken from their website, Life Teen is a total youth ministry program, with its basis being the 6pm youth mass. The goal of Life Teen is to create an environment for teens to have their hearts transformed through encountering Jesus Christ. Then there are some parishes, which are doing what they can for young people depending on the available resources and are trying their best to meet the needs of young people. Then there are others that are really struggling to even connect with young people. When I meet with them I can see they are genuinely trying to locate that pulse – but just can’t find it. Often when they do meet with us, they are nearly at their wits end. I can totally understand why Robert J McCarty, executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry in America, recently wrote an article ‘Ministering to the Millenials’ (2002). McCarty identified some global events and technological developments that dramatically altered the thinking and beliefs of children and young people of the 21st century.

1981 Discovery of AIDS

1993 Free Elections in South Africa

1986 Challenger Disaster

1995 Okalahoma Bombing

1989 Fall of the Berlin wall

1991 Soviet Union Dissolution

1991 Persian Gulf War

1999 Columbine High School Massacre

Day of Terrorism in USA



Major inventions during their brief lifetimes heralds the age of technology

Video games, Nintendo

Microsoft windows




Explosion of Cable TV

Mobile Phones

Fax machines



Satellite dishes

2001 Worldwide Satellite network

Young people in the 21st century have experienced more global, technological and social change in their childhood than any of the Baby Boomers experienced in their lifetime, especially in the affluent western world. McCarty terms the young people of today as ‘Millenials’ saying;

“Millenials live in a world of instant communication and immediate access to information. They are technologically and media savvy, with an emphasis on visual images versus verbal and written”.

 Furthermore, McCarty describes the spirituality of young people. He says young people are believers but do not belong to a particular church.

Spirituality is important and the focus is on the journey.

Journey filled with questions, doubts, and a need to grapple questions of faith with peers and with believing adults.

They want to share their journey with others who are experienced as supportive, welcoming, authentic and caring.

Discipleship is important, not membership.

Young people are open to transcendence, mystery, beauty compassion, inclusivity, and justice.

They see religion as judgemental, elite, abstract doctrine, boring rituals and strict boundaries and rules.

Spirituality as withdrawing from the rat race, competition, hatred and the violence they see in society.”

McCarty argues that the ministry challenge is to reconstruct Catholicism for a new generation by;

Providing prayer experiences that help them heal the sacred/secular split

Nature and the arts are excellent mediums to discover God

The use of symbols and sensual experiences

Possibilities and suggestions

Vatican II affirmed ‘collaboration’, ‘sharing of gifts’, ‘dialogue’ and ‘building community’ with the pastor, adults and young people. These words will remain only words, unless we are prepared to make them a living reality-for all people. Working in this apostolate with young people I experience many joys. I feel privileged to be a part of their world and blessed to be engaged in living out the mission of the church with parishes, movements and groups. However these realities only exist because there is a willingness to be open to the Spirit of God to move with and also challenge the ‘signs of the times’.

At times I do find it challenging to sew the seeds of Vatican II particularly in today’s society and church. In order to seriously engage in making the teachings of Vatican II a reality for young people, we need to look at what is preventing young people from being involved in the Eucharist and address those obstacles with a gospel-based attitude and openness of heart. This takes honesty, time, careful planning and at times, money. If you value something, you make a space for it. Financial investment in providing resources for young people, convey a powerful message to the entire Catholic community. It says that “young people are not only the church of today and the church of tomorrow and we are prepared to create total opportunities for young people to become the best young Catholics they can be.”

I asked a pastor his thoughts on the joys and challenges of sewing the seeds of Vatican II. Fr Mark said:

“Our young grow up in an education system that equips them to be skilled at group processes requiring dialogue, collegiality and the use of subsidiarity. They live in a world that take religious liberty for granted and where ecumenism is not considered a rarity. That is a source of joy for me as a pastor. On the other hand, many youth of faith, like the adults in their lives, do not identify themselves as the People of God. Nor it is obvious to them that the Church is sacrament. The cure for the latter sadness probably lies with us adult believers.”

A young man suggested some possibilities for the future:

“For today and the future, Vatican II is still an important challenge for the church and society. Indeed there is a lot of unfinished business. I once read an article that spoke about this. That because so much effort and resources were put into reorganising the mass, catholic education, etc. after Vatican II (obviously the priority) that the church has yet to fully get behind the development and full participation of the laity. And, this is where we find ourselves today, amid complex and radical changes in societ)”.

I believe this is the challenge of the modern church. Formation and participation of the laity is not simply participation as ministers in the mass and parish life. This is important but the vocation of the laity comes from our baptism as Catholics and is practiced in the world where we live, work, play, etc. (family life, at school, at work, in the neighbourhood, etc.). According to church teaching on the laity, this is where we are called to live out our Christian vocation. However the church is yet to actively support this approach. We are so concerned about maintaining what we have, perhaps caught up in the numbers game, that the focus of most parishes is kept within the parish walls.

To take up the question of the laity, means being actively concerned about the world. It is not enough to have a formation of the laity while ignoring what is happening in their lives, our lives. Opening our eyes to this would lead to other challenges for the church.

The biggest challenge, in respect to young people is the relevancy of the church. Why is it that only a very small fraction of catholic students let alone young people in general, participates in Mass? New education and evangelisation programs, while essential, are unfortunately not enough. It is time to look at how the church can become an integrated and relevant part of young people’s lives – lets read again the documents of Vatican II, understand with open minds and hearts the signs of the times and act courageously as Jesus Christ himself taught us so well to do.”


Bereson I., (2000) Australia in 1960s. Port Melbourne Victoria, Echidna Books

McCarty R., (2002) Horizon Journal. (Photostat copy)

Flannery A., (1996) The Basic Sixteen Documents: Vatican Council II Constitutions, Decrees and Declarations. Costello Publishing New York.


Sowing the seeds of Vatican II: Joys and challenges


How do we invite young people to Church?

How to question the Church legitimately?

Year 12 retreat experiences are fantastic sources of growth and development that are not reproduced in the parish setting. How can we change this mind set?

What keeps young people away?

How relevant is the Church to young people?

What prevents parents from attending Church?

Dialogue is easy when there is something in common. How can we bridge the gap?


We need to stop worrying about ‘bums on seats’ approach

Special programs need to be developed to encourage young people to attend with friends who perhaps are not Catholic

There are a variety of causes for the lack of young people in the Church.

Need to meet young people where they are

Families of different stages of development, not all the same ‘place’ at the same time

Need to allow freedom of expression and risk failure. Don’t always know the outcome, but can develop from the shared experience


Children have different needs to adolescents and can’t be in the same group with same set of needs

Need to see Jesus reflected in the Church practices especially regarding authority, especially as a consequence of loss of integrity by some clergy

Laity and young people fail to understand Church rules, which often lead to misunderstandings

High standard of faith/life education in schools. Teachers are becoming more professional in their approach to religious education


Need to ask young people what they think, give them room

We need to encourage, be warm and friendly, need to welcome

We can’t impose on young people; need to be aware of sensitivities

‘Models’ are not relevant. Need for young people to experience differences

The hierarchy needs to let go of their authority and share meaningfully with young people and the laity. Don’t be afraid of failing


Before we do anything we need to acknowledge that there is a rich diversity amongst young people, can’t put all in the same basket

Need to develop opportunities to develop them as leaders of the Church (especially in the area of TAFE and University chaplaincy.)

Need to recognise the tensions

Way forward – nurture faith developing opportunities

Need to welcome young people at all times

Need to participate meaningfully

Need to invest in resources for ‘picking up young people moving through later stages of youth journey’ (tertiary years)

Establish a National Youth Commission to develop and fund initiatives for, by and with young people

(Claire Barbeau is the Coordinator of the Youth and Young Adult Apostolate in the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta.)