Is Rome Listening?

I won’t even pretend to have been aware of the 60th anniversary of the opening of the  Vatican II council (1962-1965) in April of this year.

Pope John XXIII

Pope John XXIII

Pope (now Saint) John XXIII called Vatican II almost 100 years after the previous such council, to the surprise (and often shock) of Catholics around the globe. And while changes that came about in the Church as a result of it were applauded by many Catholics who considered them long overdue, the divisions it created with the many who opposed them exist to this day.

As a result of Vatican ll, “those in the pews” who were definitely not participants in the liturgy, were thereafter referred to as “the people of God,” and instead of playing with their rosaries during sermons (that over the years became “homilies”) the laity—including women who, up to then, usually approached the altar only to receive the Eucharist or, in the case of members of a religious order, to serve as sacristans—became involved as lectors and Eucharistic ministers while young girls joined the boys as altar servers.

Choirs made the move down from choir lofts to a more prominent place in the church where congregational singing was encouraged and so-called “folk Masses” became popular, introducing as they did, a very different musical repertoire.

The most significant reform was the change from Latin, long the language of the liturgy, to the vernacular, which, along with celebrants facing their much more involved congregations, created a new energy and appreciation for the various liturgies. The loss of the Latin Mass, however, still resonates with many, even some who have never actually experienced it in their lifetimes.

The sign of peace was restored and communion under both species of bread and wine became the norm, the communion wafer could be received in the hand, a three-year cycle of readings from Matthew, Mark and Luke was initiated and reading the Bible, something which, at the time of Vatican II, was not encouraged by Rome, was now considered a worthy undertaking. None of the changes happened overnight and it wasn’t until 1973 that the first official translation of the New Mass was provided. A new Catechism was finally published and Ecumenism was embraced, as Catholic congregations interacted with those of other faiths.


A Vatican II decision allowing Catholics to eat meat on Fridays was definitely a welcome change although fish was often still on the  menu given its lower cost.

For women, the end of the requirement  to cover their heads in church meant no more “kleenex hats” or any of the other ridiculous improvisations  so often utilized!

Women’s religious orders experienced many changes, that, according to Sr. Helen Prejean, an American Sister of St. Joseph. After years of “being cordoned off from the world to pursue holiness and prayer” they were free to doff the black and white habits of old, drive cars, balance checkbooks, live in apartments and, more importantly, according to Prejean, “to look where people were suffering and in need,” which brought her to New Orleans ”to do just that.” Eventually, she became a volunteer on death row and wrote a book about her experiences, Dead Man Walking, that became a very popular movie.

Sister Maureen Fiedler, a Sister of Mercy, also welcomed the new freedoms that came as a result of Vatican II as did the members of  Canadian Orders who adapted to the changes with obvious enthusiasm. Sr. Fiedler, happy to have more independence, admits thinking “Well, women priests can’t be far behind, a married priesthood can’t be far behind.”

Catholic Women's Club tea, Montreal, 1940.

Catholic Women’s Club tea, Montreal, 1940. (Photo by Conrad Poirier, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

What she didn’t count on, she told NPR in 2012, on the 50th anniversary of the council, was “the many people within the Vatican who had set their minds on rolling back the Vatican II changes.” Feidler would undoubtedly have been disappointed to learn that a decade later, those people remain hard at work.

However, Vatican II did give bishops a sense of empowerment and many spoke candidly, openly criticizing the Vatican ban on artificial birth control, and while many cardinals and bishops were dubious about the council, the rest of the world was not.  People around the world saw the council as a sign of hope and renewal in the Church.


The Synod called by Pope Francis was to run from 2021-2023 and include members of the hierarchy but also members of the laity. It made headlines by calling on every Catholic parish in the world to participate at the grass roots level by holding meetings where parishioners would decide what to concerns they had with the Church and know that they could be aired, listed and communicated to their Diocesan Bishops who would then decide which items would be added to a communication forwarded to the Vatican and surprising to me at least, even locally the ordination of women and approval of same-sex marriage were highlighted.

Outside the consistory of cardinals convened by Pope Francis at the Vatican in late August, women call for greater inclusion of women at all levels of the church. (Courtesy of Women's Ordination Conference)

Outside the consistory of cardinals convened by Pope Francis at the Vatican in late August 2022, women call for greater inclusion of women at all levels of the church. (Courtesy of Women’s Ordination Conference via the National Catholic Reporter)

On October 27, the Vatican released a document to guide the next phase of what Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, calls Pope Francis’ “innovative new process for the Synod of Bishops. Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, McElwee said the document shows  “the Catholic Church’s capacity to listen to its people.”

According to McElwee:

The 45-page synthesis of national and local listening sessions from countries around the world—known as the Working Document for the Continental Stage of the synod—presents an embodied synodality that offers a “path of recognition” for those who have felt invisible or dismissed by their church. Not to overstate the matter, but recognition—being seen and heard—is a small revolution.

The document fits in well with the ongoing Synodal journey which, we have been told, “is not an event but a process in which the whole People of God is called to walk together toward what the Holy Spirit helps it to discern as being the Lord’s will for His Church” (which sounds like quite an undertaking to me.)

McElwee says instead of “the single women’s paragraph” paying “lip service” to the place of women in the Church so often found in Vatican documents, the report “weaves narratives from around the world indicating the reality of structures and systems that prevent their full participation in the life of the church.”

She sees the Vatican acknowledging, as it does in the report, “global calls for women’s priestly ordination” as evidence of a “spirit of openness and accountability to the people of God—and a “stark contrast” to Francis’ 2013 comments on women’s ordination: “The Church has spoken and says no..that door is closed.”


But enough on this subject before I am accused of pushing the ordination of women way too much (as I have been told by a few I have done with the abuse scandal). No doubt there will be many areas of discussion where the more conservative opinions will carry the day. In Germany, for example, a dispute over the German Synod process has become “a proxy war about the Francis papacy and the more synodal Church he is trying to create,” according to Christopher Lamb.

Synod 2021-2013 logo

At least 70 bishops from four continents have signed a “fraternal open letter” to their counterparts in Germany expressing “concern” over their “Synodal Path.”

Lamb says their goal is to convince Francis to shut down or at least curtail the synod process which, in Germany, has been considering “fundamental changes” to the Church’s teachings, although, as Lamb explains:

…the topics under examination by the German synod—the use of power, the role of women in the Church, the ordained priesthood and Catholic sexual teaching—are all topics that are being raised in local churches as part of the global synod. They can no longer be ignored, particularly in light of the clerical sexual abuse crisis.

The first phase of the Synod that opened on 10 October  2021 focused on “listening and discernment” and Pope Francis has said there are “many first fruits but more time is needed in order for them to become fully mature.” That probably explains why he has announced two additional sessions, one to be held in October of 2023 and one in October of 2024, making the chances for a successful and fruitful synod outcome uncertain to say the least.



Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.