Vatican II: The Laity Led the Way

The mystery of God’s grace … is … manifest 50 years after the courageous and inspired initiative of Blessed Pope John XXIII. A Catholic from the pews could honestly observe today that …Vatican II would have left little impact on contemporary society if not for the faithfulness of the faithful.

As I looked out on the portion of the People of God gathered in St. Peter’s Square to pray, sing, praise, and worship the Lord on the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, my eyes and ears told me that this was certainly the Church catholic that surrounded me: religious sisters, priests, seminarians, single and married people from all continents, the vast majority of whom were not alive on October 11, 1962. They sang and prayed not only in Latin and its filial languages, but in Greek, Swahili, Chinese, and Arabic. The words spoken in the homily by Pope Benedict XVI, himself an active participant in that historic council, brought to my mind the many lessons I have learned over those 50 years from the teaching of Vatican II, almost all of them through the witness of a man named John and his wife June, my parents.

John and June took seriously the council’s call to put into practice the deep meaning of realities which continue to be the vehicles of faith for Christians of every culture: prayer, vocation, liturgy, family life, and the proclamation of Gospel values without apology in the midst of the saeculum— that world beyond the church doors.

By the time I was discovering that one’s vocation did not consist of “what I want to do with my life,” for John and June, the Rosary, prayer before meals, daily Mass and even singing the Divine Office at home, were seen to be part of normal Catholic family life (cf. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (SC) 12; 100). I learned that John had been a seminarian; but this was not a seminary he and his wife were creating at home. Rather, he and June were taking seriously the universal call to holiness proclaimed by Vatican II {Lumen Gentium (LG) 39-42}, and as parents, they were determined to do their part for the young Christians under their care.

I found out that, from an early age, John had expressed a great desire to be a priest, and being an excellent student in the minor seminary had helped him along this road. After two years of philosophy, however, he discovered in his heart that what God had planned for him was not necessarily what he had always wanted. And so, to the surprise of all his classmates and family, he walked into the rector’s office one day and told him of his conviction that the Lord was indeed calling him, but to walk a different road of Gospel holiness (cf. LG 11; 39-42).

When he left the seminary, John patiently prepared himself for a life of work, being introduced along the way to June, the woman with whom he would raise a Christian family. In conscientious, if not enthusiastic, compliance with the mandate given to man and woman in Genesis, John and June were fruitful and added 13 offspring to the human race between 1951 and 1971. They sincerely took upon themselves “their proper mission, the task of transmitting human life and educating those to whom it has been transmitted” (Gaudium et Spes (GS) 50).

John’s love of the liturgy, far from being left behind in the seminary, found its spark and was renewed in line with the directives proceeding from the Conciliar Constitution, Sacrosanctum Concilium. In his parish, he was, perhaps, more responsible than the pastor himself for explaining to fellow parishioners the renewed forms of the rituals which the council allowed—but did not mandate—to be celebrated in the vernacular language (cf. SC 36. 2; 113). Indeed, John and June’s 10th child was the first person in the long history of the parish to be baptized at the Easter Vigil Liturgy. At the same time, he promoted the “active engagement” and “fully conscious participation” of the faithful in the liturgy (cf. SC 11; 14), becoming the parish’s first lay “leader of song” not only for Sunday Eucharist, but also at daily Mass, which for years he accompanied as a self-taught organist each morning before heading off to work for the U.S. government.

During this period of liturgical renewal, John also never failed to remind people, as Pope Benedict XVI did in his homily on Vatican II’s 50th anniversary, of the text of Vatican II, which states as a norm that: “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved” (SC 36. 1; cf. 54), and that “Gregorian chant, … other things being equal, should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (SC 116). Indeed, John’s love of musical liturgy was perhaps best reflected in the Mass of his and June’s 50th anniversary of marriage, in a hymn, (accompanied by guitar!) containing a Latin antiphon along with verses in six European and Asian languages spoken by their children.

Of course, John and June realized that Vatican II had never called for “lay ministers” to assume the roles of clergy in the liturgy (cf. LG 11), but rather to serve in the Church as baptized faithful, “by their very vocation (seeking) the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God” (LG 31). For June, this meant monitoring her children’s play time and getting them to bed on time, as well as getting involved with her husband John in the early years of the Christian Family Movement (cf. GS 52)—before its leaders started promoting artificial birth control and divorce, later nullifying its impact on society. For John, lay ministry meant bringing his Christian faith to his U.S. government job by day and chaperoning the youth activities of his parish in the evening.

John once had to testify in Washington concerning a factor of the economy which was having a decidedly negative impact on society: namely, that the dominant wage-labor system, instead of allowing and encouraging the free participation of women in the work force, was ironically limiting their freedom by actually forcing mothers out of the home. This was because one salary was no longer sufficient to support a family, thus creating new generations lacking parental presence during the formative years (cf. GS 52; 47). In this family, however, Mom was always around during the day, and Pop and Mom were coordinators of work, prayer, study, and fun.

John’s work also allowed him to apply the Church’s social doctrine in creative ways, such as providing government help to save small companies from extinction by having ownership passed to the employees (cf. GS 9; 65). This process of distributive justice was ironically feared by some as having communist overtones—and this by some of the same politicians who today fiercely promote the state-enforced “right” to abort human babies after conception.

Evangelizing Is Witnessing

Working to make the renewal fostered by Vatican II an inculturated reality continuous with the tradition of the Church was no easy task on the local level in the 1960s and ‘70s. Fidelity to the Magisterium expressed in the council’s documents would also have its cost for John and June and their family. As their parish developed a representative pastoral council based on Vatican II’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem (AA)), John was elected its president, well aware that the parish council’s purpose was to advise and assist the parish clergy “in the field of evangelization and sanctification” and the charitable and social spheres (AA 26).

Unfortunately, as the American ’60s took their free-form, yet painful, steps into the ’70s, a number of self-proclaimed “liberal” Catholics claiming to promote “the spirit of Vatican II” (a majority having little familiarity with its documents) slowly became an oppressive force in practice. While John and June’s children got involved in tutoring and summer programs for the less privileged sectors of their urban society, as parents they found that their duty as “the first to communicate the faith to their children and to educate them by word and example” (AA 11) was being compromised in their own parish. With his well-worn copy of the Documents of Vatican II always on the table at parish council meetings, John wondered why the doctrine being transmitted in the parish school, in new textbooks brought in by the teaching sisters, was becoming fuzzier instead of clearer in its expression of the Christian faith. He and his wife felt obliged to request respectfully that the right of the parish families “to receive in abundance from their spiritual shepherds the spiritual goods of the Church” (LG 37) be respected above all in their primary education.

The tension resulting from John’s continual quoting of Vatican II at the parish council came to a head at a town hall meeting of all the parents who had children in the parish primary school. The principal of the school, and her associates, continued to insist that the religion text they were advocating was appropriate for children who were not themselves Catholic, and usually hailed from African-American families. John simply asked all the parents present, most of whom were African-American, which text they preferred. When the great majority sided with him in requesting the text with a straightforward presentation of Christian doctrine, the pastor and his associates—somewhat dazed at how their openness to the community was backfiring at this meeting they had contrived— resolved to settle the issue in a manner at once quite surprising and very sad: they wrote and signed a letter to John, asking him to leave the parish. Indeed, somehow the American democratic spirit had made its presence felt in the post-Vatican II Catholic Church: the people had spoken; but the people were judged wrong.

Although it has been a sad occurrence that some people have left one parish for another in the time since Vatican II, I had never heard of a family’s being “dismissed” from their parish. Even more disquieting was the response of the pastor to one of the smaller children of John and June, who in his innocence asked him directly: “Why don’t you like us?”—to which the pastor replied: “We didn’t ask you to leave; just your father.” It is a testimony to the strength of the laity committed to Christ and his Church that John, June, and their family did not leave the Catholic Church. They rather just shook the dust from their feet and moved on to a neighboring parish. (Of course, about 50 of the most active families left the parish after this “expulsion.”). The true “spirit of Vatican II” did, however, manifest itself in a particularly moving and authentic way when one of the associate pastors showed up at the family’s home and, in tears, asked their forgiveness.

John and June now felt that they somehow had to assume a siege mentality to put into practice the teachings of Vatican II. After their move to a neighboring parish, they made clear to the religious sisters running the school there that they themselves would take care of the preparation of their youngest children for the sacraments, thank you (cf. LG 11; Declaration on Christian Education 3). The active participation in councils and liturgical roles, etc., however, had ended.

Pope Benedict said clearly on October 11, 2012, that “evangelizing means witnessing to the new life, transformed by God” (Homily at Mass for the opening of the Year of Faith). That witness, for John and June, included not only “being thrown out of the synagogue” for the sake of Christ (cf. Jn 16:2), but also forgiveness and the ability to move forward joyfully in seeking the Kingdom of God. They supported the vocations to consecrated life of their first two sons, and when one of these was ordained a priest, he asked to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving at his family’s adopted parish. Here was a new opportunity to witness to Christian holiness. While the Mothers’ Club of the parish actually voted not to provide any reception for the new priest after his First Mass—since his mother June did not belong to the organization—the brothers and sisters and cousins of the newly ordained cheerfully set up tables and chairs for a light lunch. And, after the pastor offered some words of congratulation, the new priest’s younger brothers carried his luggage to his car for his vacation!

It is sad that in the twenty or more years after the closing of Vatican II, a lively “domestic church” (cf. LG 35, GS 48, AA 11) had become less, rather than more, a vital contributor to American society. University students attending the Eucharist daily, faithful to their family custom; young people looking for opportunities to read Scripture and to sing at Mass; a layman promoting, rather than apologizing for, moral values in the political arena; parents during their retirement years praying the Liturgy of the Hours together at home: all of this renewal which I observed in the family of John and June seemed, in general society, to decline rather than increase in the years after Vatican II. Even so, the evangelizing power of this witness continued to be seen in scenes such as the summer campground, where nearby campers would ask to join the Mass they observed being celebrated with a priest member of the family.

June, having passed from this world to share her Master’s joy just a few days into the Year of Faith, is now hoping to hear the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” (Mt 25: 21), after witnessing to the Lord’s paschal mystery through “the sacrifices and joys of her vocation and through faithful love” of her husband and children (GS 52). John, having just recently joined his wife in the “next” grouping of the communion of saints, was in his last years of Alzheimer’s disease, blessed enough to recall his children’s names, let alone the “joy and hope” (Gaudium et Spes) which had enlivened the years during which their personal, family, and social lives were guided by the teaching of all the Vatican II documents. I heard that, during the era when the voice of discontinuity with the pre-Vatican II Church seemed most to disorient so many Catholic Americans, one priest had even remarked with disgust, “that (John) thinks he’s a one-man lay movement!”—a remark that John seemed to wear with pride. A hopeful sign of the grace that continued to work during this troubling era was that the same priest, eventually becoming an archbishop, later became a close friend of John and June and their family.

The mystery of God’s grace, working so powerfully when we seek his will rather than our own, is, indeed, manifest 50 years after the courageous and inspired initiative of Blessed Pope John XXIII. A Catholic from the pews could honestly observe today that, even with the providential leadership of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, Vatican II would have left little impact on contemporary society if not for the faithfulness of the faithful. Many years after the Lord’s call had led an ex-seminarian to live a sacramental life as one flesh with his wife June, I discovered that my own part in this mystery was made possible only by that providential day when John had walked into the rector’s office after hearing the Lord’s call to follow a secular vocation. After the shock of hearing his decision to leave the seminary, the wise priest had told him: “John, find a good Catholic Irish girl, and the Lord will give you a bunch of priests!” Along with two religious sisters, two married sons, and five celibate lay vocations, he did indeed father four priests, one of whom is privileged and grateful to share these reflections.

Fr. James M. Gibson, CR About Fr. James M. Gibson, CR

Rev. James M. Gibson, CR, was ordained in 1979 in Chicago. After many years in parish ministry among Spanish-speaking communities, including nine years in Oaxaca, Mexico. He received a licentiate degree in spiritual theology from the Gregorian University in Rome. He presently serves as secretary general of the Congregation of the Resurrection in Rome.


  1. Thank you Fr. Gibson, for sharing with us all, some of the joys and sufferings of your parents as they walked their path of faithfulness to the Lord Jesus. The Church needs such examples! We need examples of heroic fidelity, to strengthen and fortify us against the deadening influences of secularism and its culture of death. There are not many families today, I would speculate, that could even imagine what a faithful Catholic home, a sanctuary of faith and charity, would look like. I hope that the upcoming synod on the family will spotlight the problems and the needed solutions to this crisis – it is a matter that must be recognized and addressed. But again, thank you.

    • Fr James Gibson CR Fr James Gibson CR says:

      Thank you for the comment, Thomas. As you can see in the article, a Catholic home fosters vocations, and we can see clearly today how the plight of the family bears fruit –some positive, a lot of negative– for the life of the Church.

  2. Avatar Fr. John Gibson, OCD says:

    It is a privilege and a joy for me to offer my gratitude to my younger brother, Fr. Jim, CR – yes, I am the oldest son of the thirteen children in the Gibson family – for expressing with beauty and poise what our parents John and June lived from day to day with utmost fidelity and at the same time with tender and compassionate love. Everything my brother Fr. Jim has said resonates with the wellsprings of hope and courage that have given me much interior strength in my missions of South Korea, Albania, Sierra Leone, Mexico, Rwanda, and my present home in Tanzania, East Africa. I am happy to be a member of the Gibson family.

  3. Avatar Gene Szarek, C.R. says:

    Jim, as your brother in the Congregation of the Resurrection, I was delighted to read your moving reflections on the lives of your parents and their love of the Church. I first met your father when he and I sat next to each other at a high school play, in which I think one of your siblings might have been performing. He didn’t know that I was a Resurrectionist and I didn’t know he was your father, until much later in our conversation that evening. When I concelebrated his funeral Mass, this remembrance came to mind, as it does again today, reading your lovely testimony.

  4. Avatar Matthew Zemanek says:

    Awesome article Father Jim! I hope you are doing well in life, health and ministry! Blessings!

  5. Avatar Deacon Peter Trahan says:

    Dear Father Gibson,
    the phrase in the above article, “one’s vocation [does] not consist of ‘what I want to do with my life,’ ” is the first time I’ve heard anyone express what I express in helping people understand vocation. The phrase I use is that “vocation and ambition are not the same thing.” When someone says, “I think I want to be a deacon [or priest] I usually think that this is an ambition rather than a sense that God is calling them. I’ve even heard someone once say, “I’m going to be a deacon.”

    What I found in my own discernment and in others is that we are initially reluctant to say “yes,” and when we do, it is not “yes I want to be . . .” but “yes, I will enter formation to see if this is God’s calling for me.” Granted sometimes what God wants and what we want do coincide, but this is a rare exception. Thank you for affirming true discernment of discernment.

    Deacon Peter Trahan
    Archdiocese of Miami
    St Bonaventure Parish
    Davie, FL