Story by Mary Morrell | Correspondent
Let’s be honest. Books containing the original 16 documents of Vatican II are not likely reading choices for parishioners, catechists or the lay person simply wanting an inspirational Catholic book to nourish their faith.
After all, the 16 documents were created by brilliant theologians, priests and bishops, and are assumed by many to be the scholastic stuff of experts. Better to let them read and interpret the documents for us.
Not so, writes Father John G. Hillier, a priest of the Diocese of Metuchen, who has one main goal for his book, “Breathing Life into the Church: Making Sense of Vatican II,” which includes an introduction to the Second Vatican Council and an engaging examination of the 16 documents that came out of Vatican II.
“Over more than 50 years that have passed since the second Vatican Council, we have been challenged by all the popes to study and reflect on the primary sources – the actual documents of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism – and not only on what others have said about the documents,” Father Hillier writes.
To help readers get to that point, Father Hillier has prepared a welcomed resource, a springboard from which those who may have shied away from the remarkable, historical event of the Second Vatican Council can move forward, with a new understanding of the documents as pastoral letters meant to inform, guide and nurture Catholics in every walk of life.
In the book’s forward to the book, Rev. Msgr. Edward C. Puleo, executive director for the Department of Clergy and Religious Personnel in the Diocese of Metuchen, points out, “As a pastoral minister, a catechist, a teacher or a parent, identifying the right aid is crucial when seeking to provide the best for those who depend on us.
“This book is a welcomed, valuable tool to supplement the catechetical material already being used or as a main text in religious formation or religious studies. Parishes will find this material just the right fit for their parishioners, whether as a source for adult education sessions or for personal spiritual enrichment.”
This short book of 132 pages offers a wealth of information, beginning with the introduction. Here, the 16 documents are listed, broken down as four constitutions, nine decrees and three declarations, with Father Hillier’s explanation: “Like many things in the Church, there is also a hierarchy with regard to official Church documents. Within the documents of Vatican II the ‘hierarchy of documents’ would place the four constitutions first, the nine decrees second and the three declarations third.”
I didn’t know that, but then again, by the end of the book, I realized there was a lot I didn’t know about the Second Vatican Council or its documents.
Fortunately, Father Hillier’s experience as vice-rector/associate professor of Dogmatic Theology in Holy Apostles Seminary, Cromwell, Conn., is reflected in the breadth and depth of his knowledge, adding to the richness of the text without being overbearing or difficult to understand.
Most appreciated is what Father Puleo describes as Father Hillier’s “unique approach,” using “personal anecdotes and experiences to make theology come alive.”
Of the 17 chapters, 16 are devoted, individually, to one of the documents. Each of these chapters is graced with a personal story or reflection that helps readers connect to the document on a deeper level – that of life experience. Father Hillier seems to instinctively know that when we can connect with Church teaching in a personal way, one that makes sense for our families and the circumstances of each unique generation, our level of engagement is strengthened.
As a lay person, I was most encouraged by the experiences Father Hillier shared of being inspired by “Apostolicam Actuositatem: Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity,” which was first introduced to him as a class assignment while a teenager.
One of the stories came from a time, during his college years, when a local newspaper published an article “depicting unmentionable blasphemy being directed toward the priesthood, with an accompanying photo of a tabernacle in a Catholic Church being desecrated. Consistent with the challenge in “Apostolicam Actuositatem,” that ‘the faithful should exercise their apostolate by way of united effort,’ I helped organize a contingency of lay Catholics of different ages to march from our local cathedral to the headquarters of the Telegram office where we placed thousands of newspapers on the front steps as a way to publicly demonstrate our outrage for the personal affront and injustice leveled against the Catholic community.”
Complementing the text is an array of historical and personal photos. At the end of each chapter, there are also reflection questions perfect for the individual reader seeking faith enrichment, or for use within a small group desiring to share and grow in an understanding of their Catholic faith.
Throughout the book, which is published by the Diocese of Metuchen, Father Hillier encourages us to respond to the challenges put before us by the documents of Vatican II, integrating them for the life of the Church and for our own intellectual, spiritual and pastoral development.
But first we have to read them.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D., is a native of St. John’s Newfoundland, Canada. He currently serves as assistant chancellor to Bishop James Checchio and oversees the Metuchen diocesan Office for Persons with Disabilities. Father Hillier also writes a regular column in The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper for the Diocese of Metuchen.
Mary Morrell is a syndicated Catholic columnist and freelance writer/editor who served as associate director, Office of Religious Education, Diocese of Metuchen, for nine years and, most recently, as managing editor for The Monitor, Diocese of Trenton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.