Speaking at Santa Clara University in 2015, historian John W. O’Malley, SJ, author of the book What Happened at Vatican II, made the following observation:
In 2008 I published a book on the Second Vatican Council, and I received a lot of invitations to lecture on it and was very happy to do that, but when I finished the lectures I would think to myself, “I’m really talking about something dead in the water. It’s an interesting thing that happened, but it’s gone.” And then beginning in 2012, with the anniversaries of the council, more invitations came and I felt the same way. However, I don’t feel that way today. I don’t feel that way at all. I think the council, with Pope Francis, is almost as alive as it was in 1965.
On the sixtieth anniversary of Vatican II, we stand at an inflection point in the history of the council’s reception. Francis, the first pope since the council who was not himself a participant in it, has shown us what it means to treasure Vatican II not as lived history but as a living legacy, and this has become our challenge. Can we do this too?
What O’Malley observed—the role of Pope Francis in changing the narrative about Vatican II—comes at a moment in history when the last of the fathers of Vatican II are passing away. To put it bluntly, the gifts of the council will either flourish in new hands or pass away along with them. The Church is living in a time that Canadian theologian Gilles Routhier identifies as “the era of the heirs.” The Second Vatican Council is not something we ourselves created. It’s something we’ve inherited. What we do with that inheritance now is the challenge. At the sixtieth anniversary, this truth is even more evident. It’s not enough to run the highlight reel of what happened in 1962. We are called on here and now to be canny managers of the riches the council left us in order to make that legacy flourish.
Routhier points out that while there are some advantages to being an heir, there are also pitfalls. One might turn one’s back on an inheritance, refusing it as too burdensome, or try to keep it intact by taking no chances with it, by preserving it under glass. Siblings may fight over an inheritance, cutting it into pieces so that only shreds remain, or they may place so little value on it that it simply gets frittered away. But just as the good servant in Matthew’s parable of the talents takes what he has been entrusted with and invests it wisely, returning ever greater profit to his master, there is another, better way.