During four years in session, Vatican Council II held television audiences rapt with its elegant, magnificently choreographed public ceremonies, while its debates generated front-page news on a near-weekly basis. By virtually any assessment, it was the most important religious event of the twentieth century, with repercussions that reached far beyond the Catholic church. Remarkably enough, this is the first book, solidly based on official documentation, to give a brief, readable account of the council from the ...
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During four years in session, Vatican Council II held television audiences rapt with its elegant, magnificently choreographed public ceremonies, while its debates generated front-page news on a near-weekly basis. By virtually any assessment, it was the most important religious event of the twentieth century, with repercussions that reached far beyond the Catholic church. Remarkably enough, this is the first book, solidly based on official documentation, to give a brief, readable account of the council from the moment Pope John XXIII announced it on January 25, 1959, until its conclusion on December 8, 1965.
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Editorial Reviews

Michael Novak
Rev. John W. O'Malley set himself a Herculean task. The council's proceedings alone, without commentary, fill 32 hefty volumes. During the intervening years, hundreds of memoirs, insiders' amateur reportage (such as letters by bishops to their dioceses), diaries and memoranda have come to light. It is impressive how much of this material O'Malley, a Jesuit priest and professor of theology at Georgetown, has studied in the original languages and analyzed in his new book, What Happened at Vatican II…a splendid introduction to a story of longed-for change, its good consequences and its sometimes depressing, unintended ones.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

From 1961 to 1965, the world closely watched the proceedings of Vatican II, the Catholic Church's council on the condition and future of the faith. Georgetown historian O'Malley presents the most thorough account of the proceedings of the council itself, from the time it was declared in 1959 until its conclusion in 1965, fulfilling the book's title. O'Malley gives a thorough and detailed history of the event, situating it in the longer history of the church and previous councils. But the bulk of the book concerns the characters and controversies of Vatican II itself, "the biggest meeting in the history of the world." Though challenged by a conservative minority, the progressive majority of Vatican II reoriented and refashioned the Catholic Church: opening it to ecumenical relations, declaring its support for religious liberty and ending the practice of the Latin Mass. Infusing the council was the spirit of aggiornamento-Italian for "updating." O'Malley shows how Vatican II allowed the church to modernize while also remaining true to its traditions and convictions. (Sept.)

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Library Journal

The Roman Catholic Church is nearing the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, a council that unquestionably had profound influences both ecclesiastically and in society at large. This book is an absolutely brilliant recapitulation of the council, an insightful analysis of its proceedings and conclusions, and a solid foundation from which to grasp contemporary Catholicism. The clearly written and accessible text explores and summarizes the historical underpinnings of Vatican II while explaining modern influences and trends. A priest, O'Malley (University Professor, Georgetown Univ.) invites readers to experience uniquely the dynamic movements of the four-year council. Relying on source documents and the divergent positions of particular bishops, O'Malley creates a vivid account that enables readers to experience Vatican II firsthand 50 years on. His is not a commentary on Vatican II but an interpretative analysis, balanced and grounded, of the modern world's most significant gathering of Catholic bishops. It is truly a text of today, employing the added benefit of hindsight. The book includes a chronology, biographical descriptions of cited council fathers, an expanded notes section, and a helpful index. O'Malley's own Four Cultures of the West is a wonderful companion to this title. Highly recommended for all libraries.
—John Leonard Berg

New York Times
Father O'Malley has written one of the best and most needed books about [the Second Vatican Council]...[A] superb history...How the bishops took charge of the agenda and radically reshaped the outcome is a story of bold confrontations, clashing personalities and behind-the-scenes maneuvers, all recounted in colorful detail by Father O'Malley. A majority of bishops seemed primed for change, yet the path to final agreement was strewn with obstacles, whether from the stalwarts of the status quo or papal interventions. This is a tale with plenty of cliffhangers.
— Peter S. Steinfels
Wall Street Journal
[An] acutely observed history of the Council, now the go-to work on "what happened at Vatican II." [O'Malley] is particularly illuminating when he gives the background and context to the debates (often very heated) that gave birth to its decrees. The narrative might be Whig, but the history is fair--and rivetingly told.
— Edward T. Oakes, S. J.
In this single volume, O'Malley has filled the need for a readable account that meets three goals: providing the essential storyline from Pope John's announcement on January 25, 1959, to the council's conclusion on December 8, 1965; setting the issues that emerged into their historical and theological contexts; and thereby providing "some keys for grasping what the council hoped to accomplish."... O'Malley analyzes Pope John's motives and goals, and masterfully lays out the contexts and important issues of the council...O'Malley's book enables one to re-experience the event of Vatican II and to ask whether its initiatives will ever be fully implemented.
— Bernard P. Prusak
The highest accolade that the late John Tracy Ellis could pay a historian was to say that he had written a "rich" book. There is little doubt that he would have been ready to pronounce that judgment on this book because of O'Malley's thorough research, lucid presentation, balanced judgments, shrewd insights and elegant style. If you want to know what happened at Vatican II, begin with O'Malley.
— Thomas J. Shelley
[A] lucid, coherent assessment of the Second Vatican Council.
— T. M. Izbicki
O'Malley's book represents a gift from his generation, which experienced the council, to the cohort coming of age today. The signal accomplishment of the book is synthesis. In just four hundred pages, O'Malley provides a thorough yet gripping overview of the lead-up to the council and each of its four sessions. He wisely avoids lengthy quotations from the sixteen documents produced by the council, which are sometimes written in opaque, "churchy" language. Instead, he captures the main points of the texts, as well as the floor debates and behind-the-scenes struggles that generated the council's drama. He thus fills what has long been a gaping hole: the absence of a single volume written at a popular level that provides a guide to the council--both its actual results and what might have been had the bishops headed in another direction...The book is a major accomplishment, which no doubt will help to keep the memory of the council alive.
— John L. Allen Jr.
The Tablet
A gripping account of the drama of Vatican II as it played itself out over its four sessions from 1962 to 1965. Far from being a dry analysis of the sixteen conciliar documents, the book concentrates on the debates that frothed beneath the deceptive serenity of these documents. Personalities come to the fore in the contest between the minority of bishops who resisted change and the majority who favored it as desirable and necessary...O'Malley's emphasis on the importance of style is arguably his greatest contribution to understanding what happened at Vatican II...O'Malley's book is a helpful remedy for preserving Catholic memory. It rehearses not only what happened at Vatican II for a growing number of readers unfamiliar with the debates and documents but, more important, it gives them a way to think about what happened.
— Hilmar M. Pabel
Washington Post Book World
Based on my experience of the same events, O'Malley does a truly superior job of reporting the crucial details and capturing the moods and passions of that time. Secondly, he has the advantage of many testimonies not known to us back then. These, too, he handles deftly...O'Malley's book is a splendid introduction to a story of longed-for change, its good consequences and its sometimes depressing, unintended ones.
— Michael Novak
Times Higher Education Supplement
Volumes have been written on the council, but O'Malley offers a fresh perspective by setting it in the historical context of earlier councils and by attending to the language of the documents as well as the personalities and politics of the participants...It should appeal to a wide readership, populated as it is by colorful characters and offering an original approach to the study of the council and an authoritative guide through its proceedings and documents. O'Malley conveys a vivid sense of why Vatican II remains a beacon for some and a burden for others in the ongoing conflict between conservatives and liberals--words that, as O'Malley makes clear, are inadequate to describe the complexity of the positions they describe, and the visions invested in them.
— Tina Beattie
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674056756
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2010
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 288,454
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

John W. O’Malley is University Professor at Georgetown University.

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Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Introduction

  1. Big Perspectives on a Big Meeting
  2. The Long Nineteenth Century
  3. The Council Opens
  4. The First Period (1962): The Lines Are Drawn
  5. The Second Period (1963): A Majority Prevailing
  6. The Third Period (1964): Triumphs and Tribulations
  7. The Fourth Period (1965): Bringing the Ship into Port

  • Conclusion
  • Chronology of Vatican II
  • Council Participants Frequently Mentioned
  • Abbreviations
  • Notes
  • Index

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2009

    A Must Read!

    An historical and easily readible account of the historical forces, theological stances and the personalities that all came together between 1962 and 1965 in Rome at Vatican Council II. For anyone wanting to know the background and context out of which the Council rose as well as how it attempted to remain true to the doctrines and traditions of the past as well as turning its face to the future, this is a must read. Helps to understand the stance of the Church on the great issues and movements during the late 20th and early 21st centuries as it continues its divinely given institution and mission.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    The author did a good job on this.

    The author did a good job on this.

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    Posted September 15, 2009

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    Posted April 9, 2010

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