A large part of the Year of Faith will be focused on celebrating the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. One of the best resources for understanding what happened at this historic event are the 16 documents which were produced during the years of the council.
It is important to begin with an understanding of the topics covered at the council as well as the way the church ranked the documents that were produced. Even to this day there are too many people who simply see the council as bringing about changes in the liturgy, a greater emphasis on ecumenism and an embracing of the modern world. While these were certainly among the topics at the council, they are far from exhaustive. It is often disappointing to meet Catholics who talk a good deal about the “Spirit of Vatican II” who have never read the documents themselves. There are also many members of the church who are unaware that among the documents of the council, certain ones carry more authority than others and contain the lens for reading the rest.
The highest ranking documents are called constitutions and of the sixteen documents there are only four. These are the documents on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), on the Church (Lumen Gentium), on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) and on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). These four documents have shaped the current character of the Church more than any others to emerge from the council.
The next level of documents were designated as decrees. There are nine of these documents which include the decrees on the Mass Media, on the Eastern Catholic Churches, on Ecumenism, on Bishops, on the Renewal of Religious Life, on the Training of Priests, on the Apostolate of the Laity, on Missionary Activity and on the Ministry and Life of Priests.
The three lowest ranking documents were called declarations. They are the declarations on Christian Education, on Non-Christian Religions, and on Religious Liberty.
If you would like to spend some time reading the Vatican II documents, you can find them by clicking here.