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What Happened at Vatican II Hardcover – September 30, 2008

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From 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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This remarkable book, in places a veritable page-turner, not only recaptures the drama and the struggles of Vatican II, but gets to the very heart of the issues under all the many ramifying words and acts of the Council. The reader can see how awkward and inadequate the familiar oppositions of liberal/conservative and progressive/reactionary are to the passionate struggles that took place. In fact, it was only through a recovery of Biblical and Patristic sources that Vatican II managed to return the Catholic Church to the twentieth-century world, and to open a dialogue which the traumas of the Reformation and French Revolution had inhibited.
--Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age

In this elegant and erudite book, the dean of American historians of Christianity tells the story of Vatican II. As a student, John O'Malley attended sessions of the Council. Now he shows us what happened, sets the Council before a richly reconstructed historical background, and makes clear why it still matters so much. His book will be essential reading for anyone interested in the modern history of the Catholic Church.
--Anthony Grafton

This is a masterful presentation. It carries the reader deeper into the reality and outcome of Vatican II than do the other existing books on the Council.
--Jared Wicks, Professor emeritus, Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome

What Happened at Vatican II offers a one-volume history of the Second Vatican Council that not only tells the story in a way that brings out its drama, but, more importantly, calls the reader's attention to distinctive features of this council that are crucial for its interpretation. I do not know of any one volume that compares with this book for an in-depth account of what happened at Vatican II and of the factors that were at play in this major event in the life of the church.
--Francis Sullivan, Boston College

It is an axiom that Ecumenical Councils take 50 years to assimilate and digest. If so, this clear and readable account of Vatican II is right on time—and on target. O'Malley's characteristic concision and wide learning luster every page.
--Kenneth L. Woodward, Newsweek Contributing Editor and author of Making Saints

With characteristic acumen and grace, John O'Malley has written a splendid book on Vatican II: the history, the meanings, and above all the enduring importance. Once again we are all in this great scholar's debt.
--David Tracy

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...O'Malley shows how Vatican II allowed the church to modernize while also remaining true to its traditions and convictions. (Publishers Weekly 2008-07-14)

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. (Bookforum 2008-09-01)

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 (The Tablet 2008-10-18)

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 (Times Higher Education Supplement 2008-11-06)

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 (America 2008-11-03)

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 (Washington Post Book World 2008-10-05)

[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. (Wall Street Journal 2008-12-25)

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 (New York Times 2008-12-20)

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 (Commonweal 2009-02-27)

[A] lucid, coherent assessment of the Second Vatican Council.
--T. M. Izbicki (Choice 2009-02-01)

An insightful and quite gripping account that brings Vatican II to life in all its complexity. It celebrates a council pastoral rather than condemnatory in spirit, struggling to open the Church to the modern world.
--Ernan McMullin (The Tablet 2010-11-27)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 1st edition (September 30, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674031695
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674031692
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #181,781 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

95 of 98 people found the following review helpful By Claudio M Burgaleta on October 28, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I just finished reading What happened at Vatican II? I enjoyed it thoroughly. The history of the council reads as if it were a novel!

I particularly enjoyed learning about Maximos IV whom I had not heard of before. He played a significant role reminding the council fathers that Catholicism was much bigger and complex than the Western Church, and he did this with elegance and audacity to boot.

And of course there is the role of Paul VI, what a contrast from John XXIII's approach to the everyday running of the council. Paul's suggestions to the council were interventions that put the breaks on the expansive experience of collegiality that the council fathers were having at the council.

But most of all I think the hermeneutic O'Malley offers in the final chapter to account for the center-periphery, change, and style issues that run through the pre-conciliar church, the council and our own times is very helpful and moves the state of the question beyond continuity vs discontinuity or liberals vs conservatives.

Thank you and congratulations!
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65 of 68 people found the following review helpful By Alan C. Mitchell on December 23, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you are looking for the one book you will read on the meaning of the Second Vatican Council, search no further for you have found it in What Happened at Vatican II . Fr,. O'Malley is both a church historian and an historian of culture, recognized as the best in his field. These two areas of his expertise combine marvelously in this ground-breaking study of Vatican II. Whereas other historians of the Council catalogue its proceedings, Fr. O'Malley cogently and convincingly explains what the impact of those proceedings were for the history of the Roman Catholic Church. He deftly demonstrates how Vatican II diverged from previous councils in style as much as substance. By abandoning the language of the Roman Senate that had characterized previous Roman Catholic Church councils, Vatican II spoke to the People of God without condemnation and anathema. In this sense, the wishes of Pope John XXIII for a pastoral rather than a doctrinal council were realized.

Fr. O'Malley's engaging writing style brings all of the major players of the Council to life. He eschews simplistic explanations and gets to the heart of the matter in each of the four periods that the Council met between 1962-1965.

At a time when some in the Roman Catholic Church actually repudiate Vatican II and attempt to claim that nothing of import really happened at the Council, Fr. O'Malley presents a vibrant and vital portrayal of the reform that the Council intended for the Roman Catholic Church. One of his most poignant insights is that those who would downplay the significance of Vatican II for the history of the Roman Catholic Church actually do the Council a great disservice by denying it the greatness that it had hoped for in its reform of the Catholic Church. Fr.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By New Age of Barbarism on March 29, 2010
Format: Hardcover
_What Happened at Vatican II_ (2008, Harvard) by John W. O'Malley is an interesting account of the developments that took place within the Catholic Church and Christianity as they occurred at the Second Vatican Council. The book considers the events of this council and the debates that followed showing contrasts between traditionalists, conservatives, and modernists, as well as the perspectives of the Eastern churches. The book explains many of the sweeping changes that were made as a result of this council and situates the council within its historical context. The book also explains the larger consequences of this council, including those for the Catholic church, but also those for all of Christianity and the relationship between the church and other religions as well as the modern world. The book relates this council through the pontificates of John XXIII and Paul VI as well as the repercussions of the council into the pontificate of John Paul II and our present-day under Benedict XVI. The Second Vatican Council considered many important issues for the church and many have come to see it as an attempt by the church to meet the modern world. Others have remained more skeptical of the large changes they maintain evolved out of it and came to embrace traditionalism. Still others on the extreme left have maintained that the council did not go far enough. As such, the issue of Vatican II remains an important one for all Catholics today and this book provides a useful understanding of the events of that council.

The book includes the following chapters -

Introduction - lays out the rationale for the council as it was convened by John XXIII on January 25, 1959. Explains the role of the council and some of the issues for the church taken up for the council.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By John Mccarthy on September 4, 2010
Format: Paperback
Though I was in the seminary during Vatican II, and thus followed it as closely as I could, I found this book to be exceptionally valuable both as a history of the event (and its immensely important background) and as an interpretation of what happened there.

Part of the beauty of this book is that O'Malley centers it around three themes: aggiornamento or resourcement, the tension between the center and the periphery, and the pastoral style that characterized the entire event. O'Malley chose to interpret every debate, every vote, and every document through each of these three lenses. Yet, underlining all three of these lenses O'Malley points to an even more foundational perspective, namely, the universal call to holiness. And by "universal," in the context of Vatican II, O'Malley perceives this "call to holiness" as extending not just to Catholics, or to bishops, or to priests (though certainly to all three of these groups) but to everyone be they religious or not.

I want to emphasize, however, that this book reads like the very best mystery novels. Almost every page highlights surprises, conflicts and compromises, and the people that fill these pages are, at least to me, incredibly interesting. So you can read this book for pure enjoyment as much as for enlightenment.

Finally, what for me as a Catholic makes this book so engaging is not simply the book itself, wonderful though it is, but also because of what has happened to the Catholic Church in America in the now almost 50 years since the close of Vatican II. In those 45 years, according to Pew Research, 30 million men and women who were raised as Catholics, no longer call themselves "Catholic." And another enormous number (I estimate to be another 30 million) are now "lapsed" Catholics.
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