Today begins the Year of Faith 2012-2013, on the 20th anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church , and the 50th anniversary (“quinquagenary”) of the opening of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council .
In Gaudet Mater Ecclesia , his address on the first day of the Council, Bl. John XXIII proclaimed the heart of the Church’s mission:
To mankind, oppressed by so many difficulties, the Church says, as Peter said to the poor who begged alms from him: “I have neither gold nor silver, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise and walk” (Acts 3:6). In other words, the Church does not offer to the men of today riches that pass, nor does she promise them merely earthly happiness. But she distributes to them the goods of divine grace which, raising men to the dignity of sons of God, are the most efficacious safeguards and aids toward a more human life. She opens the fountain of her life-giving doctrine which allows men, enlightened by the light of Christ, to understand well what they really are, what their lofty dignity and their purpose are, and, finally, through her children, she spreads everywhere the fullness of Christian charity, than which nothing is more effective in eradicating the seeds of discord, nothing more efficacious in promoting concord, just peace, and the brotherly unity of all.
Today, fifty years later, Pope Benedict XVI notes  how urgent is the need for the Church to continue to fulfill its mission in the modern world:
If today the Church proposes a new Year of Faith and a new evangelization, it is not to honour an anniversary, but because there is more need of it, even more than there was fifty years ago! And the reply to be given to this need is the one desired by the Popes, by the Council Fathers and contained in its documents. Even the initiative to create a Pontifical Council for the promotion of the new evangelization, which I thank for its special effort for the Year of Faith, is to be understood in this context. Recent decades have seen the advance of a spiritual “desertification”. In the Council’s time it was already possible from a few tragic pages of history to know what a life or a world without God looked like, but now we see it every day around us. This void has spread. But it is in starting from the experience of this desert, from this void, that we can again discover the joy of believing, its vital importance for us, men and women. In the desert we rediscover the value of what is essential for living; thus in today’s world there are innumerable signs, often expressed implicitly or negatively, of the thirst for God, for the ultimate meaning of life. And in the desert people of faith are needed who, with their own lives, point out the way to the Promised Land and keep hope alive. Living faith opens the heart to the grace of God which frees us from pessimism. Today, more than ever, evangelizing means witnessing to the new life, transformed by God, and thus showing the path. The first reading spoke to us of the wisdom of the wayfarer (cf. Sir 34:9-13): the journey is a metaphor for life, and the wise wayfarer is one who has learned the art of living, and can share it with his brethren – as happens to pilgrims along the Way of Saint James or similar routes which, not by chance, have again become popular in recent years. How come so many people today feel the need to make these journeys? Is it not because they find there, or at least intuit, the meaning of our existence in the world? This, then, is how we can picture the Year of Faith: a pilgrimage in the deserts of today’s world, taking with us only what is necessary: neither staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money, nor two tunics – as the Lord said to those he was sending out on mission (cf. Lk 9:3), but the Gospel and the faith of the Church, of which the Council documents are a luminous expression, as is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published twenty years ago.
Here are the Council’s sixteen documents in English at the Vatican website:
- Dei Verbum: Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation  (November 18, 1965)
- Gaudium et Spes: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World  (December 7, 1965)
- Lumen Gentium: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church  (November 21, 1964)
- Sacrosanctum Concilium: Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy  (December 4, 1963)
- Ad Gentes: Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church  (December 7, 1965)
- Apostolicam Actuositatem: Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity  (November 18, 1965)
- Christus Dominus: Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church  (October 28, 1965)
- Inter Mirifica: Decree on the Media of Social Communications  (December 4, 1963)
- Optatam Totius: Decree on Priestly Training  (October 28, 1965)
- Orientalium Ecclesiarum: Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite  (November 21, 1964)
- Perfectae Caritatis: Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life  (October 28, 1965)
- Presbyterorum Ordinis: Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests  (December 7, 1965)
- Unitatis Redintegratio: Decree on Ecumenism  (November 21, 1964)
- Dignitatis Humanae: Declaration on Religious Freedom  (December 7, 1965)
- Gravissimum Educationis: Declaration on Christian Education  (October 28, 1965)
- Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions  (October 18, 1965)
They are also at the EWTN website: Second Vatican Council: the 16 Documents .
What might be in store for you? For one recent convert , actually reading Vatican II was a shock:
As I read out loud, I found myself shocked. These papers didn’t say anything like what I expected them to say. I didn’t disagree with what they said in the least. And I certainly didn’t see how they could have been used, in the way that they’ve been used.
I felt like I’d been watching skewed AP reports of political speeches, and now, reading the actual documents, found that everything I thought I’d known had been taken out of context, twisted and created to make something that certain people fondly referred to as “the Spirit of the Vatican II.”
Finally, for intensive and expansive reflections on issues surrounding the Council, I recommend these essays: