Pope John Paul II once called the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) the interpretive key to understanding his pontificate. For many of us, particularly my generation, Vatican II also is the key for understanding our own pilgrimage of faith. Pope John XXIII called the 21st ecumenical council only months before I was born, and the Council ended the year I entered first grade at St. Elizabeth’s school.
My first encounter with Vatican II was an unforgettable lesson in first grade, when the teacher insisted over and over again that Vatican II (whatever that was) taught that the “Church” is not the building across the street, but the “people.” While there’s an important theological point there, at the time I still thought the building across the street looked more like a “church” than my classmates did.
In third grade, as religious garb changed “because of Vatican II,” I was mesmerized by the fact that I could now see Sr. Ellen’s legs and hair. Later that year, my mom explained to me that “because of Vatican II” many priests and religious were leaving their communities, including my beloved piano teacher.
Then in fifth grade, I gave up six months’ worth of recess–a real sacrifice; I lived for kickball–to be trained as an altar boy. Just as my classmates and I were considered ready for this august service, we were told that the Mass was changing “because of Vatican II,” and so we needed to be retrained. Meanwhile, our Church’s sanctuary was a construction zone the next several months, as the altar was moved forward and burnt orange carpeting was installed. I didn’t know what to think of this, though the carpet, irrespective of its aesthetic merit, was decidedly easier to kneel on.
In the eighth grade, I remember the teacher writing the word “ecumenism” on the blackboard. I can’t recall whether she said anything that was contrary to the faith. However, I do know that the effect of the class on me and on my classmates was that “because of Vatican II” it didn’t really matter anymore whether one was Catholic. After all, “they will know we are Christians by our love.” I blithely continued to hone my collage skills and routinely brought home A’s in religion.
During my high school and college years, virtually all my peers left the Church, as did I. I remember well my ninth grade religion class in which we studied the Bible. We repeatedly were told about what we don’t believe anymore “because of Vatican II.” One got the impression that Vatican II painstakingly went through the Bible and identified for us all the myths, fables, and inaccuracies found in God’s inspired Word. In subsequent years, as I feebly groped for some spiritual guidance, I’d pick up a Catholic Bible or a Catholic biblical commentary and, rather than be nourished and buoyed in my faith, I was confronted with agnostic doublespeak.
The 80s Show
By the singular, undeserved grace of God, I accepted Jesus Christ back into my life as I completed law school in 1984. For me, this necessarily entailed walking back into the Church that so confused me “because of Vatican II.” Here’s what I found. Some things were definitely out. Vatican II seemingly had done away with Latin, kneeling, Marian devotion, Mass as a sacrifice, St. Christopher, limbo, guardian angels, and mortal sin, to name but a few. Purgatory and indulgences headed the list of embarrassing teachings that, in the “spirit of Vatican II,” would disappear in the 21st century, as would the male-only ordained priesthood.
Other things definitely were in, including some good things, such as a heightened sensitivity to social justice concerns. Also in, however, were “clown Masses,” liturgical experimentation, and “responsible” dissent. Gregorian chant had given way to George Harrison (“My Sweet Lord”) and Led Zeppelin (“Stairway to Heaven”). Violations of the Sixth Commandment not only were no longer “grave matter,” but not even sins. The propensity to sin (traditionally called “concupiscence”) was no longer a disorder but a gift to be celebrated.
Where Was I?
Had I made a mistake in recommitting myself to Christ and His Church, thus branding myself as a “religious fanatic” among my secular peers? No, and in fact I deeply desired that they would come back with me. My “reversion” to Catholicism seemed irrevocable. Where else would I go? If I tested other waters or sowed more wild oats, could I presume that before I die I would be given the grace of another chance? So with prayer and trepidation I walked further into the antechamber of the Church, embracing her as my true home.
As I got to know the other residents, I noted two unmistakable and often diametrically opposed approaches to Vatican II and the Church in general. I realize I’m painting with a broad brush, but my experience repeatedly verified this observation.
On the one hand, there were those who were fully on board with what they called “Vatican II.” The Council opened the door to whatever doctrinal change, liturgical innovation, or sexual license they deemed desirable, irrespective of what the “Vatican” might say. One had to be very careful in proposing what the actual Church teaching or practice might be around them, lest you be diagnosed as not merely “conservative,” but rigid, intolerant, and–here it comes– preconciliar. I saw the necessity of being with the Church and accepting “Vatican II” as not only an authentic Church council, but truly as a gift to the Church. Yet, this group seemed to be co-opting and distorting the so-called “spirit of Vatican II.”
On the other side of the aisle, I met many people who were profoundly disturbed by all the unsavory things that had happened in the Church over the past 20 years “because of Vatican II.” This led them to an intense distrust of any change in the Church, such that one had to be careful in cooperating with the local Church lest one be considered by them as poisoned by the “modernism” that had corrupted the Church in America. It was decidedly unsafe to come out of the bunker.
I learned how to negotiate my way through the household of God by avoiding the excesses and errors of those two approaches while also avoiding the utter indifference of Mr. and Mrs. Sixpack. But, as someone who wanted to serve this Church faithfully, I yearned for more guidance.
I eventually did receive such guidance through a class on Vatican II that I took in seminary. The teacher, Fr. Tim Gallagher, O.M.V., stressed two things: (a) know what Vatican II actually teaches, and (b) “think with the Church.” I finally discovered through this class the real Vatican II. I will be forever grateful for the lessons I learned from Fr. Tim, and I believe they are even more applicable today than ever. Indeed, as Pope John Paul II wrote shortly before his death:
“With the passing of the years, the Vatican Council’s documents have lost nothing of their value or brilliance. They need to be read correctly, to be widely known and taken to heart as important and normative texts of the Magisterium, within the Church’s tradition.”
Back to the Source
In Fr. Tim’s class I actually read all 16 Vatican II documents, and I have since reread all of them several times. And now of course we have the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is a remarkable and, to date, underappreciated compendium of Vatican II’s teaching. The beauty of the Catechism is that it places Vatican II’s teaching in its proper context–within the entirety of the Church’s rich tradition.
“Thinking with the Church” sounds like an intellectual exercise, but it’s much deeper than that. In fact, it involves implementing our intellectual acceptance of Christ and His Church by living the Church’s life–liturgically, morally, and spiritually (which, incidentally, is the progression of the Catechism).
I must add my own gratitude to Lyman Stebbins and to the CUF apostolate–particularly our members in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, who saw things rightly and who were faithful sons and daughters of the Church during an era of unprecedented ecclesial upheaval in our country. They loved the Church as a mother, and they profoundly embraced Vatican II’s teaching that the call to holiness is at once universal and personal.
My first grade teacher was right. As we are united in Christ, we are truly part of the Church, the Family of God. May our own renewed commitment to serve Christ and His Church in holiness be, in the long run, the lasting legacy of Vatican II.
This article initially appeared in the Sept.-Oct. 2002 issue of Lay Witness.