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No turning back


Hope is the oxygen of the soul.

Many today are afflicted with fear and hopelessness and find it difficult to breathe in the church. Air is such a striking image of grace. How do we find air to breathe in the church again?

This is a tale of two churches. Many of us have lived in both of them. All of us need to know what that was like. The fortified church of the Counter Reformation was very different from the pilgrim church of the Catholic renewal. In discerning the difference one learns how to survive and to serve and to breathe the air of freedom and peace.

Church of Counter Reformation

We might date the Counter Reformation from 1517, when Luther posted his 95 theses, to 1962 when John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council.

One of the most telling features of this church was massive building. We built with pride and prejudice: proud of the structures, prejudiced against all who were not Catholic. We thought we were building out of strength rather than fear, but, indeed, fear was everywhere. One false step and we might not recover. What if we died before we got to confession? What if we fell in love with someone who was not Catholic? What if we left ministry? What if our marriages did not last?

I remember an incident from this period. A priest friend had died young, tragically. He was waked in Mass vestments. The mother of a priest who had left ministry entered the funeral parlor, and there was an audible gasp in the room. The shame on all sides was painful. She was like a sinful woman entering the place where Jesus was, but no one knew how to receive her as easily as Jesus would have. We simply did not know what to do. She sobbed at the casket in anguish, confusion, embarrassment and loss. She walked to the mother of the dead priest and could be heard in the silence: “My heart aches for you. But at least your son died a priest. If only my son could be in Mass vestments! I would rather he were dead and a priest than as he is now.”

This woman and her son were outside the walls of the fortress we had built. There was no room for them inside. We blamed the priest for having done this to his mother. We found nothing in the gospel or in the life of Jesus that could explain or justify such a decision. We went home and thanked God that we were not like that priest. We felt security and peace within the walls the church had built around us.

In the movie, “Shawshank Redemption,” the prisoners identify with the massive walls that surround them. Eventually they prefer the walls and cannot do without them. After release from prison, many become confused, depressed, suicidal.

We would not have been surprised if the priest who left the ministry had taken his own life. One understood such things then.

There were happy moments in the church of the Counter Reformation as long as one stayed within the walls. And there were holy moments. God pays no heed to walls and brings us grace wherever we are.

One might add that the walls served a purpose. If there were excesses in the Catholic system justifying a Reformation, there were excesses in the Reformation explaining a Counter Reformation. If the assault by the church on scientific inquiry was sometimes unrelenting, the scientific attack on religion was unwarranted. And so walls were built.

The first tentative steps when the walls come down are unsettling and exhilarating all at once. It must have felt that way in the Exodus as the captives faced a limitless horizon and breathed hungrily the air of freedom. Not long after, however, the beleaguered community asked for the walls again and the chains and the slavery. Certitudes and walls can be comforting and, after a time, necessary. It is not that either is bad; it is the assumption that they are enough that is toxic.

Allow me another story. It was late January 1959. We were in Rome. It was early morning at the North American College. Later in the year I would be ordained a priest. The chartered Vatican City busses were ready, as they were on all school days, to drive us across the city to the Gregorian University. I was in third theology. A classmate shared a copy of the Rome newspaper, Il Messagero. I read the headline: “Pope Calls for An Ecumenical Council.” I was stunned and confused.

We had been taught that there would never be another ecumenical council. Since the Vatican Council of 1870 had defined papal infallibility, there was no need to continue the cumbersome procedure of convening councils of all the world’s bishops. Indeed, Pius XII had recently shown how this could be done, in 1950, when he defined the Assumption of Mary as Catholic dogma. Pius had surveyed the world’s bishops in a process called “an ecumenical council in writing” and then created the definition in his own name. The era of the ecumenical council was, therefore, finished. It had stretched from the first Council at Nicaea, Turkey, in 325, to the Council at the Vatican in 1870.

There was another, more telling reason for my confusion, and this is the point of the story. I could not imagine why the pope would call a council. There were no overt critical problems to solve, as had been the case in convening prior councils. The church seemed powerful and successful by every institutional standard. In the United States, the Catholic church had built an empire, almost a parallel nation, with schools and colleges and hospitals, with publishing houses and seminaries and cathedrals, with parishes and convents and orphanages. One could have all one’s needs met in a Catholic ghetto of agencies and institutions. Vocations to religious life were massive. Men and women, lay and clerical, were obedient, loyal and disciplined. So what would a council do? How could things improve?

Theologians speculated on what a council might address but they did this to give the meeting an agenda so it would not be idle. Three issues surfaced. Mary would be given another title, Mediatrix of All Graces, perhaps even Co-Redemptrix. Whether a bishop became successor of the apostles at his nomination or consecration could be clarified. A fuller and harsher condemnation of communism might be in order. None of the issues had anything to do with scripture unless one attempted a tortured exegesis. There was not a thought about lay concerns, liturgical reform, ecumenical unity, marriage, ministry, social justice, collegiality. Later, creative theologians and pastoral bishops would move the council in this direction. They would be able to do this because the pope, John XXIII, did not believe he knew more than the church universal.

The vast majority of the church expected the council to be a large ceremonial assembly, colorful, innocuous, sentimental, pious, a retreat for the worldwide episcopate. The system seemed to be working, and an alternative to it was unthinkable. The system supported us, nourished us, made us part of something grand, divine, infallible, invincible.

The system worked, once we granted its assumptions and intent. To work it generated an illusion of perfection, sanitized history, idealized the papacy, demonized other Christians, subordinated women, exalted, in practice, law over gospel and created an aristocracy built on celibacy and clericalism.

We felt no need for change because the end result of the system was the church as a splendid temple, intoxicatingly beautiful, and we were God’s favored people. To say that someone would destroy this temple and build another in the Spirit was blasphemy. We would have died for this temple, for its purity, its grace, its elegance, its truth. And we would have believed we were dying for God. For the church had become almost a second Incarnation of God. God did nothing without the endorsement of the Catholic church.

The council, we reasoned, might be a ceremony staged within the temple walls if the pope felt a need for pageantry and display. Let the world see how great we are.

Allow me one more story, one everyone knows.

Jesus once took Peter, James and John to a high mountain, apart by themselves. There they saw God in Jesus, transfigured, transformed. God was there, more beautiful than the temple and with no need for it. Peter saw Elijah the prophet and Moses the lawgiver and a Jesus who was different from the one he knew. His first instinct was to build something permanent, to preserve the moment and control it, a structure, a tabernacle, a temple for each of the three. In our terms, there would have been a theological center for Elijah the prophet, a canon law institute for Moses the lawgiver and a cathedral for Jesus, founder of a church.

Peter was all of us in the church of the Counter Reformation. We were as strong as our structures then and we could not imagine God or Christ or the Spirit or ourselves without them.

The New Testament tells us Peter was talking nonsense, and he was talking that way because he was afraid. He had yet to learn that this Jesus of the transfiguration would do away with temples and reign from a cross; this Jesus of translucent glory would abolish structures and systems and find his place in the sanctuary of the human heart.

I left our Vatican City bus and entered the great lecture hall of the Gregorian University. The professor, a young German Jesuit priest, lectured in Latin about the council the pope had called a day ago. He informed us that John XXIII wanted to open a window and let fresh air into the church. Hope is the oxygen of the soul. The pope was ready to take down the walls and embrace all Christians and even communists of good will. The pope believed the church did not have to be a temple. It was enough if it were God’s people.

John’s council destroyed the temple in three years. God and truth and glory and grace had to be found not within the temple precincts necessarily but wherever the Spirit led us. It would be difficult to leave the temple and become a pilgrim. But for all those who began the journey, there would be no turning back. To turn back was not only impossible; it was not even desirable.

Without a sense of history, hope easily becomes fantasy.

In the light of recent history as outlined above, it is time to speak of hope and the troublesome issues that unsettle our souls. I would like to explore four questions: (1) Why has the resistance to reform been so strong and, one might say, so cruel? (2) Will the opponents of reform prevail? (3) How do we cope as we await the dawn of the new era we were promised? (4) Is hope believable anymore, or does realism require that we admit the dream has vanished, the vision has passed?

Why the resistance?

The resistance has been so virulent because the stakes are so high. We are not dealing with titles of Mary and condemnations of communism. We did not realize fully at Vatican II that what started out as a ceremonial, polite council escalated quickly to a reformation and a revolution. It challenged the system, its authority and power, at radical levels. When this was last done, four-and-a-half centuries earlier during the Reformation, violence and bloodshed followed as people tried to recover what they lost or seize what they wanted.

It is ironic that Catholic reformers today feel hopeless. The strength of the resistance to reform is a sign of how deep the challenge is and of how successful it has been. It should not surprise us to discover that a powerful institution will resist as we question the way it has defined itself and exercised power for centuries. It will resist strongly if the critique is credible and if it feels threatened by the strength of the opposition.

The present reform movement seeks a change in the entire system, its structures, its sacramental norms, the papacy, sexual teaching, ministry, marriage, official policy, the way history has been written and the way the Bible has been interpreted. The resistance is staunch because what is being dismantled is the temple on which many depended for their life, their meaning, their encounter with God, their salvation.

There is fear, at times paranoid and hysterical but also pathetic, painful and understandable. Fear leads people to destroy what seems to be assaulting them. Was this not why Jesus was crucified? He took away the temple and he also redefined power and sex and ministry and history and scripture.

The first disciples felt some of the same fears the restorationists now experience. They rejected Easter in the beginning and believed in the cross and the tomb. The church began with apostolic apostasy struggling to become apostolic faith. One can understand this. The new boundaries drawn by Easter abolished former certitudes and made impossible the church of power and privilege the apostles preferred. There were tears for the lost securities, frustration at the loss of the system of Judaism that was comfortable and secure. A generation after Easter, ongoing debate about abandoning Jewish practices is documented in the Acts of the Apostles. It was agonizing to leave the past, and such a past.

Easter was as much agony as it was joy. The disciples did not proclaim Easter until Pentecostal fire and the winds of hope sent them forth, with no endorsement from the past. Easter would not allow the disciples to build their faith around memories of all that was. It made it impossible for them to restore the past and fit Christ into it. Easter made Christian faith a restless, future-oriented experience.

Did we truly believe there would be no resistance to the reform called for by Vatican II? Did we suppose the resistance would not be massive, desperate, unrelenting? Are we not, however, unwilling to learn from history when we doubt the outcome? When people experience freedom, a freedom supported by persuasive ideas and structures that prevent anarchy, there is no turning back. This is why the Reformation succeeded and the Enlightenment and the American Revolution. This is why slavery ended, and women were liberated and the Second Vatican Council prevailed. The Jews did not go back to Egypt, and the disciples did not remain with the Temple, and there is no one in the world, including those who first built it, who wishes to construct the Berlin Wall again.

No return is possible for a number of reasons. The older system had good things in it. Many of its strategies and decisions were understandable. It brought faith and comfort. It might even have done what it needed to do for its own time in history.

But return is impossible, because three of the key elements needed to make the old system work no longer have the endorsement of the church at large. These elements are belligerence, exclusion and censorship.

The old system needs belligerence to work. It was born in battle, in the wars of the Reformation, and it waged a cold war with its adversaries in the centuries after it was no longer acceptable to kill. The first draft drawn up for Vatican II by Cardinal Ottaviani and the Holy Office was called “The Church Militant.” It later became Lumen Gentium, “A Light for the World.” Such a gentle title! The old system used military metaphors readily. We became soldiers of Christ in confirmation; Marian apparitions at Fatima led to the creation of a “Blue Army.” We were an army of youth flying a banner of truth; the language with which we denounced communism was the language we once used to justify wars and hostilities against Jews and Muslims, against other Christians and even the scientific establishment.

Silent women, docile theologians

The unreformed system also requires exclusion and victimization on a large scale. For it to work again, women must become silent and theologians docile. Catholics must remain in marriages even when there is no meaning in them, and priests must never fall in love. Protestants must be kept at a distance, and the pope must be seen as always wise and altruistic. Papal documents must be read more eagerly than scripture, and homosexuals must disappear. I suggest there is no longer the will, the heart, the energy to recreate such a world of exclusion and subordination.

The unreformed system is invested heavily in censorship. When Jesuit Fr. Teilhard de Chardin and Fr. John Courtney Murray were silenced in the 1950s they stopped writing. Censorship was not only ordered by the institution; it was also self-imposed, and the church at large endorsed it.

Things are different now. No one of the major theologians censured by the Vatican in the last 20 years has stopped writing or lecturing. Indeed, the community at large has rushed to their sides.

For the Counter Reformation church to prevail it must gain the support of Catholics at large for belligerence, exclusion and censorship. Indeed, in the strangest of ironies, those who resort to these means isolate themselves rather than their targets.

We cope by abandoning the temple and the papacy as the substance of our hope. The restorationist agenda is exhausted and this must be dealt with whether the pope is liberal or conservative. Restoration simply cannot give life to the church. That agenda requires high levels of theological ignorance and pastoral insensitivity for it to function.

We cope by stressing three values: our connections or faith, our need to belong and our right to communion.

The logic of the Spirit

We begin with our faith and our convictions. We must not be deluded into thinking that there is any future in the dull mediocrity of compliance we are being urged to accept. We believe in precisely the right things in affirming a reformed church. It has about it all the logic of the Spirit. No other church can emerge from Vatican II than a reformed church. No other church has a future and no other church will have our allegiance and that of people at large.

The second of these strategies for survival is belonging. Isolation is terrifying. For this reason, small communities and our reform groups are healing, sacramental experiences. They bring us God and grace in relationship and community. This sense of belonging is essential, especially for Catholics, who find God in community more readily than in individualism. So such groups as Call To Action; CORPUS, the national association for a married priesthood; the Women’s Ordination Conference; Dignity; Catholic Organizations for Renewal; and We Are Church play a substantial role in our ecclesial, ministerial and spiritual lives. Since the temple is closed to us, and indeed, since its time is over, these small communities and reform groups are the synagogues of the renewal. In Jesus’ time, synagogues were an addition or an alternative to the temple. They gathered the laity and the marginalized and allowed the laity to preside at services. The synagogues outlasted the temple, made the Diaspora possible, rescued Judaism and helped give birth to the new church we call Christianity. Belonging is our baptismal and sacramental right. We must gather in the communities we require for our life. The institutional church, which created this crisis, is not likely to solve it if we take no action. Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, the Dutch theologian, reminds us of that.

The third strategy for survival is communion. By communion I mean a relationship to the gospel, the tradition of the church and the sacraments. We need to enter into communion with all three. All are interconnected. The gospel becomes more urgent for us as the temple is destroyed; the tradition becomes the way we struggle together to preserve and hand on the gospel; and the sacraments assure us we are fully the church. Every Christian community has the right to the gospel, the tradition and the sacraments it requires for its life. This is especially true because the church’s law is always less than its life.

We cope, then, by faith, by belonging, by communion.

One must be concrete here. There are only two churches to believe in and work for: the church of the Counter Reformation and the church of Catholic renewal.

Do we really believe that there is a future for a church that seeks to return to the past and, indeed, does not have the supports of the past? If this church of the past were so right, why did people abandon it so readily and why did an ecumenical council fail to endorse it as it was?

History is a guide here once again. Nations do not return to monarchies once they create democracies; slaves do not seek their former masters once they are liberated; Egypt had no appeal for Israel after the Promised Land; the former Soviet Union has no allies seeking to reconstitute it.

In our church the reformers are in the overwhelming majority. The reform is endorsed on the highest levels of biblical, pastoral and theological studies. What holds us back may be ourselves, for the most part. Our faith in our own cause weakens; our bonds of belonging are not always strengthened; and we lose communion with the gospel, tradition and the sacramental life.

The church of the Counter Reformation was a temple church, a Palm Sunday church, glorious, awesome, beautiful, elegant. But a temple church is an anachronism after the missionary journeys of Paul. A temple church can never be a truly Catholic church since it excludes so many and confines God so much. And Palm Sunday is nothing compared to Easter and Pentecost.

We last saw Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, eager to build monuments and cathedrals. We see him for the last time in John’s Gospel, back in Galilee, with James and John once again his companions. Easter has already touched their lives.

Peter and the others are fishing, and there on the shore, in the shadows of dawn, is the Risen Christ. Peter rushes into the water desperately, touchingly. He comes near Christ and he is filled with unasked questions. Who are you? You are not the same as once I knew you, and yet I know it is you. Once before you seemed so different, on the mountain a year ago when we were with you. And yet I knew then it was you and I know you now. It is good to be here as it was then.

An Easter faith

Peter has questions because Christ is not a temple, recognizable, unmistakable, predictable, stationary. It takes more faith and hope to be loyal to such a Christ. But the consequence of such loyalty is an Easter faith.

Peter is silent, looking for signs that his faith is not misplaced or his hope in vain or his love wasted. Christ breaks bread for Peter, and painful, soaring memories rush in and carry him to the past. Christ, however, urges him down new roads to the future. You must go, Peter, not where you choose. You must follow me, not your own preferences. I have but one question to ask you and if you answer it rightly you will always be safe and you will never be lost. You don’t need a temple now, only a mission.

“Peter, do you love me?”

“Yes, you know that, you most of all.”

It is Peter now who is transfigured and who becomes the herald of Easter glory and a martyr for a church of the future in a land not his own, far from Jerusalem and the temple but not far from Christ.

This is the church tradition Peter leaves us, not an office in the church or the papacy as an institution but love in a person rather than a temple, the kind of love that always leads us into the future unafraid while bringing us out of the past unharmed.

This has been a tale of two churches. Because I have lived in this new church, I would know now what to do for the woman whose heart was broken by her son’s abandonment of ministry. I would also know what to do for him. For the new church has room for both of them.

Because I have lived in this new church I will no longer be confused by a call for a new council and I shall not assume we have no needs.

The pain is worth it. Every step of the way. Who would ever go back? Only the terrified and the frightened. My heart goes out to them, but we cannot heal them by returning to the dead past, the confining temple, the rigid certitudes fashioned from fears and insecurities.

We lost a church along the way, a temple of rare beauty, a fortress, a buttress. But we did not lose God.

The pain we feel now is the pain of Incarnation.

We trivialize that Incarnation when we make God into a church system or a temple or a code of law. This is too easy an Incarnation. It is much more painful and substantial for the Incarnation to take place in human life and for God’s people to be the only temple we have. God makes a covenant with human hearts, not with institutions. The Incarnation into human life is a crucifixion but its end result is Easter glory. The reform of Vatican II seeks to make the Incarnation not a temple reality but a human one, an Incarnation of God’s presence in human life itself. And this is a painful process.

For Vatican II, the church is not the church militant or a perfect society; the church is a mystery, a pilgrimage; it is the People of God. We lost a church along the way but found a family. It is a family composed of friends but also former enemies. It is made up of those we once excluded and of those who embarrassed us and made our institutional life difficult.

The risen Christ is always on the shore of our future hopes, in the gathering light where we are invited to come with fewer certitudes but deeper loyalties.

We lost an older version of church along the way and entered into the turbulent life of a family where bread is broken and needs are diverse and exclusions are simply not allowed and loyalty to one another counts for much more than agreement with one another. In the midst of a family’s fears and guesses and hopes and piece-meal lives Christ appears on the shore of its future. A family does not have the elegance of a temple. It has something more. It is alive. A family lives by its answer to one fundamental question, a question once asked of Peter: Do you love me? The way we answer that question determines whether we have a temple or a church, whether we have an institution or an incarnation.

Anthony T. Padovano is a Catholic theologian. His most recent book is Hope is a Dialogue, published by Caritas Communications, Mequon, Wis.

National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 1999