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Vatican II: 40 years later

Doorway to conversion and theology


For the first 30 years of my life, I was blissfully unaware of the Catholic church. My only knowledge of the church came from movies like “The Cardinal” and “Going My Way” -- not the best perspective necessarily. As an adult, traveling in Europe, I also visited a number of cathedrals, enthralled by their timeless beauty and incredible size, but again I never really paid much attention to the fact that while I came as a curious sightseer, others came to pray and participate in the Mass.

All of this changed, quite abruptly, in 1979. In the Year of the Three Popes, I suddenly found myself with an overwhelming urge to explore the Roman Catholic church. As I was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, I found this desire puzzling to say the least, as well as confusing. I knew not how to respond but finally I made contact with the Albany, N.Y., diocese where I was working as an attorney for the state. Soon I found myself taking instruction from Fr. Nellis Tremblay, pastor of St. Patrick’s Church. Beginning instruction in the fall of 1979, I thought unknowingly that I would be confirmed and simply return to my life as an attorney, a Catholic attorney.

Little did I know that nine years later, in June 1988, I would be defending my dissertation for the doctor of sacred theology degree in Leuven (Louvain), Belgium. How all of this came about in my life is another story for another time. However, I do believe that it would not have happened had the Second Vatican Council not taken place.

The changes that the council brought about were many and continue to be discussed and debated. Turning the altar to face the congregation, and thereby including all of the people, was significant -- as was the renewed understanding that all Catholics, whether lay, religious or clergy, were the people of God and, therefore, were the church as well. The turn to the vernacular or common language of each local church, the changes in the liturgy to make it more inclusive and reflective of the people celebrating, the recognition of the church’s catholicity, or great diversity of races, ethnicities and cultures, were all equally important.

For me, however, the greatest change was in the church’s opening its doors, finally, to women, both religious and lay, in areas where they had previously been restricted. I often say, jokingly but also quite seriously, to those who ask about my conversion that God knew not to ask me into this church prior to Vatican II. For I wouldn’t have been able to participate in a church where women, especially women of color, were relegated to menial, domestic or restricted religious roles.

After my confirmation in 1979, when I realized that God was not through with me yet but wanted me to become a Catholic theologian, I was unclear as to where this path would lead. At the time, despite having read many of Tremblay’s books on theology and spirituality, I was unaware that the path I was being offered was an unusual one not just for a laywoman but even more so for an African-American laywoman.

When I accepted God’s call and moved to Washington, I found that I was the first laywoman and African-American woman to enter the pontifical degree program in sacred theology at The Catholic University of America. It was shocking to me to discover how few women were studying theology and the many difficulties we met as we journeyed together. On the one hand, women were no longer required to sit in the hallway to listen to lectures as they had initially, but on the other hand, I found professors who could not and would not accept the validity of my vocation and did not want me, or were uncomfortable with me, in their classes.

Despite all the obstacles and challenges, I, like a growing number of women, persevered in my goal of becoming a Catholic theologian. Reading about the changes that took place in the church as a result of Vatican II opened my eyes to the miracle of my being able to study theology. The council fathers’ recognition of the myriad voices and peoples present in the church helped to lay the path that I am now treading, as I attempt to develop, encourage and document the presence and contributions of Catholics of African descent in the church since the first century, as well as the challenging but inspiring task of attempting to articulate a black Catholic theology that is both liberating and womanist. At the same time, Vatican II has encouraged and affirmed my efforts and the efforts of others to inculturate the gospel message into the culture and traditions of persons of African descent, and vice-versa.

I can honestly say that if the Second Vatican Council had not taken place, I would not be the person I am today. The doors so slowly opened 40 years ago are still open -- despite the efforts of some who seek to close them again and take us back to a church that in reality never existed as they imagine it. The result of the influx of women at almost every level of the church, as well as of all races and ethnicities into the Catholic church, has been the enriching of the church as it continues on its pilgrim journey to God. Vatican II changed the Catholic church but, more important, it changed our understanding of church as it is lived out in the ordinary lives of ordinary people.

Diana Hayes is associate professor of theology at Georgetown University, Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002