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Vatican II: 40 years later
Across the Age Spectrum

Taking the idea of ‘people of God’ to heart


The Second Vatican Council taught us the idea of the church as the people of God. Whenever I hear this, a little song runs through my head, a song I learned, complete with dramatic gestures, in my childhood:

I am the church
You are the church
Yes, we’re the church together
All of God’s people
All around the world
Yes, we’re the church together

It seemed clear enough to me. Of course we’re the church. I had never known any different.

I was born in 1967, two years after the council ended. The days before Vatican II are a history lesson, anecdotes from my parents and grandparents, jokes from Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? and all the other ’50s nostalgia trips. Superficialities are what spring to mind: Mass in Latin, no meat on Fridays, nuns in habits, writing “JMJ” at the top of your paper in school.

It seems pretty cute and harmless. But what I can’t really grasp is the pre-Vatican II idea of church. The “people of God” is a new idea? It was so thoroughly inculcated into me I can’t imagine any other way.

I was raised by parents who took the call for the participation of the people of God to heart. Take any role a layperson could take at a parish, and they’ve probably done it: musician, religious educator, parish council member, lector, eucharistic minister -- the list goes on. When our growing parish formed a kind of “subparish,” a smaller neighborhood group that gathered for Mass at, appropriately enough, Roncalli (John XXIII’s family name) High School, my parents became de facto pastoral ministers and liturgy planners for the close-knit faith community. This is the kind of thing laypeople do in my church. They haven’t always?

We belonged to the Christian Family Movement, and my most vivid memories of it were of the community of families we formed. Every year, we went on the camping trip to Lake Wabounsie, Iowa, where we had outdoor liturgy along with the usual camping activities. All the kids wanted to tumble down a steep, scary, dusty hill. There on that hill was the church, rolling, running or inching down a hill that to my child’s eyes seemed darn near cliff-like. Yes, I was an incher.

Vatican II permeated my childhood religious life. When I spent the night at my best friend’s house on a Saturday, I often went to the service at their Lutheran church with her family the next morning, instead of just trotting across the street to go with my own family to Mass. And every year my sisters and I went to summer Bible school at the Lutheran church. I was living a little Vatican II ecumenism.

In religious education classes, which we called CCD and never knew what that stood for (for the record, it’s Confraternity of Christian Doctrine), we who were children just after Vatican II were perhaps the “experimented upon.” The teachers were laypeople and it was not “school, only on Sunday.” Gone was the Baltimore Catechism; in were arts and crafts in gaudy ’70s colors, songs and an informal atmosphere.

Looking back, we had fun, but there was a bit of “baby out with the bathwater” to it. The adults were so excited by the new, they seemed to set aside a lot of the old. In my small and highly unscientific survey of Catholic friends of my age, at least some shared my feeling of loss for the traditions we didn’t get a whole lot of, like learning much about the saints and the rosary, or rituals like “May crowning” and St. Blaise Day. I got to do the St. Blaise throat blessing with the candles for the first time this past February. OK, it didn’t do much to prevent the bronchitis I’m suffering from right now, but I liked it. I wasn’t pining for the old days I never knew. I felt connected to the faithful of the past and present, to the people of God. I felt ... Catholic.

Still, despite the gaps we felt only later, CCD wasn’t all style and no substance. Along the line I got a decent grounding in the sacraments as each new one came along. Of course, though I didn’t know it, it was the new post-Vatican II days in this as well. From my first reconciliation on, I have only experienced that sacrament face-to-face. And at my first Communion, I didn’t wear a veil and I was so proud of my pink -- yes, pink, not white -- dress. A couple years later, we learned to take Communion in the hand. That’s one of the few “before and afters” I remember.

I felt the pain of slow reform in junior high, when I was so jealous of altar boys. I was going through a super-religious phase and how I resented the boys who looked like they wanted to be anywhere but there at Mass. Now when I see altar girls looking like they want to be anywhere but there, I can reminisce with a little “back in my day” nostalgia myself. Girls, you got it easy.

Now people say Vatican II’s reforms have been derailed, that the clock is being turned back. Working at NCR continually puts me face to face with the ways this may be true of a dispiriting number in the hierarchy. Theologians are silenced, more power is centralized in the Roman curia, and documents released in the current sex abuse crisis reveal the arrogance of higher-ups.

But to focus on hierarchical behavior is perhaps a bit myopic. The Second Vatican Council said that we were the people of God, and maybe the people of God have taken that to heart. You see it in every parish, carried along by Catholics like my parents who take the call of their baptism seriously.

You see it in the Voice of the Faithful, seeking to address the sex abuse scandals with the belief that they are the church. When even conservative Catholics protest because they think their bishop’s renovation of a cathedral strays too far from tradition, it looks like they, too, think they are the church and ought to have a say.

The work is not finished, but maybe the mindset Vatican II gave birth to has taken hold. And that is cause for hope as the church -- the people of God -- continues the struggle to reflect the reign of God on earth. The little song starts going through my head again: “Yes, we’re the church together ... ”

Teresa Malcolm is NCR news editor. Her e-mail address is tmalcolm@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002