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Vatican II: 40 years later
Across the Age Spectrum

A GenXer looks forward, looks back


The post-Vatican II church is characterized by its own unique lexicon that is rife with colorful, high-octane phrases: Catholic character. Zero tolerance. Generation X. Cafeteria Catholicism. Church renovation. And my personal favorite: vocation crisis. This misnomer has given rise to a host of new literature on the subject of the priest shortage, some of it honest and forthright, some of it vitriolic and out of touch. Seminary directors have scrambled to hire more vocation directors, design clever billboards, purchase trendy magazine advertisements and host information nights for prospective seminarians.

If I ever had the opportunity to advise a group of vocation directors, I would suggest that they invite a few young men out to a nice dinner. That simple act of hospitality, if extended repeatedly over time, can be instrumental in the cultivation of a vocation. At least that is the way it happened for me.

To this day, I believe that I have chosen theology as a course of study and ministry as a profession because, during my high school and college years, more than a couple of priests invited my younger brother to dinner. Presumably, they thought he was one of a few good men. And he is. Their intuition was right on. My brother is bright, articulate and faith-filled. The priests were successful in their attempt to cultivate a vocation, though probably not in the way they had in mind. I thank those priests, wherever they are, for those dinner invitations they extended to my brother. I thank them because, embedded within the response of a strong-willed mother, was an invitation of a different sort.

“They should be inviting you too,” I remember my mother saying to me on more than one occasion. “You have just as many gifts to offer to the church as your brother does.” That simple statement-turned-injunction, repeated throughout my teenage years, spoke volumes to me. My mother’s words conveyed both equality between women and men, and that I was expected to have a role in the church. Perhaps she was speaking for a bevy of baby-boom mothers, mothers who, shaped by the cultural overhaul of the 1960s, will not readily hand their sons over to the church unless their daughters are accepted too. Whether or not my mother’s statement is representative of others in her generation, I know that it was life changing for me in the cultivation of my own vocation.

The real vocation crisis in the post-Vatican II church is not that half-empty seminaries now serve as weekend retreat facilities, but that we have failed to acknowledge the vocation of mothers, marriages, professors, business professionals, social workers, physicians, engineers and fathers. The real vocation crisis is that we ignore the gifts of faith-filled laypeople who serve and have loyally served the church for years, both as volunteers and paid professionals. The real vocation crisis is that we have failed to acknowledge that it is the laity, in large part, that provides the church with its lifeblood, its color, its vibrancy, its energy. The real vocation crisis is that we have neglected a wholistic theology of vocation. The real vocation crisis is that we have neglected to acknowledge the laity who “hung in there” when things got rough.

Born more than 10 years after the Second Vatican Council began, I feel fortunate to have reaped the benefits of the pioneering work of the laypeople and clergy who came before me. I work at a vibrant parish that celebrates the gifts of the laity, acknowledges the richness of other faiths and commits itself to good liturgy. As I began my work two years ago as a pastoral associate who coordinates the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and worship, I had little explaining to do in terms of my work or my education. Parishioners knew what my role was expected to be. They even knew what a master of divinity degree was.

And this was no accident. The parishioners’ understanding of lay ministry was the result of a pastor with broad vision and many committed laypeople who preceded me, both those who have worked at the parish level and those who have worked for the larger church. Those laypeople had to work harder in their early days than I have had to work thus far to gain credibility and trust, whether they have been employed as staff writers for diocesan papers, directors of religious education at parishes, college professors or volunteers.

When I complain about the lack of a voice for the laity in the church or the dearth of public leadership opportunities for women, “my elders” gently remind me of the laypeople who pursued graduate degrees in theology before there was financial support to do so. They remind me of the women who worked quietly behind the scenes for so many years before their work was acknowledged with a just wage and a professional title.

When I look at the opportunities in front of me and ask them, “Is this all?” they tell me, “Its so much better than it was.” They tell me, “We have worked very, very hard to get here.” In my own evaluation of the general welfare of the church, I feel I must walk a fine line between appreciating the advances of previous generations, yet demanding more in order to move forward in the future.

For many older Catholics, the Second Vatican Council drew an indelible line through our church’s historical landscape, so much so that the life of the contemporary church is now defined in terms of “before” and “after.” Sometimes I am tempted to ask, “Before and after what?” I have never known any other reality than a world in which we sang the music of the St. Louis Jesuits, trained laypeople as eucharistic ministers, and educated the laity for a professional life in the church. That’s just the way it has always been.

It is often difficult to remember that Vatican II was an actual historical event, not just a thick green-and-yellow paperback of documents that sits on my bookshelf for the purpose of study. It is often difficult to touch the reality that the council encapsulated colorful characters and personalities, lively debate, grand ceremony and sweeping change. Behind the pages of tiny black-and-white type stood persons of conviction, persons of faith, hope and passion with grand ideas for the future of the church. Behind even such nuances as the numbering of each document chapter, there are stories and anecdotes, amusing footnotes and battles fought behind each one of the now neatly bound documents. That humanness is a reality that is, on one level, hard to grasp, not having lived through the Second Vatican Council.

If I think back to thoughtful conversations with friends and acquaintances about religion, about what impact Vatican II has had on our lives, I think many of us would say, “not much.” As far as we are concerned, this is how the church has always been.

Perhaps the fact that we were born years after the sweeping changes were made lends itself to what a priest friend has called our “leaden indifference” to matters concerning the church. Perhaps, though, this leaden indifference is borne of the disconnect we feel between the two worlds that we inhabit. On one hand, as young adults coming of age during the dawn of the 21st century, we are products of an American culture that values living life at breakneck speed. We have unprecedented access to tools and technology whose primary characteristics are speed and efficiency. Cell phones allow us to stay connected with our most recent voice mail messages. Drive-throughs and massive deli takeout counters allow us to eat on the run. E-mail allows us to communicate almost instantaneously and the Internet permits access to unprecedented amounts of information on any topic. We are children of a culture that pays homage to the god of working overtime, doing too much, and doing it as quickly as one can.

On the other hand, as Catholics, we are a part of an organization that was once described as “always arriving late and out of breath.” The church has hardly ever been associated with efficiency or hurriedness.

It often seems that the institutional church has lost a sense of what the contemporary moment is like. It is sometimes bewildering to be a part of both worldviews: one that prizes efficiency, speed and forward movement, and another that prizes tradition and the ability to withstand passing fads and trends. Perhaps some day the interplay of these two cultures will make more sense, with the help of the creative and analytical work of theologians, broadened pastoral sensibilities, and our own ability to distinguish between the valuable and the expendable in our American culture.

For the time being, I am willing to stand with my feet in these two worlds. And as I do so, I will pray for the church and vocations, that is, I will pray that the institutional church recognizes that laypeople are living out vocations everywhere.

Renée M. LaReau has a master’s of divinity from the University of Notre Dame. Author of a forthcoming book on vocation, she is a pastoral associate at the Church of St. Charles Borromeo, Kettering, Ohio.

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002