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Vatican II: 40 years later
Across the Age Spectrum

A moment on the way to somewhere else


I grew up steeped in the Catholic culture of the 1950s. We lived just two blocks from the church on the hill. I attended the parish school, helped count money after Mass on Sunday and spent a lot of time in the rectory “phone sitting” when the priests all went out to dinner on the housekeeper’s night off.

I never was abused by a priest. The closest I got to that was a priest who was a basketball coach and introduced me and my friends to some curse words we had never heard before. He was loud and foul-mouthed and embarrassed players in front of the world, but as far as I know never sexually abused anyone.

My life was full of Catholic peculiarities. I had the Baltimore Catechism tucked into my book bag nightly. Years later, at a Catholic college, a group of us from throughout the Philadelphia archdiocese began, jokingly, recreating the catechism: question number, question, answer. We still had, in our memories, most of the material in that little green paperback. Our heads had been filled with theology -- even if it was a lot of bad theology -- by the time we left eighth grade.

Still years later, a young associate pastor would volunteer that he envied me because I grew up in the age of the Baltimore Catechism; he had lived through the post-Vatican II era of what he called “Jesus as rainbows and butterflies.” I would say that in hindsight what the Baltimore Catechism symbolized to me was the need for Vatican II.

In elementary school I had my Boy Savior Club badge. It reminded us to imitate Jesus and keep track of our good deeds, a kind of sacred Boy Scouts, except that girls at St. Aloysius School could also belong. They could even be officers. I know, because one of my girl cousins got a spot I had hoped for. Perhaps a sign of something to come.

I knew the Latin Mass responses, could rip through the Confiteor and the Suscipiat with the best of them. I became what we called an acolyte, so I got out of math class to serve High Mass funerals, and I was on the elite serving team for all the Solemn High and High Masses and all the special liturgical events.

I narrowly avoided the seminary, though at one point I did have an application. Some of my very good friends went in, some for a number of years, but left in the latter years of the ’60s.

My Catholic culture was about as complete as one might hope to find. From my viewpoint amid the activity and ambitions of a second-generation extended Italian Catholic family, the church was simply a further extension, at times a seemingly seamless extension, of that family.

The pre-Vatican II church was a cozy cocoon, the boundaries were clear, the community well defined. We had our mysteries and mysterious language, our leaders were different -- holier, we believed -- because they had put themselves through 10 years of sequestered studies and had forsworn sex, partners and families forever.

It was a complete system, the parishes, at times referred to as the “plants” -- a term in the gritty little city I grew up in equivalent to the steel plants and the tire-and-rubber plants -- were full-service spiritual delivery systems.

What I didn’t realize at the time, of course, was that I had the good fortune to be living at the crest of a perfectly formed wave that was about to break apart.

So I can understand those who are still angry at a council that is seen to have accelerated the breakup.

But Vatican II would show that it was a system too often based on denial -- of church history and church errors of the past; of women and their gifts; of the fact that certain teachings were based on a tortured understanding of sexuality and even an embarrassing insistence on deeply flawed cosmology. The instincts behind Vatican II were nurtured in growing scholarship -- from biblical studies to the new understandings of liturgy and language to new insights from the human and natural sciences.

Those instincts, however, encountered strong resistance from the Roman curia, or governing bureaucracy, in the Vatican, symbolized in the language on the coat of arms of one of the most formidable opponents of the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani. On his shield were the words, Semper Idem, “always the same.”

Of course, the church is not always the same and it certainly changed dramatically as a result of the three-year moment of the Second Vatican Council. I remember enjoying the change in images from church militant and being a soldier for Christ, phrases of the old catechism, to the new people of God and pilgrim people. Old anathemas and enmities were turned to opportunities for generosity and to ask forgiveness. The church turned in on itself as a bulwark against the world, in another image of that era, opened the windows to fresh air and the sounds and noise of the world.

What I have come to appreciate, too, is that the council was a time of titanic struggle among church leaders who believed in a new vision of church and those who wanted to believe that it should always be the same. A great deal was at stake -- and still is at stake. In comparison to change in other institutions we are, in the broad sweep of church history, merely weeks away from the council.

In a biblical sense, it was the event that contained the tensions that would play out through the life and history of the church. And they are tensions we all know in everyday ways. A couple I know has six daughters, all well educated and now with professional lives and families of their own. The mother of this clan grew up in the church when women could not get close to the altar except to scrub the floor and grab the linens for washing. Today she is a eucharistic minister and runs a model day center for the poor and marginalized in the basement of the rectory.

For her, the church has shifted in unbelievable ways in the span of half a lifetime. Some of her daughters have decided to stay and struggle and have made various grudging accommodations with the institution. Other daughters have found spiritual refuge elsewhere; for them the institution is a lumbering, clumsy, patriarchal anachronism that can be as dangerous as it can be uplifting to the spiritual welfare of its members.

What I have come to know is that my early life in the church was a time that cannot be replicated, a blip on the radar screen of church history that, for me, may have been the world of Catholicism in its entirety, but that, looked at from afar, could only have been a moment on the way to somewhere else.

The next leg of the journey has begun. We have become a people at prayer -- in our own language -- far more aware, as the council documents urged us to become, of other cultures and traditions, and of the need to help transform, not shrink from or condemn, the rest of the world.

Tom Roberts is NCR editor. His e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002