BEFORE AND AFTER
Musings of a Third Generation Catholic on the Impact of Vatican II
The bottom line in the spirituality of a person seeking God is to discover how to live ever more fully one’s unique relationship with the God that creates him/her. At the ecumenical council, Vatican II during 4 years the 2500 bishops of the Catholic Church deliberated on behalf of their charges a new, more pastoral approach to this goal, fitted to modern times. They poured over the myriad paths, most without a name, found in created history during centuries past and through their own experience. This openness to all the world in terms of other and different paths to God has signified the surrender of the traditional Christian monopoly on grace It has turned out to be one of the Council’s underlying values that surfaced in the final document on God’s revelation to humankind(Verbum Dei).
For me as a third generation Catholic, however, Jesus and the early Church set the general parameters for my initial spiritual journey. Like many others I received my map to find God, prepared uniquely for me supposedly by the universal Cartographer, but whose guideposts, orientations, and justifications had been handed down over two millennia wrapped securely in the spiritual experiences forged by a joint political and religious culture.
Before the Council two values ruled the bottom line or the final destination for a life in the Spirit. The first, holiness was the goal and it was conceived as essentially linked to the verb, achieve. Holiness would receive its reward in heaven by how far up you had climbed the mountain here on earth. Within the boundaries of your status in life if you worked hard enough, (God’s grace would always to available to second your efforts) you could almost interpret the signposts that reassured you of your progress. Second, holiness ostensibly concretized in the imitation of Christ had to be worked out within the established system, the example of Christ himself, that is, as interpreted and fostered by the Catholic Church politically omnipotent in religious affairs. Spiritual goals were achieved through successive “approved” models of asceticism that succeeded martyrdom; withdrawals from worldly influences corresponded to a prevailing socio-economic culture of the period, sometimes modified by geographic location, retreat into the desert, separation from the world into the monasteries, priories, pilgrimages to holy shrines, travel with the Crusades, missionary work spreading the Gospel, and up to our own day through a plethora of religious associations and groups. It could be summed up as a type of spiritual athleticism.
In the Catholic Church where my spiritual goals were defined, the link between Christ and how to imitate him had been canonized by Church leadership through the system of recognizing official models to be imitated as his “heroic” followers. The filter for choices was acceptance of the power position of the Church. As the Church grew over 1500 years in its political and religious role two culturally enshrined virtues, obedience and asceticism, normally packaged the criteria accepted by the “official” interpreters of Christ’s example. Dissident initiatives were handled by accepted means of repression. Even the mind’s or intellectual obedience was demanded when the Church and its multiple institutional delegates spoke. As a backdrop cultural value obedience shored up the authority base of the Church’s leadership to command in God’s name was much more pervasive than its overt political role would suggest. On the other hand ascetical practices, encouraged and embraced by the expiation rationale for the Cross and abetted by a flawed dualistic understanding of human nature, gave free rein to a holy disdain for many wonderful human qualities. The spiritual approach of the Catholic and other Christian denominations at times left serious scares on our created human psyche affecting entire countries and generations.
Vatican II, on the other hand, called to a mission of aggiornamento, or catching up on lost time, promulgated the vision of God’s communication of itself to humankind through a continuous creation whose culminating point is the humanity of Jesus and his message. The opening of the Council to the validity of historical research reveals his message to be a passionate invitation to accept God as his own and the father of all (More at Our Father). This notion of God is glimpsed and inferred as a backdrop to the acts and proceedings of the Council insofar as it offers us the possibility of an interactive exchange with God on the part of the human family, individuals and communal institutions at all levels of society. Such an exchange with God is the stuff of a relationship.
As individuals and members of simple and complex human institutions we are witnesses in history and contemporary affairs to the physical and cultural deficiencies of the human family as it struggles to realize Jesus’ vision of his father’s reign(kingdom). They manifest the complex technological tasks and seemingly insuperable problems facing our present global village. We all as created members of the human family have a role in this. Vatican II has reemphasized for us that a faith in Jesus as a divine and bone fide member of our created family sets the table for a relationship with God, our Creator, a father and mother and much more to accompany us in defining our individual and collective roles.
It is not easy to encounter the infinite, unknowable OTHER as our companion and guide on this journey. But, what after so many centuries do we discover behind the door opened by Vatican II to Jesus’ way? The human face of God on earth? Jesus’ simple way consists in imitating his passionate search for intimacy with his father to find in ourselves and his created place for us our path to advance God’s reign. First and foremost our created world is full of lessons. In it no one is alone, but all over time and space make up a human family whose members are as clay in God’s hands, constantly in the process of becoming. God is infinitely personal in knowing and loving his work reaching into the inmost depths of our being. This includes the darkest demons of our souls, stages to be surpassed through our relationship or exchange with God in our evolutionary march to fullness. Among the words of the gospels that the specialist ascribe to Jesus as probable there is virtually no mention of sin but only of temptation, a step in the process of becoming. In the Our Father after we hallow God’s name our work on earth, “as it is in heaven” refers exclusively to our relations to other members of the human family. Finally, and most important for our life in the Spirit is our response in love to the giving, unconditional love of Jesus’ father. In practical terms this means our unconditional trust in God despite whatever turn, crook, or obstacle comes up in our ongoing relationship, including inevitable falls and even sin. Jesus is always our guide up to his ultimate, horrific death on the cross, not to atone for our many failures and perhaps sins, but to prove to us by example his absolute trust in his father/mother God.