© 2019, Father Kevin Michael Laughery
Updated Friday, October 11, 2019

So what were you doing thirty years and two days ago? What were you doing on Thursday, October 11, 1962?

I wasn't keeping a diary at that time, but I can tell you that I was well into my first and only year of public school: kindergarten, to be precise. I could have told you that John Kennedy was President. I had not been around long enough to have understood the wave of optimism washing over our world. But of course, that optimism was there, in such matters as advances in civil rights and the development of manned space flight. Our world was soon to be plunged into deep anxiety, however, for before that October was out, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union would engage in the most perilous showdown of the Cold War. And something else happened at that time -- something that would have an impact on me, both immediately and well into the future. I would feel its impact by 1964, when, only weeks after having received my First Holy Communion in Latin, I found myself receiving Communion in English. On Thursday, October 11, 1962, in the Patriarchal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican City State, Pope John XXIII, having called the Catholic bishops of the whole world together, opened an ecumenical council.

It wasn't supposed to happen. The College of Cardinals, having assembled in conclave after the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958, found itself deadlocked after several ballots -- after several rounds of collecting the inconclusive votes and burning them with straw to create the black smoke that told the crowds in St. Peter's Square to keep waiting. The papal electors did not know for sure whom they wanted to be the new pope. So they decided to buy time. They could do so by electing an older man who would have a brief term in the See of Rome -- a man who would not do anything of consequence. During those few years, the cardinals could reach a consensus regarding the next man who would truly pilot the bark of Peter. And so, as their interim pope, the papal electors chose the Patriarch of Venice, Angelo Cardinal Roncalli, age seventy-six. His, certainly, would be a caretaker papacy.

And so this unique power elite, the College of Cardinals, was stunned by the announcement that Roncalli, now John XXIII, made to them on Sunday, January 25, 1959, Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. Pope John called for three things: a synod of the Diocese of Rome, of which he, of course, was bishop; the revision of the Code of Canon Law, which had come into force only in 1918; and an ecumenical council.

Why on earth was this man calling for an ecumenical council? It seemed sheer madness to so many. As the Roman Catholic perspective would have it, ecumenical councils were called at times when it was necessary to settle some controversy about the dogma of the Church. The great councils of Nicea and Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon, in the fourth and fifth centuries, hammered out the creed that the faithful recited Sunday after Sunday, and anathematized those who could not accept those creedal statements. Councils through the course of the Middle Ages were the definitive rebuke to theologians who proposed a novel teaching, developed a following, and caused dissension. Trent in the sixteenth century was, in many respects, a process of getting one's own house in order; but it also formalized the parting of ways between Rome and those who would henceforth be described as "protesting" the brand of Christianity that was under Rome's sway. The First Vatican Council in 1870 asserted the uniqueness and preeminence of Roman Catholic Christianity against any and all who, for reasons of theology or of a willingness to assert a more democratic model of authority, impugned the concept of supreme divine authority's being concentrated in the figure of one man with an extremely exalted title.

Why on earth did we need an ecumenical council? The Christian centuries had been a process of establishing a Church that was a paragon of clarity. That is to say, it was clear to any believer, anywhere in the world, what the Church was, who it was that exercised authority, and what was expected of any faithful follower. What more could one want?

Well, much was wanting. The state of the human family demonstrated that the business of living an authentic human life in union with a supreme divine Principle could not be equated with the conventional model of authority. Too much was missing from this model. Too great a reliance on this model, down through the centuries, had reinforced an unhealthy distrust of self. People who habitually distrust themselves and their own feelings become accustomed to a state of alienation from their very selves. People who look to the pronouncements of exalted religious authorities, to the exclusion of the authority dwelling in their hearts, will be all the more pliable to the will of exalted civil authorities, who will claim to enjoy a substantial share in the divine authority embodied in the religious authorities. People so alienated from themselves, and so credulous before so-called "leaders," will be capable of anything.

People capable of anything. These words pretty well describe the twentieth century. This waning century has been an age of madness. How else can one comprehend the spectacle of so-called "Christian" countries gunning down and gassing one another's young men in the trenches of a war that for many years thereafter was dignified with the adjective "Great"? How else can one comprehend the sight of one people's becoming so demonized in the sight of others that those others could so calmly and systematically engage in genocide? Two world wars, and various atrocities scattered round about, constitute for all believing people an enigma that must be dealt with if we are to enjoy any credibility whatever. After all these centuries of God-talk -- after all these centuries of professing that we revere God -- how is it that we have failed so miserably in revering the image of God in people?

Angelo Roncalli observed the mid-twentieth century as a Vatican diplomat, serving in Bulgaria from 1925, in Turkey and Greece from 1934, and in France from 1944 to 1953. No doubt he stored up in his heart a sense of the ugly dissonance between glib God-talk and the shameful institutionalized desecration of people. No doubt he saw some sanity breaking into the madness. He could look back, for instance, to 1891 and to Pope Leo XIII's resounding defense of the rights of workers amid the dehumanizing currents of the Industrial Revolution. He could rejoice in various grass-roots efforts to allow the faithful to hear a fresh, direct word, spoken in their own language, in their own idiom. He stored up various things in his heart as he went about his duties. Few, apparently, had any idea of the depth of feeling in his soul. No one suspected that this career diplomat could go about his duties so quietly, and then, at the age of seventy-seven, lift his voice to call together a council that would be a catalyst for radical change.

Why on earth did we need an ecumenical council? Had dogmas been blurred? Yes, they had. For too long a time, believing people had engaged in what George Orwell, in his novel Nineteen Eighty-four, had described using a term of his own devising: "doublethink," the simultaneous profession of two contradictory beliefs. In spite of our belief in a God who had entered human history and who had established an unbreakable bond with people, we were too quick to envision our earthly existence as a "vale of tears," an "exile" which we simply had to endure until the beginning of "real life" after death. If earthly existence is an exile, then it doesn't have to make sense. We can explain any sort of injustice, any madness whatever, as simply "the way it is in this vale of tears." We don't recognize any responsibility for shaping a world that bears the imprint of a compassionate God. We don't have to be compassionate ourselves. This "doublethink" has let madness run wild. We suffer the madness every day. Indeed a dogma had been blurred. We had devalued the whole human family.

The Second Vatican Council developed into a source of great strength precisely because it affirmed the value of the human person when that value had tended to be denied amid the prevailing madness. Although I would like to share with you an account of the four sessions of the council and the evolution of the sixteen documents that it promulgated, the brevity of our time together today simply does not permit it. I trust that every one of us here enjoys some familiarity with the history of the council and some acquaintance with the documents. If not, the pertinent books are readily available. In what little time we have, I would like to make some mention of a select few documents and the ways in which they affirm the real value of people before God.

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church plumbs the identity of the Church to an unprecedented depth. It declares that, fundamentally, the Church is a mystery -- but not a mystery in the sense that the word might be used by a religion teacher disposing of a tough question proposed by an annoyingly bright child. No, the Church is declared to be a mystery in the sense that it is a dynamic entity ever on pilgrimage. The primary image used to describe the mystery is "People of God." This image indeed controls the development of thought in this document. For prior to any distinctions being made regarding clergy and laity, hierarchy and "the flock," the document considers what all believers have in common by reason of their baptism. It describes a "universal call to holiness" and affirms the giftedness and worth of all. Furthermore, the document considers the various ways in which one can be considered associated with the People of God. It goes so far as to assert a kinship among all people of good will. This assertion comes as a kind of a shock for those who can't imagine God being so sociable.

The Decree on Ecumenism calls disunity among Christians a "scandal" and mandates processes of common study, dialogue, and joint worship, so that we might treasure all that unites us as we seek to dissolve what divides us.

The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions brings words of charity and healing into situations that have all too often been marked by rancor and strife. Says the Declaration: "The Church ... urges her children to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture." What more can one add to this exhortation? One could abbreviate it as follows: "Get busy. Be respectful. Be sensitive. Be open."

Finally, the Declaration on Religious Liberty deserves our attention. This, undoubtedly, was the most controversial document to issue from Vatican Council II. Could the Catholic Church affirm an inviolable human right to seek the truth in accord with conscience? Those who resisted such an affirmation held that the Church would be granting breathing room for error, and "error has no rights." Indeed, error has no rights. Only people have rights. And all people have a right to their own conscience.

These highlights of a few of the Council documents demonstrate the degree to which the Roman Catholic Church was committing itself to what I like to call a "personalistic revolution." We sought to revere God by developing our reverence for the human person. There's never been a perfect revolution. As I examine the plans for the revolution, I find that much is still wanting. The council did not go very far in exploring the fundamental element of personhood that is our sexuality. What treatment it did give to issues of sexuality tended to send out mixed signals. Entire documents, for instance, were dedicated to a discussion of the life and ministry of bishops, priests, and religious -- people whose lives are very much defined by the discipline of celibate chastity. Those whose lives are defined by married chastity, on the other hand, did not merit a document of their own. A discussion of marriage is relegated to a few brief sections of a lengthy and sweeping Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World -- as if the Church had just stumbled on the modern world and discovered that marriage was a part of it. I am proud of my Church for its prophetic witness that we are stewards, not owners, of our bodies and especially of our reproductive powers. I recognize, however, that our ambivalence about sexuality makes our witness less credible than it could be.

The council may have begun when I was in kindergarten, but it still looks like graduate school to me. It is a mandate to open ourselves to never-ending change. I, who as a first-grader knew long passages of the Latin Mass by heart, and who as a second-grader promptly forgot it all, have found myself particularly pliable to change of a sort. For all I knew, we changed languages every year. Occasionally I would hear a nervous priest assert: "We're changing the externals, but the essence remains the same." Wrong. The external changes reflect a revolution shaking the Church to its very foundations. We have been called to discover that our life is not defined by intellectual assent to certain propositions, but by a constant process of discovery of what it means to be fully human. We are challenged to look upon the central figure of our faith as the meaning of what it is to be human. We are chastened in realizing that he himself would not have us force him on others. We are stilled in realizing that human life is fundamentally graced. We are empowered to approach life with a sense of freedom and serenity.

Vatican II didn't just let me pray in English. It gave me a vocabulary by which I could praise and express delight in all the people by whom God has enriched my life. So many of these people are right here before me. Were it not for the Council, I do not know whether my path would ever have crossed yours. And we would all be impoverished. I thank God for the freedom that lets me walk with you. I thank God for the existence of this interfaith association and for the privilege of serving on its board, most recently as president. I thank you for deepening my reverence for God and his people.

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© 2019, Father Kevin Michael Laughery