sklbaCome Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012, we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the solemn opening of the Second Vatican Council. On that same day, the universal Catholic community will inaugurate a Year of Faith proposed by Pope Benedict XVI in order to intensify the inner spiritual renewal for which the council called.

This half century high mark of the council’s inception (it remains a process as well as an event) evokes some powerful memories for me. I had the privilege and grace of being in St. Peter’s Basilica that autumn morning in 1962 as Pope John XXIII spoke of his hopes for the gathering which he had just convoked. Within the ritual of that Eucharist he asked everyone to join him in a solemn oath to “be faithful to the teachings of the council … whatever they would be.”

Like the others present that day, I took it word for word from his mouth. It was a moment of confident wonderment. In my mind’s eye, I can still picture his feet, not quite touching the floor and moving in energetic rhythm to match the passion of his words.

Who could have guessed the full extent of patient commitment and conversion he requested?

The three goals of that historic assembly were spelled out carefully: the spiritual renewal of the church, the reconciliation of the churches and the transformation of the world by the Gospel as lived and proclaimed by the church united. Doom’s Day laments were brushed aside as ineffective.

Eastern Orthodox and Protestant observers had been invited. Their participation in the formation of the 16 council documents became itself a process of dialogue and conversion for everyone. In retrospect it is clear that each document was a blend of continuity with the past and fresh application to new circumstances. No one could have guessed the impact they would have or the debates they would trigger. The religious world had changed for everyone.

Over the next four sessions a much beloved Pope John was buried and his successor, who had assumed the name of the Apostle to the Gentiles and the 16th century implementers of the Council of Trent, accepted the duty of resolutely guiding that council to its completion.

All the conciliar debates spilled over into the front pages of the world’s press. The Catholic Church sometimes occasionally stumbled in its efforts at communication, but also learned how to dialogue more effectively with its world. The entire world had been pulled into the drama of ecclesial renewal.

On the final day of the fourth session, Dec. 8, 1965, to be exact, the Fathers of the council sent messages to significant portions of humanity: to rulers of state, to people of thought and science, to artists, to women, to the poor, sick and suffering, to workers and to the youth. Those messages are well worth carefully perusing again after all these years! They speak the language of evangelization.

Likewise encyclical letters such as John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra (1961) and Pacem in Terris (1963), Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (1967) and Evangelii nunciandi (1975) and John Paul II’s Ut unum Sint (1995) assured that social justice and ecumenism would again become permanent hallmarks of Catholic identity. Any new Catholic effort at evangelization must take those teachings seriously.

A Pentecostal wind of re-evangelization had been released into the world.

I remember with fondness sharing supper with Archbishop William E. Cousins a few days before the final session of the council, and being a witness to his musing that he “was returning to 10 of the toughest years of his life, but it will be worth it.”

He came back to Milwaukee a changed man and a different shepherd. He established parish councils and liturgical commissions. He was confronted by stumbling local implementation of reforms by people who read the directives but did not understand their deeper meaning. He also had to face the terrible racial unrest of the late 60s.

External habits can sometimes change with surprising ease, but the reshaping of inner human attitudes of faith and charity takes decades. Looking back at even earlier church history, I am comforted by the fact that it was only with the election of Pope Pius XII in 1939 that the mind of the First Vatican Council – which was prematurely terminated in 1869 – came to effective implementation some 70 years later.

Italian national politics and revolution had prevented the completion of their ecclesial agenda. Perhaps it was providential that almost a century was still needed for more mature reflection on the role of the laity, the power of the liturgy and the pastoral responsibilities of priests and bishops. The Second Vatican Council provided that needed complement.

People of our American age and culture often lament that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council have been thwarted and sidelined. To some extent that is true. At least in my judgment, however, a deeper truth is at work in our midst, and one much more profound. Once again, the wisdom of the foundresses of our local communities of sisters says it all when they taught that the work of God in human hearts is often painfully slow … “Alles geht langsam und deutlich!”

The Second Vatican Council invited the Catholics of the entire world to the church’s table. The fact that they showed up is itself a great implementation of the council’s wisdom. Africans, however, came with their struggles against tribalism; South Americans came with the scars of colonialism; Asians came with their preoccupation with saving face and North Americans came with a certain arrogant presumption that the rest of the world should see things our way and embrace our solutions to the needs of their world.

We still have much to learn from each other and from the ways in which each culture lives its faith. The evangelization of cultures, our own and that of others, is long hard work. I am completely confident that it will eventually be successful. The Quakers sit in silence at prayer, “awaiting God to do what we cannot do for ourselves.” They may be more on target than we realize.

Moving the liturgy into vernacular only unleashed the inevitable debate as to which kind of English should be used. We’ve only begun that conversation, and imposing one view or another is not the final solution to the challenge.

The prophet Jeremiah once lamented that the house cleaning and reformation of Temple liturgy in his day demanded a change of heart, not merely refurbishing the altar (Jer 7:1-23). He also was on target with the Word of the Lord!

Allowing ourselves to be evangelized by the liberating power of the Gospel, and discovering the full meaning of our union in the Body of Christ as a humble Pilgrim People is our task. It remains a reminder that we ourselves still must change just as we expect others to do so.

At this point in history as the archdiocese we need to focus on:

  • a new engagement with the Word of God
  • a deeper appreciation of the Eucharist as source and summit of Life
  • a fresh commitment to the fullness of justice and peace

Someone of my vintage knows the experience of the Second Vatican Council, and the difference when that experience has become a document to be continually relived in a new manner by successive generations. Meanwhile, the ancient wisdom of the prophet Habakkuk remains clear, “Write down the vision … if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late” (2:2f). Evangelization is that process and that goal.