On the WOF blog today Father Steve examines a transition that has taken place in regards to those Catholics whose vision of the Church was formed by the Second Vatican Council and emerging generations of Catholics for whom Vatican II is a historical event distant from their lives and experience.
A good friend of mine is currently participating in his parish RCIA program as a catechumen, and this past weekend, the topic for catechesis and conversation was Vatican II. Now, my friend was raised in a secularist environment and is an outsider to many of the particularities and peculiarities of Catholic Faith and culture. The very concept of an ecumenical council was absolutely, brand-spanking new, and much of what he heard about the concerns, impact, and milieu of the Second Vatican Council were completely unknown- and in many ways (and I know that this will sound shocking to some) inconsequential to his experience. I will allow some of this article's readers to catch their breath, and after that, prepare themselves for what I mean when I say "inconsequential."
The Second Vatican Council was the 21st ecumenical council (at least by Catholic reckoning- Orthodox and Protestant Christians argue with us Catholics about that number, but that is a story for another blog post). Vatican II was convened by Pope John XXIII in 1962 and was concluded by Paul VI in 1965. One of the most unique (and at times frustrating) aspects of this council was the sheer amount of verbiage that spills forth from the conciliar documents, surely more than all the other previous councils combined. For many, these intricately crafted texts are summarized in catchphrases like "aggiornamento" or "updating the Church,” monikers that are usually interpreted to mean "out with old and in with the new”-- the "new" being anything even loosely associated with the culture and practices that had prevailed in the Church since the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. The great symbol of what it meant to "update" the Church was changes to the form and style of Catholic worship, particularly the Mass. These changes are usually represented as the difference between an experience of the Mass in which "the priest has his back to the people," and the texts of the Mass are prayed in the languages common to the people, rather than being prayed in Latin.
Of course, these changes in worship are not the only things that emerged in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, but they are often identified in popular discourse as being what the Council was all about or at least what people remember. My friend received this impression; the liturgical changes seemed to be what he remembered most about the talk that was presented to his RCIA group. These changes in worship are also experiences that my friend (and I would guess for many people entering the Church), might find interesting, but utterly abstract. When I explained that what he heard about the positioning of the priest vis-a-vis the assembly during Mass was not an issue of the priest turning away from the people, but of the priest and the people facing the same direction, and that one could offer Mass in this manner even today, he was intrigued, but not offended. I think that this attitude signals something of an important shift that is taking place in the Church and in the culture. For my friend, the great transition that he will face is not whether or not the priest faces him during worship or whether or not the prayers he hears will be in Latin or the vernacular, but the fact that prior to the 2011 Easter Vigil his "religion" was a kind of generalized spirituality, and after that Vigil he will be a Catholic. Mind you, he will not self-identify as a pre-conciliar or a post-conciliar Catholic- he will be a Catholic. In other words, RCIA and his transition into the Church is not for him an experience of negotiating the dynamics of Catholic life before and after the Second Vatican Council, but about discovering Jesus Christ in his Church for the first time.
And, it is his discovery of Christ and the Church for the first time that is what marks not only my friend, but an emerging and important demographic- a fact that the Church, particularly those who lead our parishes and institutions and serve as a route of access into the Catholic Faith, need to appreciate with ever greater intensity and seriousness.
Significant demographic studies indicate large portions of the American population are growing up and coming of age without being raised in any particular religious culture, and many of those who currently (and who in the future) self-identify as Catholics experience the Faith as so tangential to their lives that they likely should be included in these numbers. Popular culture has identified these folks as the "nones," and this demographic shows no sign of decreasing. The curious thing about this group is that the lack of a specific religious affiliation does not mean that the "nones" are hostile or indifferent to the Church or any other faith. It simply means that they are not associated with any faith in particular. The reasons proposed for this state of affairs are numerous, but two variables seem to be persistent- they were raised outside traditional religious communities so that their lack of specific religious commitment seems to them to be "natural," and they have understood religious commitment as a judgment that they make alone, rather than by necessity in relation to a specific community of faith.
I highlight the experience of the "nones" alongside my friend's experience at RCIA because I think that much of the Church's internal conversation and rhetoric, especially in our parishes, is still being directed by the impact, influence and issues of the Second Vatican Council. However, in the meantime, the culture in which the Church is situated has long since moved on. The Second Vatican Council, despite its continuing importance for the Church (after all, it is the condition for the possibility for what my friend experiences as the RCIA) is no longer the primary or even secondary frame of reference by which the culture, particularly the demographic of the "nones," interprets or understands the Church. The generation that experienced the immediate effects of the Council might receive this reality with some measure of chagrin because it means dealing with not only the existential impact of one's youth becoming history, but also the way in which one has expressed their experience of the Church- if it does not change it will become increasingly incoherent and misleading. What the Church and the "modern" world look like now is much different from the manner in which they were perceived circa 1990, let alone 1960. Coming to grips with this reality cuts sharply into those who have made the Second Vatican Council the centerpiece of not only their experience, but of all of Church history. It means awakening to the fact that the Council, grand and important as it is, was not the pivot upon which the Church would always be turning. We can see clearly now that centuries of the Church's life preceded Vatican II and centuries will follow. Lived experience has given way to textual analysis and the perspective gleaned from this demonstrates that there were 20 councils before Vatican II, each one embedded in historical particularities and circumstances that have since passed away. All 21 councils still have an impact on the life of the Church, but the context in which the Faith is lived is far greater than any one conciliar event. My friend will never understand his experience of the Faith as being "post Vatican II" and his tribe is increasing.
The pontificates of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have much to teach us about how the Second Vatican Council should be contextualized and understood, especially as it recedes ever more into historical memory. Pope John Paul II presented in his person and his approach to the papacy that the primary emphasis of the Council was missionary and evangelical, a clear indication that any reforms that properly proceeded from Vatican II were meant to enhance the Church's efforts in these regards. Pope Benedict has insisted on a hermeneutic of continuity in which the Second Vatican Council is placed in relationship with the Church that preceded the Council and is still yet to come. In this perspective, it is the continuum of the Church's life in which the Council must be situated- Vatican II does not inaugurate the Church nor does it bring the Church to fulfillment, nor is it a state of affairs in which the Church is forever embedded. The Church is greater than this, and for this we should be grateful, because it means that neither my friend nor any Catholic has to choose whether or not he or she is pre or post Vatican II. This distinction has exhausted its possibilities, and this experience is not inconsequential.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.