It was 50 years ago today when Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council. 50 years ago today, no one writing on this blog was born (or if they were, they were infants). For us, Vatican II is a “given.” I read various retrospectives from those who herald the dramatic changes or who question the “chaos” that the Council brought forth. But for me, and even more for my students (whether liberal or conservative), there is no “pre-Vatican II Church,” except as a story we’re told, by various people, in various ways. I think that makes it all the more important to understand how those who did not live through the Council came to understand and narrate its significance. Several of us are going to post on this topic: “How did I, in the postconciliar Church, come to understand the significance of the Council?” These are meant as personal reflections by those of us who found our way into the vocation of theology after the Council, rather than deep analyses of the documents. They explore the ways in which we “learned” Vatican II when growing up after Vatican II.

First, I am still coming to understand the significance of the Council, and in particular the theologies that informed its documents. Its significance is that I continue to learn from it, rather than treat it in a sloganistic way. I have over the past two years been privileged to teach our department’s Senior Seminar, where we lead students through the major documents. Prior to this, I had never actually had to teach the documents – instead, I’d become expert at pulling the key “moral theology” sections, like Gaudium 16 or 48-52 or 75. The experience of teaching them, of course, offers a much deeper understanding of the painstaking (and sometimes tension-filled) final text. I’ve been pairing documents with significant theological works influencing them, such as de Lubac’s Catholicism and Murray’s “The Problem of Religious Liberty,” as well as the often-vivid commentaries from the classic, five-volume Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II. The documents sometimes threaten to become cartoons or sources for proof-texts, but frankly, what is amazing is how rich and intricate they actually are. The recent debate over a “hermeneutic of continuity” versus a “hermeneutic of rupture” seems to be typically cartoonish – Pope Benedict himself speaks of a “hermeneutic of reform,” featuring “both continuity and discontinuity.”

The hermeneutic of discontinuity is countered by the hermeneutic of reform, as it was presented first by Pope John XXIII in his Speech inaugurating the Council on 11 October 1962 and later by Pope Paul VI in his Discourse for the Council’s conclusion on 7 December 1965.

…It is clear that this commitment to expressing a specific truth in a new way demands new thinking on this truth and a new and vital relationship with it; it is also clear that new words can only develop if they come from an informed understanding of the truth expressed, and on the other hand, that a reflection on faith also requires that this faith be lived. In this regard, the programme that Pope John XXIII proposed was extremely demanding, indeed, just as the synthesis of fidelity and dynamic is demanding.

… It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists. In this process of innovation in continuity we must learn to understand more practically than before that the Church’s decisions on contingent matters – for example, certain practical forms of liberalism or a free interpretation of the Bible – should necessarily be contingent themselves, precisely because they refer to a specific reality that is changeable in itself.

And this does appear to be the hermeneutic that makes the documents read most naturally: an attempt to revise, resituate, and reorient features which are already there in the tradition.

Second, I think for me the most important aspect of the documents that I learned about quite early was their discussions of religious pluralism and God’s salvific activity outside the visible Church. Especially in college (when I first read the documents themselves), I was confronted with a question that my students now routinely face: how to understand the truth of the faith in a context of pluralism. I grew up in a thoroughly (postconciliar) Catholic context on the Northwest side of Chicago – huge parishes (which everyone attended), plentiful schools, and both Pope (John Paul II) and Cardinal (Bernardin) were highly visible and esteemed. Being Catholic didn’t seem puzzling, even if there were puzzles within it. But college was different… and so is most of the world today. I am grateful for my upbringing because I never had to learn a kind of defensiveness about being Catholic, but I am grateful for Vatican II because, when I found myself in a pluralistic context, I could find in its documents rich and charitable ways of understanding and engaging others. I was not faced with the choice I can imagine without the Council: to abandon my beliefs or to dig in defensively against others. That appreciation was deepened by getting a doctorate in theology in an outstanding ecumenical setting, where I shared classes with many different Protestants, T.A.ed sections for aspiring Protestant ministers, and lived in an intentional community with friends of different denominations… praying both together and separately, feeling both the uniting church and the still-divided one. Whatever was in place before the Council, it would never have allowed that education.

Finally, the significance of the Council for me has, from very early on, been realized through longstanding active participation in the liturgy, and specifically in music ministry. Besides my college faculty mentor, the most decisive factor in opening my life to theology was St. Ferdinand’s contemporary music ministry, a dedicated, fervent, creative crew that (among other activities) brought teens in to liturgy planning teams that would sit down, read the readings, and collectively try to pick music for upcoming Sundays and liturgical seasons. In some circles, much fun is made of the music of that era, the late 1980’s, our Glory & Praise hymnals with their cheap covers coming off. But what I learned from that experience – and what keeps me doing music ministry constantly – is that what is going on at liturgy is supposed to make sense. Indeed, it does make sense – I know what is going on and what I’m doing. I learned “participation” in the best sense of the word, and I get to re-learn it every Sunday, even every day, if I want. All sorts of (often unfair and anecdotal) things have been said about the postconciliar liturgy. But, when people know what is going on – especially when the presider and other ministers know what is going on – the postconciliar liturgy brings tears to my eyes. It is simply the best worldly thing, the “source and summit” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 10), the true rival of “the Games” which the Church Fathers so bitterly opposed. Because you can see the whole faith wrapped up in it, being performed and played out for us and by us. Indeed, I have for many years traveled a thousand miles for Triduum to participate in what I jokingly call “The World Series of Liturgy” at a small but incredible parish on St. Paul’s west side. Except, of course, I’m playing in the Series, not just watching it. (Oh, and the Yankees are not there… sorry, a bit bitter this morning…) It is truly the glorious celebration of the whole Church, Her unity in Christ and His word and body and blood (SC, no. 26). And in its own way, every liturgy is this. The whole of Christ, the Church, the history, all packed into one, and shared in by pope, bishop, priest, and people. Everything is there. I continue to marvel at the gift of understanding and real joy that the postconciliar liturgy has opened for me.

Now these varied comments mean that somehow I have not adopted a “liberal” or “conservative” story about the Council. My experience with the richness of the documents themselves, and my increasing skepticism about claims based on “the spirit of the Council” mark me as “conservative.” My emphasis on the importance of ecumenism and a non-defensive understanding of other faiths and “the secular,” and my passion for the postconciliar, participative liturgy (done well!) surely mark me as “liberal.” But as far as I can tell, in all these ways, I am trying to be faithful to the Council, trying to live in the Church and the world opened up by its efforts. It is not some other Church from the one my father was raised in – no hermeneutics of rupture for me. But it is an amazingly vital, breathtaking place (if we all stopped fighting each other so much!). I could say much more about what I have found in this Council: the Christology of Gaudium et Spes 22, the idea of the Church as a sacrament of the unity of the human race, the importance of international peace, the idea of revelation as God’s self-communication (and the whole notion of what it means to communicate the self through words and deeds), and the universal call to holiness. To me, to celebrate its “birth day,” is to see anew the great works that have been done in our time and marvel at God’s blessings on His People.