I grew up in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Nothing so dominated my life like television and movies. I experienced Vatican II not primarily in its texts or its teachings, nor in what it did or did not change, but mostly through a small parish, in rural Kentucky, one that emphasized God’s love.
During elementary school, my experience of church was a lot like Luke Skywalker in Episode IV. It was the sense that an Empire had been defeated, and everyone got medals. From Mister Rogers to Peewee Soccer, we got certificates proclaiming our goodness. I heard about the goodness in us and in all those around us in homilies and CCD.
I also learned that this love would be triumphant, even in the face of difficulties. Ursula could not stop Eric and Ariel’s love nor could Prince Humperdink stop Westley and Buttercup’s love (even if the Prince killed Westley). Nothing could separate us from God’s love, I picked this up in mass, or maybe it was in the midst of all the families gathered after mass for coffee and donuts.
By high school, I knew that the world was not this simple. It was full of “the griefs and the anxieties of men” and women. Destruction and death, nuclear or technological or biological holocaust was imminent, and it was our own doing. Whatever it was, it would “be back.” We practiced hiding under our desks just in case.
I found great comfort when Qoheleth said, “Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” (Wait, how did I, a Catholic, know to turn to the Bible for comfort?)
In the midst of this pessimism, my parish kept emphasizing God’s love. Through Christmas baskets and Operation Rice Bowls, they proclaimed “the joys and the hopes” that kept one going in the midst of this impending doom. I thought of this church, “Surely, you can’t be serious.” And the reply came, “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”
It seemed so naïve, this love, but it also seemed the only thing that made sense. It gave meaning to what I was doing in college, and ultimately drove me to want to share this message. When I graduated with degrees in mathematics and computer science, I decided to do a year of volunteer work in Chicago, with Dominicans, working at an elementary school.
I quickly realized that I was ill equipped to not only talk about God’s love but also to put it into action. Why had the Church failed to prepare me for this task? I felt the desire to go back to the past and fix the Church, as well as put Biff in his place and snag the 1.21 gigawatts. I went to graduate school where I encountered Lonergan, DeLubac, and Congar who all pointed me back to the Church’s tradition as a way forward. My attitude, it turns out, I picked up from Vatican II. (I also learned that the past is sometimes less exciting than one would think. Episodes I-III anyone?)
From then until now, I keep learning the hard truths of Vatican II’s call to love. I like Herb McCabe’s summary of it, “If you don’t love, you die. If you do love, they kill you.”
I saw this lived out in the life of Christa McAuliffe who was going to teach us from the Challenger. I learned about it being lived out in the lives of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., in Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. I read about it through the works of Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. It all pointed back to the story of Jesus who was born for us, lived for us, died for us, and was raised for us. This was the love that I had picked up in my thoroughly post-Vatican II church.
My experience in the post-Vatican II church was similar, even though for much of my childhood my family was part of a house-church rather than a regular parish and I was more into Godspell than Star Wars. Although I am sympathetic to critiques of the post-Vatican II church, your post shows that the message of love at the core got through and stayed with us. Though we might have eventually decided that some O’Connor/Percy grappling with human finitude was necessary, we also know that love is “the only thing that makes sense.” So those happy folk songs were not all bad.