As some of you know, I grew up (and still am) in a Protestant denomination, but I did my Ph.D. in church history at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. One of the MANY great things that happened during my time in South Bend was that I got to know Catholicism much, much better — not just individual Catholic brothers and sisters, but also the broader movement as a whole and in its diversity. Some of you currently belong to Catholic churches or have in the past, and so you are naturally aware of aspects of modern Catholicism — but some of you do not have that knowledge. As a result, I want to reflect upon an important event that ended right at fifty years ago — the so-called “Second Vatican Council” — and what it means for contemporary Catholicism.
Now, because of our various backgrounds, I can’t assume that you know much about pre-Vatican-II Catholicism before this week. Among Protestants, probably the most well-known feature of older Catholicism is the use of Latin in each church’s worship., as opposed to the “vernacular” (that is, local languages). Also, if you’ve seen certain movies, you might know that the priest used to celebrate the Mass with his back to the congregation, facing the back wall. And you might possibly be familiar with the relative lack of good preaching in Catholic churches at that time, and how many Catholics viewed worship as a confusing experience.
I’m willing to bet, though, that you did not know about how closed off the Catholic church was during recent centuries; in fact, one of the greatest enemies of 19th-century Catholicism was the so-called “modernism,” as this list of 80 (!) modern “errors” that Pope Pius IX rejected can testify. In fact, some authors have argued that pre-Vatican-II Catholicism was largely about protecting a type of “medieval fortress,” with as few gates as possible open to the modern world.
Of course, there were exceptions, as you may also know. For example, Jesuit missionaries traveled very far afield, even experimenting with new missionary methods. Also, there were many Catholic thinkers who were in conversation with the modern world; the controversial priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin provides just one example. But for the most part, especially in the West, “Catholicism” was often associated by Protestants with being “conservative,” and even sometimes “backward.”
But in the wake of Vatican II, many changes have happened, as you now know. Catholics can now experience worship in the vernacular (German in Leipzig, English or Spanish in the part of Texas where I live, etc.). They can now see their priest’s face, as he faces them around a table that is much closer to the congregation. They can hear good preaching – even if it is rather short. And those of us who are Protestants would probably be more welcomed than we would have been 50 years ago.
Those changes are rather well-known. But what about some less famous modifications that still impact us? One important one is the growth in Catholic participation in ecumenical movements. The recent Pope John Paul II was well-known for this sort of thing, in his visiting of Eastern Orthodox churches, and even sharing Communion with its leaders! Second, if you were to take my own road and attend graduate school at a Catholic university, you would enjoy much more academic freedom there than you would have before Vatican II. There wouldn’t be as much need to line up your research with traditional Catholic teaching. Finally, we’ve seen new emphases in Catholicism: on youth ministry, on using media in ministry (e.g., the TV network EWTN), and on composing new, indigenous worship music.
The term that most accurately describes one goal of the Second Vatican Council is the Italian word “aggiornamento,” which means “bringing up to date.” Catholicism certainly hasn’t been well-known for being innovative in its recent history; if anything, it’s been known for being behind. And so, just bringing the Church “up to date” is a real win for Catholicism. Sometimes just catching up is really important.
But why is this important for those of us who are Christian but not Catholic? Well, there are a few reasons. First, Catholic churches are no longer places that ought to feel particularly intimidating to us. A lot of the barriers have come down in that regard. Second, we can learn about recent Popes – people like John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis I – and we can truly admire them. The reality is that we really have a lot in common with them, whereas before we might have thought of them as “stick-in-the-mud Catholics” who are really different.
The final reason this is important is that, as our world continues to change, I really think that we will become more and more dependent on our fellow Christians, of whatever stripe. It will become more and more important than we can join together in common work, even though we have doctrinal differences. Thus, it will be important that we can know and learn more about Catholicism, just as it will be important that Catholicism is more and more able to learn about and accept us.
Jesus prayed in John 17:21 that those who come after his disciples “will be one,” and that that oneness will be a testimony to the world concerning Jesus. May it be so among us!