by Julia Smucker
When Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, he famously used the image of opening the windows of the Church to let the fresh air of the Spirit blow through. In studying and hearing about the council during the two years since I’ve been in the Catholic Church, and especially with all the commemoration going on in this golden-anniversary year, I sometimes seem to catch a breath of that freshness. And then at other times, it feels like the Church is exhausted from spending the past 50 years arguing about what happened.
Did the council go too far or not far enough? Was it a break from tradition or an affirmation of it? Were the conciliar documents the beginning of a conversation or the end of one? I find these polarizing arguments the most exhausting thing about being Catholic, which makes it easy to feel nostalgic for the hopeful energy of an event that took place before my lifetime – an event that we now seem oddly constrained from celebrating, since even those who want to celebrate it are too busy being angry about the Church today.
If we are to move beyond these tired arguments, we will need to let go of our polarized narratives and embrace a dynamic and politically transcendent hermeneutic. To that end I propose, perhaps audaciously, that we recommit to living out the spirit of Vatican II, as an integral part of the whole living tradition of the Church, in a spirit of hope rather than anger.
Much has been made of fears that Vatican II and its practical implementations are being “rolled back,” but while some on the fringes of the Church may wish this were possible, it is not. The more significant developments that resulted from the council, such as participatory vernacular liturgy, magisterial involvement in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, and a more pastorally nuanced relationship between Church and world, are here to stay. For better or worse – and I believe it is overwhelmingly for the better – the genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back in.
Some Catholics are anxious to put the brakes on any further reform, while others are equally anxious for another transformative event on the level of Vatican II. Neither anxiety reflects the organic development of Church tradition.
Nothing short of the parousia will prevent the eventual necessity of another landmark council, but to clamor for one now is somewhat premature. Vatican II, like Trent, was an era-defining council, and a sorely needed one. Yet by the same token, era-defining events by definition can only happen once in an era. Even Vatican I was not era-defining in the way that both Trent and Vatican II were, although the raw fact that the First and Second Vatican Councils were roughly a century apart has occasionally prompted me to think that the Church might do well to do some serious self-examination, perhaps aggiornamento, every hundred years or so. So perhaps in another 50 years it may be time for a “Vatican III,” though none of us can predict exactly when or how the Spirit will move. In the meantime, we still haven’t finished working out the implications of Vatican II, and that should keep us busy enough for the foreseeable future.
If indeed Vatican II is an event with ongoing repercussions, this reality is in basic continuity with the idea of continuity. Continuity does not mean that nothing has changed, still less that nothing will change. It does mean that what happened 50 years ago and what happened 2,000 years ago are pieces of the same story – dynamic plot twists which dramatically alter the course of this grand narrative, with implications that continue to unfold well beyond the events themselves. Those who live through such defining moments cannot help but measure time by the before and after. At the same time, if their meaning can continue to play out, it is because the story itself maintains a certain cohesion.
I have sometimes thought of the Church as a giant tree, ancient yet ever living, whose very rootedness allows it to move and grow. Or to use another metaphor, as a friend and mentor of mine has said, “It is often said that the Catholic Church moves at a glacial pace. But when glaciers move, they reshape the face of the earth.”
Julia Smucker is a Mennonite Catholic, or a Mennonite who has come into full communion with the Catholic Church, or a Catholic profoundly and gratefully shaped by her Mennonite heritage – take your pick. She regularly brings the various harmonies and dissonances of this biecclesial identity into her coursework at St. John’s School of Theology in Collegeville, Minnesota, where she is working on a Master of Theology (ThM) degree after earning her MA in Systematics. She is in the “Modern Liturgical Movements” class this semester taught by Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB. She is enthused by finding big-picture connections and relishes her title as the reigning Anti-Dichotomy Queen.