50th Ordination Anniversary Celebration
October 14, 2012
Readings from 28th Ordinary Sunday of the Year
1. Wisdom 7:7-11
2. Hebrews 4:12-13
3. Mark 10:17-30
Fifty years ago this past week the Second Vatican Council opened. I was ordained just four months before that, in June of 1962. I am a “Vatican II priest.” The council was very important for me. It shaped my priesthood.
I am an “aging sixties’ radical.”
I want to share what Vatican II did for me, what it gave me. It gave me four things.
1) First of all it gave me a love of the bible, sacred scripture.
I had a theology professor who told us “Read the bible through at least once during your lifetime.” We Catholics did not read the actual bible very much. We had a set of readings from the bible for each Sunday of the church year. There was an “epistle” and a “gospel” for each Sunday, and we read the same epistle and gospel on a given Sunday every year.
Let me describe how it worked before Vatican II.
The priest would go to the right side of the altar and read the epistle, with his back to the people, silently, and in Latin. Then the priest would go to the center of the altar and the server would pick up the book and its stand (sometimes the book and stand were almost as big as the server). He would go down the three steps to the sanctuary floor, genuflect (holding the book and stand), go up the three steps to the left side of the altar. The priest would go to the book and read the gospel, again with his back to the people, silently, and in Latin. Then on Sundays he would go to the pulpit and read the epistle and gospel again, in English.
That system did not cover very much of the bible, but it provided just about all the bible that most Catholics would hear. For example, there were no readings from the Old Testament, so people would never hear the first reading for today, from the book of Wisdom. Almost all of the epistles were from actual epistles. The gospel passages were limited. For example, people would never have heard the story in today’s gospel, about the rich man.
The Vatican Council said that the riches of the bible should be opened up for the people. Here is what it said:
. . . the holy synod [the council] forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful . . . to learn “ the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:8) by frequent reading of the divine scriptures.” “Ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Therefore let them go gladly to the sacred text itself, whether in the sacred liturgy, which is full of the divine words, or in devout reading.
[Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), par 25]
The quotation about ignorance of Christ is from St. Jerome.
I still get emotional when I read some of the stories in scripture. (I get tears in my eyes very easily, but I don’t want anyone else to see it.) I get tears in my eyes when I read the story in Genesis of how Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, or the story of Tobit, whose father was blind and who was guided by an angel as he went to a foreign land to collect a debt owed his father. The angel tells Tobit that he should marry the daughter of the man who owed the money. Tobit objected. “I have heard that this woman has had seven husbands, and a demon has killed every one of them on the wedding night.” The angel said “ Don’t worry.”
Tobit takes Sarah as his wife. On the night of the wedding Sarah’s father goes out and digs a grave in the garden, just in case. He doesn’t want anyone to know if this husband gets killed. But Tobit and Sarah, helped by the angel, are just fine. Then they return home and the angel cures Tobit’s father’s blindness.
Then there is the story of Ruth, who had married a man from a foreign tribe but whose husband had died. Her mother-in-law decided to return to her own land of Judah. Ruth decided to be faithful to her mother-in-law, even though that meant leaving her own land and family. In the new land she meets a rich man. Her mother-in-law coaches her on how to snare him as a husband, and the snare is successful.
2. The second thing that Vatican II gave me was an appreciation of the value of marriage.
Before the council Catholics were taught that priesthood and religious life were superior to married life. They appealed to passages like today’s gospel, where Jesus says “If you would be perfect, sell what you have and come, follow me.” Priests and religious were the perfect ones, and the rest of the church was like the rich man.
The council said that that approach was wrong. Here is what it said:
Christ our Lord has abundantly blessed this love [married love], which is rich in its various features, coming as it does from the spring of divine love and modeled on Christ’s own union with the church. Just as of old God encountered his people in a covenant of love and fidelity, so our Saviour, the spouse of the church, now encounters Christian spouses through the sacrament of marriage. He abides with them in order that by their mutual self-giving spouses will love each other with enduring fidelity, as he loved the church and delivered himself up for it. Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is directed and enriched by the redemptive power of Christ . . .
[Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), par. 48]
This is very inspiring. It is so inspiring that many of my fellow priests decided to leave the priesthood and get married. I am pleased that most of them are still to this day faithful to the spouses they married.
There were fourteen of us in my ordination class in 1962. Since then three have died. Nine of the remaining eleven gathered here in Quincy to commemorate our ordination. Three of the nine are married. We had a joyful and prayerful time together.
In 1977 I made a Marriage Encounter. That experience changed my life. It brought home to me something that Fr. John Joe Lakers like to say: “We come to God through one another.”
These days there is a trend in the church away from a stress on the community and more on an individual’s relationship with Christ, the way it was before the council. For example, before the council people used to say the rosary or read a prayer book or go to confession during Mass. The council said that people should be actively involved in what goes on at Mass.
Now I know that a personal relationship with Jesus can be a powerful force in one’s life. Many Protestant groups put a great stress on that. I don’t want to put that down. But I meet Christ more in other people. I no longer find the individual experience as compelling as I once did.
God works in our lives in many ways. Both approaches are ways to come to God.
3) The third thing that the council gave me was a respect for freedom of conscience.
When I was ordained I was taught that I was called to convert the whole world to Catholicism. Then in 1960 John Kennedy was running for president, and some Protestant critics pointed out, correctly, that the church taught that if he became president he would have to enforce Catholic policies on the country. For example, he would have to outlaw remarriage after divorce. Kennedy had an advisor, a Jesuit theologian named John Courtney Murray, who argued that a person’s conscience must take precedence over everything else, and that a political leader has no business trying to enforce religious beliefs. That is the position of the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution.
Murray was an advisor to bishops at the council, and he got them to accept the principle of the primacy of conscience. This is a case where the church learned from the experience of the United States: things go better when the government stays out of religious issues.
Here is what the council said:
The Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. Freedom of this kind means that everyone should be immune from coercion by individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within due limits, no men or women are forced to act against their convictions nor are any persons to be restrained from acting in accordance with their convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in association with others.
[Declaration on Religious Liberty, (Dignitatis humanae), par. 2]
I think this was the most revolutionary thing that the council did.
Of course, the council added the condition that your conscience must be correctly formed. This means that if you are Catholic your conscience has to agree with what the church says. Catholics don’t enjoy this freedom.
I say, why not? Catholics should be as free as anyone else. If a Catholic decides in conscience to become a Lutheran, fine. Even if he or she decides in conscience to become an atheist, that is what religious liberty implies.
I respect what people do in conscience. I know that sometimes people will claim to be acting in conscience when they are really acting just out of self-interest, but who am I to judge that? I must respect what people say.
Freedom is precious. Love has to be given freely. When someone loves me, that’s a gift. I don’t deserve love and I can’t buy it. The person giving it must act freely.
4) The last thing that the council gave me was the principle that I have to respect people of other religions. There are two council decrees on this, one on ecumenism, which deals with fellow Christians, and one on non-Christian religions, which deals with Muslims, Buddhists, and similar groups.
We used to be forbidden to pray with Protestants. We could not go into a Protestant church to pray. So for example if I had a son or daughter who was getting married in a Protestant church, I couldn’t even go to the wedding. The council said that God works in other religions. There is some truth in every one. For example, Muslims stress the uniqueness of God, and the need for us to let God guide our lives. the word “Islam” means “submission.”
There is a story about St. Francis of Assisi. It is one of the best documented stories in Francis’s history. The crusaders were in Egypt, trying to battle their way to the Holy Places in Palestine. They were stuck at a siege of the city of Damietta. Francis and one of his companions went to Damietta, crossed the lines into Muslim territory, and got to speak in person to the Sultan Malik al Kamil. The two men spent several days in conversation about God. The Sultan ended up saying “I can’t be a Christian, but I give you and your followers safe passage to the Holy Places.” Franciscans have been in the Holy Land most of the time since then.
Francis came home and wrote a section of his rule that went something like this: “When the friars go among Saracens or other infidels, here are two ways that they can do it. One way is to live among them peacefully. The second way is to speak about their beliefs, if they believe God calls them to do that.”
There is a saying that people attribute to St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” I don’t think Francis ever stated the principle in those exact terms, but this passage in his rule comes pretty close to it.
So, to sum up, the Second Vatican Council gave me four things:
It gave me a love for Sacred Scripture.
It taught me the beauty of marriage and of all human love.
It gave me respect for freedom of conscience.
It taught me to respect people of other religions.
These were great gifts in my life.
That is why I am a Vatican II priest. And maybe even why I am an aging sixties’ radical.