A scholar’s view of Vatican II
At 94 years old, Sister Alexa Suelzer is sharp, alert and full of knowledge; she’s still learning, still analyzing, still the scholar.
Sister Alexa earned a Ph.D. in Sacred Doctrine from the Catholic University of America in 1962, the same year that Vatican II opened.
She quotes William Wordsworth to describe what those years were like, teaching college-level Scripture (and her own Congregation’s junior sisters) directly following Vatican II.
‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!’
“People were ready to be astonished because things were new to them,” Sister Alexa explained.
Students enthusiastically delved into the study of theology and Scripture because they were excited to find something there beyond facts and dates, she said.
Sister Alexa’s ministry career includes more than three decades as a college Scripture professor, time served in Congregation leadership and even a stint as a vicar for religious in Oklahoma as bishops scrutinized the role of Catholic sisters in the early 1980s. Sister Alexa’s analytical mind always steps back and looks at the bigger picture, at the trends that emerge, the influences and even the perspective of the other side.
Though Sister Alexa is quick to point out that changes began even before Vatican II, she sees direct impact of Vatican II on her life. As a religious, she had more involvement in the lives of others, less separation from the people of God and a focus on the preferential option for the poor. She relishes the emergent focus on Scripture and its greater incorporation into the livews of Catholics. She observes the trend that individuals now have greater personal determination for their own lives and a greater awareness for the bondedness of all creation.
“My hope is that we celebrate this year of commemoration of Vatican II and not simply refer to it and let it drop,” she said.
What is her opinion on the state of the church now, 50 years after Vatican II?
“I think hope dominates the feeling of depression. I think hope was very high at first. But perhaps it was an unrealistic hope: a failure to recognize that the work of any council takes years and perhaps generations to accomplish,” she said.
Sister Alexa points out that to this day, hundreds of years later, we are still interpreting the Council of Trent from 1550.
“And so our interpretation of Vatican II is bound to have high points as witnessed by the initial enthusiasm, and then low points, especially when there seems to be a deliberate effort on the part of some to slow down any progress that there might be,” she said.
What does she think needs to come next for the church?
“I don’t know of a specific thing. I think patience certainly; recognition that even if things were going smoothly things would not change overnight just because we wanted them to. And perhaps a more realistic recognition that we’re all in this together. That it isn’t a question of we and they,” she said.
(Originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of HOPE magazine.)