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The Joy of Vatican II

Author Peg Benson with her husband, Steve

Author Peg Benson with her husband, Steve

(originally published in the winter 2013 issue of HOPE magazine)

By Peg Benson
Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli might justifiably be accused of being impulsive. He announced his intention to convene the Second Vatican Council on Jan. 25, 1959, as he waved joyously from a balcony — just three months into his papacy, having floated the idea past his secretary of state only 10 days earlier. But his absolute knowing that this was what should be done at this time made practical issues like how to seat 2,860 attendees and where to put lavatories and coffee bars and where to get the money for all of this, which in today’s dollars would be $8 million, minor operational details. Yes, Pope John XXIII’s spontaneity, optimism and playfulness, when focused on this grand goal, paid off and his decision to convene the Second Vatican Council changed the world.

Vatican II was a defining moment that created a distinct before and after. I remember both well. Most of my memories of life as a Catholic before Vatican II come out of my early grade school years beginning in 1952 and from my home where being Catholic was our way of life. My mother went to morning Mass at 6:30 and my older sister and I at 7:30, where we would briefly greet my Irish grandmother, whom we were always delighted to see, as she finished up the 7 o’clock Mass, rosary in hand. Both of them had favorite novenas and of course, our family said the rosary every night, my parents and the three oldest of the seven kids taking turns leading a decade. Yet these warm and sweet family memories are tempered by other aspects of pre-Vatican II culture.

Before Vatican II everything was black and white. Everyone had a place on a pyramid that spanned heaven and earth. At the top was the pope, followed by the cardinals, then the bishops, down to the priests and religious, and at the very bottom lay people, who were inferior to the hierarchy, having chosen a less perfect way of life. Additionally, and especially to young hearts and minds, there were frightening mortal sins like murder that were beyond comprehension and could only have been committed by imagined scary men. There were the seven deadly sins; hell, which was eternal; venial sins and sins of omission as well as commission. There were prayers of intercession with phrases like, “Oh, wretch that I am” said by pious women with Kleenex on their heads when a hat was forgotten. Certainly, for many I know, life as a Catholic was like walking a tightrope. You had to keep yourself safe from so many dangers.

After Vatican II, the doors opened and the church’s words changed: the harshness was gone. One of the most beautiful new words we learned was collegiality. It took the place of papal primacy, a term familiar to Catholics, despite its origins in the Holy Roman Empire. Bishops were to regard priests as “brothers and friends” and the laity was encouraged to participate with priests and religious in the life of the church. Other words in the Council’s deliberately chosen lexicon were dialogue, pilgrim, servant, and charism. In “What Happened at Vatican II”, John O’Malley brilliantly captures the seismic shift in tone that carried the values and behaviors that Vatican II accessed for a Catholicism that would come back to its early sources:

“[F]rom commands to invitations, from laws to ideals, from definition to mystery, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to dialogue, from ruling to serving, from withdrawn to integrated, from vertical to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from rivalry to partnership, from suspicion to trust, from static to ongoing, from passive acceptance to active engagement, from fault-finding to acceptance, from prescriptive to principled, from behavior modification to inner appropriation.”

This was Good News I had never before heard, and it made the future look bright — being Catholic no longer meant a life of condemning non-Catholics, including Lutheran aunts and uncles, of looking to the people in charge to decide what was right, of fulfilling my pre-ordained role. In real ways this was a relief, and I found a spring in my step as being careful was replaced by being confident; being right by being magnanimous; and being good by being joyous. Joy. That was the biggest change – no more working toward perfection (and feeling better than others for it) but doing your best and trusting that God was with you in that. He was no longer a judge. I’ve often marveled at how easy it was to make the change to a Vatican II Catholic. It felt natural. And wholesome.

A more intentional attention to these matters was recently piqued by National Catholic Reporter, America and Commonweal which have been running articles celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Vatican II. These publications in turn led to new book releases including “Vatican II: 50 Personal Stories” and the aforementioned “What Happened at Vatican II”, as well as some older titles such as “Vatican Council II” by Francis X. Murphy, C.Ss.R., who wrote under a pseudonym in a series of reports for The New Yorker from 1961-1964. Word of Fr. Murphy’s frank, behind-the-scenes reports under the byline Xavier Rynne (his middle name, his mother’s maiden name), quickly reached those assembled in the Vatican, even without the Internet. Murphy later remembered with glee that his first communiqué, “Letter from Vatican City”, “sent shock waves through the assemblage of cardinals, bishops and priests…a surprising number [of whom] became hell-bent on pursuing the whereabouts of Xavier Rynne”.

These books put Vatican II in context, especially O’Malley’s book. In his second chapter, The Long Nineteenth Century, O’Malley offers a sweeping survey of Church history and philosophy in the century before Vatican II. Although it may have seemed to those in the pews that Vatican II “came out of nowhere”, important work mediating dogma and “Liberalism” had been done by significant thinkers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the midst of many political crises. In response to Liberalism or modernity, the pope qua teacher, with the encyclical as the primary teaching tool, blossomed with Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris in which Leo championed Thomas Aquinas. In another of his many encyclicals, Providentissimus Deus, Leo warned against biblical studies with an historical approach and this was reinforced by Pius X who announced in 1907 that any academic displaying an interest in history, archaeology, or biblical exegesis was to be banned from teaching. Bishops were to censor all publications, drive them out of their dioceses, and make sure booksellers did not sell them. This was still the state of things in the 1950’s. I vividly remember zealous Altar & Rosary Society women visiting local stores near St. Angela Church in Chicago to make sure the owner was not stocking “bad books”. St. Angela, like many large Catholic parishes in Chicago, ruled its turf in the far west-side Austin neighborhood with impunity!

Though started as a papal corrective, Neo-Thomism actually led to the study of medieval philosophy and theology and the result was the emergence of significant thinkers particularly in France, Germany and Belgium. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Austrian Jesuit Josef Jungmann published books showing the changes that accrued to the sacrament of Penance and the Mass between the patristic era and the medieval and modern church. In 1946 Jean Daniélou, the French Jesuit spoke of a “new theology”, and a year later Henri de Lubac, S.J., directed attention to study of the early Fathers. O’Malley sums up the movement in these words: “It was an alternative or antidote to … the spiritually arid and overly intellectualized theology promoted by the church.” Anyone fortunate to have theology or philosophy classes at a Catholic college such as St. Mary-of-the-Woods in the late 1960’s or the 1970’s will remember at least some of the twentieth century thinkers that had so excited the professors: Etienne Gilson, Martin Buber, Jacques Maritain, Yves Congar, O.P., Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P., Karl Rahner, S.J., Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bernard Lonergan, S.J., Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., John Courtney Murray, S.J., and Hans Küng. O’Malley points out that it was Buber in “I and Thou” who articulated what many felt but didn’t have words for: the systems of Aristotle and Aquinas “had an abstract character that removed individuals from real-life situations where they faced choices.” The grey areas that S. Pat Farrell, OSF, past president of LCWR, spoke of this past summer.

Vatican II is so much more than a meeting 50 years ago. It was a visit by the Holy Spirit, who of course, continues to hover over us in this never-over Vatican II era. Dolores R. Leckey gives witness: “After consciousness shifts, there is no going back to the restricted classicist form. One cannot pretend not to know God experientially. New horizons become visible, and the future is one of discovery and hope.”

About the author: Margaret “Peg” Gull Benson graduated from Providence Aspirancy high school at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in 1964 during the second session of Vatican II and then entered the Sisters of Providence. Since leaving the Congregation in 1968, Peg has taught English and practiced law for 32 years. Peg and her husband, Stephen are the proud parents of Patrick, and enjoy literature, music, politics, and the company of good friends.

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