Journey Toward Holiness
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We live in a divided Catholic Church. In Southern Ohio where I live now, a number of priests, appointed pastors of “families of parishes,” celebrate Mass facing the tabernacle rather than the congregation, and quite a few parishioners have fled to other parishes.

Virtually every trend we can name, like our ecclesial polarization, has multiple causes. Respectful listening and dialogue can calm the waters and help us understand the causes of the divide between “restorationists” and “progressives,” to use terms we unfortunately hear today. However it seems to me that the spirituality of Vatican II never rooted deeply in many people and places in the decades that followed. If so, polarization is likely to persist.

Before talking about the spirituality flowing from Vatican II (1962-65), a little context is needed for those born considerably after it. Vatican Council II got its name because there was a Vatican Council I, which ended without adjourning in 1870 because war broke out.

In the century between Vatican Councils I and II, huge changes happened in the world.

The traits of the “modern era,” emerged, but the practices, theology, structure and culture of the Roman Catholic Church had not adjusted well to these changes. So in 1959, to the surprise of the Church and the world, a newly elected grandfatherly Pope John XXIII called the Church to begin preparing for a new Council. Its purpose was to complete some of the work of Vatican I, and aggiornamento—an updating or renewal that would bring the Church into dialogue with the post World War II world. After it ended, Vatican II was intended to be taught, understood, internalized and implemented through ongoing formation, but that faltered after a while. Sixty years later, while there are well formed laity in many places because of Diocesan lay ministry programs, at the “pew” level a living and robust Vatican II-based spirituality still seems somewhat lacking.

So what is Vatican II spirituality? In broad brush strokes, it has four traits. Vatican II spirituality is scriptural, communal, evolutionary, and kingdom oriented.

Scriptural: Perhaps most Catholics experienced Vatican II scriptural spirituality through the changes in our Mass. Things we take for granted today were introduced: cycles of readings selected from the entire bible, hearing Scripture proclaimed in the “vernacular,” or local languages, having scripture based homilies instead of sermons (often catechetical or moral lessons), hymns based on Scripture passages. Vatican II was encouraging us to meet The Lord at the “soul level” through Sacred Scripture.

Has this happened? As I led parishes, I was disheartened to notice how few parishioners attended “Bible” classes, how often parents in “first sacrament” or Baptism instruction could not locate passages in a bible, and how much prayer energy in a parish flowed into devotions that are not scripturally based. For many Catholics a magical or literal understanding of scripture still prevails, and the intent of Vatican II’s emphasis on scripture has not been met: that there might be “growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down…through the contemplation and study made by believers…”(Divine Revelation # 8).

Communal: The early Church began as small communities of Jews who believed that Jesus was their savior. Our four Gospels were written with various early communities in mind. “Body of Christ” as late as Augustine (d 430), referred to the Church, not to consecrated bread. But over the centuries, the communal self-understanding of the Church was overcome by other understandings, especially what Avery Dulles called the “hierarchical model.”

Vatican II restored the communal understanding. Its name for the Church is the one “people of God.” This “people” extends through time and place. It is linked through tradition with Catholics of previous times, and through liturgy and authority with Catholic believers throughout the world. Speaking of authority, Vatican II taught that the way authority functions in the Church is communal. If you were to draw a Vatican II picture of Church authority, the Pope would be at the center three concentric circles, the Bishops in the next circle, and the laity in the third outermost circle. The infallibility of the Pope, a doctrine unfinished by Vatican I, flows from the teaching “office” or responsibility of all the Bishops joined with him, and flows to the people of the Church who must receive it (the”sensus fedei”). We also see the communal emphasis in Vatican II’s insistence that our Eucharistic liturgy is “public worship” which includes “people’s parts.”

So, would you say that US Catholics have embraced this communal spirituality? I wonder. What about the many Catholics who seem to think private spirituality without a Church is sufficient, and the many who seldom come to the public worship of the Church? Our US culture, with its overemphasis on the individual and its pervading lack of trust in anyone outside “my” circle, works against a sense of community. Fundamental to communal spirituality is the belief that the Spirit speaks to us through the others in the discipleship boat with us, lay and ordained, flawed humans though we all may be.
Evolutionary: During the decades prior to the Council, historical methods of study were applied to the theological specialties like scripture, liturgy, the Church fathers and doctrines. Out of this “historical consciousness” came appreciation that understanding and wisdom develop over time and will continue to develop. Everything evolves—our Scriptural understanding, our doctrines, our liturgy, our ethical and moral reasoning. Church and faith is a work in progress, guided through time by the living Spirit, drawing things into a still unfinished fullness. Change is hard for us all, thus likely to be contentious. I think of that little parable, Who Moved My Cheese, about two mice, one who adjusts to change and one who cannot and starves. Asking the Lord to help us find wisdom and peace in the constant changes in our worlds, our lives, our Church has to be a constant of our personal prayer!

Kingdom Oriented: The most surprising document issued by Vatican II is The Church in the Modern World. Sixty years after the Council, parts of this document (for eg., the Introductory Statement, #4ff) sounds as if it was written yesterday. Underlying this document was a shift in the relationship between the world and the Church. The Church of Vatican II sees herself immersed in the world, affirming the good in it and shining the light of Christ’s kingdom values on its darkness. Where recent previous eras saw the world as a place that compromised faith, Vatican II declares this a “serious error” and says: The Christian who neglects his temporal duties…jeopardizes his eternal salvation.” (#43) It is in the world where the non-ordained become holy. Lay responsibility embraces family, work, culture and politics, and the clergy are to support the laity as they bring the kingdom values of Christ into these areas. Kingdom theology is implicit in this Vatican II document and others. The kingdom of God is that mustard seed we help to grow in our world by living our baptismal call to discipleship. When we look at typical parish life today, we can ask whether as much effort goes into supporting lay efforts in the world as goes into supporting the liturgical or catechetical ministries where lay men and women serve. We can ask whether what happens in the world is regularly brought into homilies and General Intercessions and parish missions and retreats and confessions.

This essay began with polarization in our Church. It suggests that one explanation for it is a clash between a spirituality flowing from Vatican II and another spirituality. That other spirituality seems to prioritize the private individual over community in liturgical practice and spirituality, seems to want a hard separation between Church and “politics,” and skirts schism when it sometimes declares Vatican II illegitimate. Maybe, we need a “year of” again—a year of praying and learning with Vatican II. But for now, at least we can reflect about how our own personal spirituality is scriptural, communal, evolutionary, and kingdom oriented.

Sister Mary Garascia, PhD (Theology), is a member of the Sisters of the Precious Blood of Dayton, Ohio, where she now resides. Until recently she lived and ministered at The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands. You can follow her weekly Sunday scripture blogs at