I attended another great lecture by a leading Catholic thinker last night here in Cincinnati. Richard Gaillardetz, the Joseph Chair in systematic theology at Boston College and president-elect of the Catholic Theological Society of America, spoke on “Vatican II as an Unfinished Building Site” in connection with the University of Cincinnati’s newly established Catholic Studies program. To illustrate the theme, an early slide showed an artist’s rendering of the 16th century St. Peter’s basilica being built right over the previous 4th century structure. Likewise, Gaillardetz suggested, the pre- and post-Vatican II Church provides similar pillars for the building, but in different ways. If there has been difficulty fitting it all together smoothly and completing the project, he emphasized that the previous pillars were constructed over 900 years, while it’s only been 50 years since the Second Vatican Council. Hence the project is unfinished.
As one who grew up in the 70s, after the Council, I found his coherent depiction of the “old edifice” to be especially helpful background. At the time, a clergy-driven understanding created the pillar of divine revelation as truth that “trickles down” successively from God, to the pope, bishops, clergy and then the laity in the form of doctrine, facts, and dogma to be memorized and obeyed. The other three pillars are a monarchical papacy, an emphasis on the separate and special nature of the priest as one who confects the Eucharist and forgives sins, and a mechanistic view of sacraments that focused on proper actions and words by the proper person. The concrete image of pillars in a building suits these ideas.
In the “new edifice,” the pillar of divine revelation focuses on God’s desire to be in relationship with us, further developed in the pillar of renewed emphasis on the Holy Spirit as the way we all receive God’s word. The priority of baptism pillar invokes a more ancient understanding and also encourages movement away from a clergy/laity split to highlight the Church as the people of God. The pillar of pastoral leadership calls for a service-oriented, shepherding clergy, rather than a ruling, commanding approach, while the pillar of dialogue invites contact with the world, rather than walls to keep it out. The final new pillar reframes the Church itself as pilgrim, not merely comprised of individual pilgrims, inviting an institutional humility and openness to possible reform.
I felt an almost painful nostalgia listening to this part, as it viscerally transported me to my younger years when participation in the Church was uncomplicated and without reservation. The long view, 900 years versus 50, keeps coming back to me though, and calls to mind the “dramas of Jewish living” that I’ve been learning about this year in Melton classes. The Hebrew people’s long exile in Babylon provides just one example, and again we’re talking about hundreds of years. When they were able to return to Jerusalem, not all of them did; they were established in the new place after generations there and going back didn’t fit. Yet they continued their practice of faith, causing Judaism to develop in diverse ways in varied places, a dynamic repeated over and over again from Europe to Africa to the Americas. Diaspora is a reality in their tradition.
Reflecting on the Vatican II pillars in this light, I feel that the building site metaphor falls short in portraying the Church’s struggle to implement Vatican II. It’s too static. After all, we’re meant to be a pilgrim people, guided by the Spirit! The ideas of an emerging young thinker offer a more dynamic approach. In his 2010 commencement address at St. Xavier High School, Michael Conway used geometry to describe the relationship of the school’s graduates to the actual school building here in Cincinnati as they continue the lifelong process of developing the ideals of the “Graduate at Graduation.” While the school uses the Long Blue Line to express the bond of alumni throughout the generations, Michael suggests a deeper, almost mystical, communion.
“Tonight marks the closure of our time living in the institutional St. Xavier and the commencement of our time bringing St. Xavier to others. . . . I propose the image of the Large Blue Circle to describe the sharing of St. Xavier as we go forth. By definition, the radius of a circle is the distance from the center to any point along the circle, and this distance remains constant. Similarly, we are all about to embark on different paths that may take us to opposite sides of the country or even the world, but still we share the common endeavor to live the Grad at Grad. This common endeavor stems from the fact that we are all equidistant from the center of the circle – St. Xavier High School.”
Vatican II marked the end of our time living inside walls and the beginning of our mission to the world. Right now, there is much fragmentation among Catholics as many have left, especially young people, but the circle image offers comfort and hope for all. Placing Jesus at the center and baptism as the radius, then no matter what, we’re still connected by our common endeavor to live the Gospel.