80th Birthday Reflections Part 2: Disorder Enters My Highly Ordered Life

In 1962, disorder began to enter my life. Its cause was the Second Vatican Council started by Pope St. John XXIII. Out of the blue, it seemed, he decided to reform the Catholic Church – to “open some windows,” he said to the modern world. And with that decision, my life was changed forever – but not overnight.

As a basically conservative person, I initially resisted Vatican II – or at least some aspects of it. I liked the church the way it was. Everything there was so clear and certain.

But now, they were introducing English to replace the Latin Mass. The priest celebrant was turned around and faced the community. Guitars replaced organs. And the music became folksier and less solemn. All of that was fine and rather exciting.

But then, colleagues of mine became critical of things like our nightly Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, priestly vestments, and Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. (I loved that book.) The seminary chapel was radically remodeled so that the tabernacle now moved to the side, looked like a huge treasure chest. It had been designed, we were told, by a Jewish artist. I wondered, “How can someone who doesn’t share our faith in the Eucharist create art that reflects centuries of reflection on Jesus’ Real Presence in the eucharistic elements?” I remember writing a long screed in defense of The Imitation of Christ.

That was at the beginning. But gradually, I became persuaded. More progressive and better-read classmates and elders influenced me. One of them prevailed upon the dean of students to have our library subscribe to The National Catholic Reporter (NCR). It was fascinating.

But most influential of all were my classes in Sacred Scripture and theology. Our scripture professor was Eamonn O’Doherty. He was wonderful. He taught us about text criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism and more. For four years and line by line we went through biblical texts that I came to see as richer than my literalist, fundamentalist mind was ever able to imagine. What I had learned about poetry from Fr. Griffin when I was a college freshman and sophomore enabled me not only to understand what the scholars were saying, but to find my own textual meanings as well.

And then there were the theology classes. Their focus changed from preoccupation with bland traditional manuals written in Latin to actual books by controversial authors like Teilhard de Chardin, Bernard Haring, Hans Kung, Ivan Illich and Edward Schillebeeckx. I remember being greatly impacted by the latter’s Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God as we studied it under the guidance of another of our great professors, John Marley. Fr. Marley was a liturgist who helped us all develop sensitivity to the history and profound meanings associated with public worship and sacrament.

We were reading non-Catholic authors as well – something completely unheard of before John XXIII. I found Paul Tillich especially powerful.  I actually discovered sympathy with the Great Reformers we had previously been taught to dismiss and even despise. I read everything I could from the psychologists Erich Fromm, Rollo May, and Carl Rogers.

Yes, my ordered, predictable world was coming apart. Along with my seminary colleagues (and professors!!), I was questioning more and more – accepted doctrines such as papal infallibility, moral teachings on contraception, abortion, the uniqueness of the church itself, the role of priests, and, of course, mandatory priestly celibacy.

I remember reading an article in the NCR about “reluctant celibates.” Those were actual and would-be priests who felt called to the priesthood but unenthusiastically accepted the celibacy requirement without having an actual vocation to the celibate state.  

I feared I fell into the reluctant celibate category. Before my ordination to the diaconate, I discussed this with my spiritual director. We agreed that it was probably just a matter of pre-ordination jitters.

So, come December 22, 1966, I was finally ordained along with nine classmates – three of whom I had been with since my first year in the high school seminary. After 12 seemingly interminable years, I had finally reached my goal. However, by now I was a Vatican II product. The new theology and my scripture studies influenced every aspect of my priesthood from my homilies and the way I celebrated the Eucharist. Eventually, it shaped the way I dressed and the length of my hair; I even flirted with a moustache and beard.

I was at last on fire academically. During my final semester in Milton, I was honored with a request to teach an adult education class in a Boston parish. The topic was Vatican II and the Bible. I relayed to my class of 30 adults – some twice my age and more – exactly what I was learning under Eamonn O’Doherty. They loved it. The class was a great success. I was discovering that I could teach. And I loved that too.

So, I was delighted when my first priestly assignment was not to Korea, the Philippines or Japan, but to continue my studies in Rome. My Columban superiors wanted me to get a doctorate in Moral Theology there, so I could come back to Milton and teach in the seminary.

Rome still smoldering from the conflagrations set by Vatican II (’62-’65), held wonderful and unexpected surprises that would continue the disorder that I (and the entire world at the time) was coming to embrace.

[Next installment (still on disorder): Rome challenges me to grow up in every sphere – intellectual, political, and personal.]