Vatican II: My Alarm Clock Rings (Personal Reflections IX)

Vatican II

These weeks I’ve been trying to trace the origins of my own awakening to the necessity and power of critical thought.  I’m doing so even though the reaction of many kind enough to read my blog might be “Who cares?” From them, I beg indulgence.

However when the “who cares” thought occurs to me, I think, “I’m writing especially for my children (Maggie, Brendan, and Patrick) who might some day care – even if not now. I’m writing for some students at Berea College (where I taught for 40 years) and whose tuning into this blog suggests they might still be interested. Same goes for the hundreds of Evangelical college and university students whom I ended up teaching in the Latin American Studies Program (LASP) in Costa Rica where I worked off and on (as “Don Mike”) for more than 20 years.

So allow me to continue.

I was saying that insofar as any “awakening” has occurred in my life, it has happened in a world that I’ve gradually discovered to be mostly the opposite of what I’ve been taught by well-meaning parents, teachers and public figures in the United States. I don’t hesitate to say that in very important ways, most of what they taught me as “right” turns out to be wrong. Most of their “truths” I’ve come to see as falsehoods. And I’m referring to some of the most important aspects of life – women (yes, I list them first on purpose!), God, religion, history, and politics.

In that context, as I attempted to show last week in the case of my English professor, Father James Griffin, I experienced many caring people (especially Sisters of St. Joseph and professors within the Society of St. Columban) who while not necessarily exemplifying critical thought in the political sphere, encouraged me to think critically about poetry, literature, and the Bible at a time when the term “critical thinking” had not yet come into vogue.

Certainly, all of them were critical in a small but important aspect of the wider sphere because they were operating within the context of the Catholic Church. In the United states of  the ‘40s,‘50s and ‘60s the Church still found itself on the defensive before a population still prejudiced against it. So while the Church was trying desperately to fit in as Super American, it did so while defending its religious beliefs against hostility directed towards “Papists.” It was important for us to root for Notre Dame on fall Saturday afternoons. It was an act of cultural resistance.

My journey towards genuine critical thinking took giant strides when after finishing my undergraduate degree in philosophy, I entered the major seminary. “The Major’s” six-year curriculum comprised the final two years of undergraduate work in philosophy and was completed by four years of post-grad theological studies culminating with my ordination to the priesthood at the age of 26 in Milton, Massachusetts. (Thereafter, as you’ll see, I was sent to Rome for five more years of work towards my doctoral degree in theology.)

Actually, I don’t remember benefiting much from my philosophy major. However (paradoxically as I show here) one of my most memorable and in some ways influential professors was Fr. Norbert Feld. He taught us metaphysics and cosmology. Turns out that way back then in the early ‘60s Norbie was a precursor of today’s right wing Republicans. He was a fan of William Buckley and The National Review. He’d endlessly ridiculed “liberals” and even (as I recall) Pope John XXIII’s social encyclical, Mater and Magister (“Mother and Teacher,” 1961).  The encyclical’s title referred to the roles of the “Holy Mother Church” in the pursuit of social justice. In that connection, I remember Fr. Feld’s reading an excerpt from Buckley’s critical National Review article called, “Mater Si, Magister No!”

In fact, Norbie’s only “philosophical” utterance that sticks with me was his observation about Rene Descartes (1596-1650) – one of the great heroes of the Scientific Revolution. Norbie said Descartes “didn’t know his head from his elbow.” That shows you what Catholics even in the ‘60s thought about the “modern world.”

Despite all of that and in some strange way, Father Feld played a role in awakening me to the importance of politics. His right wing harangues did something to convince me that Barry Goldwater deserved my first vote for president. Still even at this late stage (21 or 22) I found myself content to slumber. I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about.

Even my theological studies those last four years in the major seminary didn’t make much impact at first. They were dry as dust and for me represented just one more hurdle blocking my way to the goal I wanted more than anything else –  to become a priest.

Then Pope John called the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and everything changed.

Suddenly, the Eucharist was celebrated entirely in English.  The seminary chapel was remodeled with the altar facing the congregation. The tabernacle (no longer located on the “Eucharistic Table”) now found its place off to the side quite distant from the altar.  Instead of a small golden cask, it became a huge wooden treasure chest meant to resemble the Ark of the Covenant. It was designed by a Jewish artist. (I remember engaging in heated debate about its appropriateness. “How could someone who did not even share the Catholic tradition,” I argued, “make a meaningful artistic statement about the Eucharist?”

Guitars now replaced organ music. We were singing songs that sounded like the Kingston Trio or Peter Paul and Mary.

Even more importantly, we left aside those dusty theological manuals that had been the basis of our boring studies. We were now reading protestant theologians. And all of a sudden theology was interesting – even exciting.  We were also reading the works of Edward Schilebeeckx’s  (Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God )as well as works by Hans Kung, Ives Congar, Teilhard de Chardin and other contemporary (mostly European) theologians.

We who had been cooped up in the seminary for so long were now allowed to travel at night together to the Paulist Fathers Lecture Series in Boylston Square. There we listened to scholars like Andrew Greely and Barnabas Ahern.

Ahern’s lecture about “The Human Jesus” impressed me tremendously. It changed the way I thought about Jesus. The talk’s central image was a “what if” analogy between Jesus and Pope John XXIII. “What if by night Pope John stole out of the Vatican precincts and in disguise travelled across the Tiber into Trastevere to consort with and teach the poor there as one of them?”  Jesus did something like that, Ahern argued – using his powerful grasp of modern scripture scholarship to make the point.

I was so impressed that the next day I sat down at my Olympus typewriter and wrote out the whole talk virtually verbatim from memory. Subsequently, I used it again and again to share Ahern’s insights with congregations I served. It was the best lecture I had ever heard.

However it’s not that I was yet completely comfortable with all the new things I was hearing. Ahern’s words were one thing, but I was uncomfortable with questioning issues I had thought long since resolved — papal infallibility and even mandatory priestly celibacy. We were now having constant though informal debates about those things. I remember once writing a “learned” essay in defense of Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. My classmates and others thought it too medieval and out-of-date. I loved the book and defended as if it were the Bible itself

But then, even the Bible, I found out, needed thoughtful critique. My most influential professor in the Major Seminary taught me that. And the evidence shook me to my foundations. (More one that topic next week)