As the Council progressed, then ended, and the Church moved into the implementation phase following the Council, so much about how we were Church evolved. No longer was ministry something that only priests and sisters did, for example. We had recovered a sense of baptism as the primal sacrament of ministry, and the Council has described the Church as a pilgrim in the world and servant to the world. All members of the Church, we read in the Council's documents, were called to be evangelists, and the Church herself was to be "a leaven and a kind of soul" within the world. However, all of this came at a cost.
Vatican II was convened because many bishops, including Pope John XXIII, believed that the Church was out of touch with the demands of the modern world. Churchmen of the first half of the 20th Century were deeply concerned over the Church's failure to be a more effective witness of Christ during that time, and worried that the Church had been ineffectual at confronting the issues that led to two world wars and the rise of three totalitarian regimes. The Council was an attempt to give a renewed missionary drive to the Church, to empower all of the members of the Church to be "co-responsible" as evangelists to the world, with all believers being called to perfect holiness, despite our state in life. The Council was, as Pope Paul VI put it, "the great Catechism of our time." My generation of seminarians found ourselves inspired to be at the forefront of these renewed efforts in the Church and the world, and enthusiastically responded to the Council's call.
Nonetheless, following the Council, we watched as public institutions, including institutional Churches, continued to lose credibility in the contemporary world. Despite our best efforts in the 1960's and 1970's to find creative ways to be a prophetic witness of Christ to the world, efforts which are now routinely mocked by certain reactionary elements even within our own Church, people continued to find, as they had even before the Council, that certain aspects of the Church -- usually described as the "institutional" dimension of the Church -- to be irrelevant at best and harmful at worst. Increasingly people began to say that they were spiritual, and maybe even go so far as to say that they were spiritual Catholics, but not in the sense of being churchgoing religionists. As a friend once said to me, "The Catholic Church is great once the institution gets out of the way." Perhaps the most troubling thing to watch, for me personally, was how members of my own family were treated by certain priests and other "good church-going Catholics," who very successfully drove these family members from the Church through their stupidity, narrowness and arrogance. I watched as repeatedly, my loved ones would try and try again to reconnect, only to encounter the same kind of things all over again until they felt they had no choice but to leave.
And here's the real point of all this: my family's situation is not an isolated case. Recently, on an international list-server for deacons, a brother deacon asked the group how many family members in our own extended families still "practiced" Catholicism. I won't depress you with the final answers.
Author Eric Weiner, writing an op-ed piece in the New York Times recently, asks "Americans: Undecided about God?" Read the whole article here. It's a most thought-provoking piece, and many folks have been blogging about it. At first I was going to pass this one by, but as I was preparing homilies for this Third Sunday of Advent, I came back to Weiner's piece. The questions asked of John the Baptizer remain the questions asked of us today: "Who are you? What have you got to say about yourself?
Weiner concludes his column with his own take on an answer:
What is the solution? The answer, I think, lies in the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that has long defined America, including religious America.
While I'll leave the comparison to Steve Jobs alone, I do rather like his observation that what he's looking for is "not a new religion but a new way of being religious." That, in my opinion, was PRECISELY was the Second Vatican Council was calling us to do. Sure, those bishops used the Latin term novus mentis habitus (a "new way of thinking"), but there it is, in contemporary terms. How can we, followers of Christ, find a new way of being religious, a new way of being Catholic, in the contemporary world? A new way of being Catholic that proclaims Christ in ways that are -- like Christ Himself -- always inviting and open to all. We shouldn't be excluding ANYONE from our assembly, precisely because we proclaim ourselves to be a people called by God ("ekklesia"), not by "the Church". And this people called by God has always, throughout the Tradition, called itself to be catholikos -- catholic -- open to all and universal. If we were truly finding a new way of thinking, a new way of being religious, people who now feel excluded from our communion would instead be welcomed! No matter how else society might be treating them, they would find a warm, welcoming home with us! "These Christians! See how they love one another!"We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.
"Who are you? What have you got to say for yourself?"