By David Dault
Special to The Commercial Appeal
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.
Many priests here in the Memphis diocese, as well as Bishop Terry Steib himself, are old enough to remember not only the council, but what life in the seminaries and the priesthood was like before it was convened.
I was born in the 1970s, a few years after the close of the council. Indeed, I am part of the first real “Vatican II” generation of the Church. Folks my age and younger have no point of comparison, other than the stories we have been told. For us, the Mass has always been in our native language, and the priest has always faced toward us during worship.
This was the Church I joined, the Church I chose to join. As an “insider” to Catholicism now, I have to admit that it is quite different from how I imagined it when I was an “outsider,” a seeker, a catechumen. Strangely, I think I imagined a Church that was simultaneously more ancient and more modern than the Church that actually exists.
I came to Catholicism in graduate school at Vanderbilt, having spent several semesters reading St. Augustine and other Church Fathers. At the same time, I was in love with the social witness of many contemporary Catholics, from Dorothy Day and Roy Bourgeois to Fr. Richard Gross, the Jesuit chaplain at Vanderbilt who catechized me.
This mix of the conservative old and the radical new created a romantic vision of the Church for me. I wanted a worldwide body of ancient liturgy and progressive justice. Instead, I found a Church that was neither as conservative nor as modern as the one I imagined in my desires.
This is the legacy of Vatican II. I have joined a Church that is in transition. Fifty years beyond the council, the Catholic faithful worldwide are still figuring out how to live these rearrangements and new interpretations of ancient truths and revelations.
I joined a conversation. Friends my age and younger who are “cradle Catholics” were born into this conversation.
Despite the appearances, Vatican II did not change the Church. It still understands itself to be the Body of Christ, and still understands that it is protecting and passing on a set of ancient truths revealed two millennia ago in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.
But what Vatican II gave to Catholics is a new set of tools to aid in protecting and passing on these truths. The documents of the Second Vatican Council gave us new impetus, as individuals and as a Church, to talk to one another within our communion.
Moreover, these tools encouraged us to engage in serious conversations with those outside the communion of the Catholic Church. The years following Vatican II have seen the rise of hospitality and outreach to Muslims, Jews, and those of non-Abrahamic faiths both at the institutional and, often, at the parish level.
Furthermore, Vatican II called Catholics to renewed attention to the broken communion that lies at the heart of the Christian faith itself. Separated as we are from the Orthodox Church, and the many Protestant communities, the Church is chastened toward humility and the hope of eventual healing.
This is not the Church I wished for from the outside. But it is my Church, and I embrace it fully. Though as I teach its history to my students, and as I live within its communion, I am sometimes frustrated by what I find.
Perhaps this ability to be frustrated, and yet stay in communion and conversation, in unity, is the most important legacy of Vatican II.
David Dault is a professor of Catholic studies in the Memphis area, and hosts the weekly radio program “Things Not Seen: Conversations about Culture and Faith,” heard at 11 a.m. Sundays on KWAM-990 AM and online at thingsnotseenradio.com. This week’s guest, Fr. Bruce Cinquegrani of St. Brigid Catholic Church, will discuss the impact of the first five decades of Vatican II.