What We All Can Learn From Vatican II

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For the next couple of weeks, I intend to devote my blog to a discussion of Vatican II, which occurred 50 years ago. Whether you are Catholic or not, religious or not, the Second Vatican Council was a momentous world event and can be instructive to all of us as we are challenged in today’s worlds of politics, religion and society in general. While the 16 documents promulgated by the Council remain central to the understanding and application of the Catholic faith today, their content is not my focus in commemorating this anniversary of Vatican II. Rather, I hope you will find the lessons about the process of the Council instructive to all of us and critical to solving the challenges of a world that is more and more strident, uncivil and hierarchical.

My knowledge of Vatican II is not first-hand. As a young adult in the early 1960’s, my interests were not focused on the conciliar activities in Rome, but rather on the challenges of being a Red Sox fan. As a student at Boston College in the early 1970’s, Vatican II was central to many of my Theology courses, but my focus was earning good grades and completing my degree.

My real education about this important three-year event came from a participant who attended every session of the Second Vatican Council, the late Bishop Aloysius J. Wycislo. Bishop Wycislo hired me in 1982 to become the Superintendent of Schools/Director of Education for the Green Bay Catholic Diocese. Until his retirement a few years later, we spent many hours together driving around the Diocese, attending events and meeting.

Bishop Wycislo enjoyed talking about Vatican II. First of all, he saw the Council as a defining moment in the history of the Church and the World. But as a man of great intellect and capacity, he also found the sessions of the Council stimulating and challenging. Finally, at a personal level, Vatican II had provided him with the opportunity for a great friendship to be formed. At some of the sessions, the bishops sat in alphabetical order. Bishop Wycislo of Green Bay sat next to Bishop Karol Wojtyla from Poland, who later became Pope John Paul II. Bishop Wycislo and Bishop Wojtyla spent a great deal of time together and their close friendship continued throughout the rest of their lives. Needless to say, the stories I heard about Vatican II were rich and colorful in many ways.

So what can we all learn from Vatican II? In a recent essay, Richard Gaillardetz, the Joseph McCarthy Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College, provides a helpful perspective. He says that the first important lesson we can all learn is the value of dialogue. The Second Vatican Council was not conducted through the impersonal exchange of written documents. Rather, almost 2500 bishops, theologians and observers gathered in person for each of the four sessions. They were intentionally grouped in ways that encouraged interaction with leaders from other parts of the world holding varying perspectives and ideas. They lived together, socialized together, prayed together, celebrated together, and worked together

Gaillardetz argues that it was the extended opportunities for discussion and debate, face to face, formal and informal, that allowed for the richness of dialogue which led to the richness of the final documents. Gaillardetz words are poignant and instructive:

“The catholicity of dialogue evident at the council shines a harsh light on the situation of our church today. We seek to live our faith in a culture that has become increasingly uncivil. We too often encounter demonizing rhetoric on cable television, talk radio and in the blogosphere. Yet the council reminds us of the Christian obligation to respectful conversation with people whose views may differ markedly from our own. The conduct of the council teaches us that a precondition for genuine ecclesial discernment is the conviction that none of us individually has all the answers. We discover the guidance of the Spirit and penetrate the power and significance of God’s word through ecclesial conversation and the opportunity to interact with believers who offer us different insights, experiences and questions.”

The lesson learned regarding dialogue is important for a Church today that seems overly focused on power, authority and autocratic rule. But I would suggest that the value of open and inclusive dialogue and the importance of welcoming people and perspectives with differing experiences and ideas are valuable for improving the way we function in every aspect of our lives and society. Genuine dialogue would radically change the tenor of activities in government, business and industry and higher education. Genuine dialogue requires listening before speaking, And maybe, just maybe, it would lead to levels of collegiality and innovation so necessary in today’s world.

Next week … lessons #2 and #3.

(Your comments and ideas are always welcome.)


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Guest Thursday, 31 July 2014