The church of the open window

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

First an invitation: Tonight (if you're reading this on Oct. 2) I'll be talking about my new book, Unfinished Pentecost: Vatican II and the Altered Lives of Those Who Witnessed It, in the Veterans Room, second floor of the main library, at 7 p.m.

I hope the book will serve as a springboard (maybe even a catapult) for discussion about the Catholic Church, past and future. It should be of interest to Catholics; ex-Catholics (don't worry, no attempt will be made to re-convert you); and pretty much anyone interested in spirituality and how institutions, especially religious organizations, change and grow and, hoprefully, improve.

In addition, I'll make my case for why there may be hope yet for the Catholic Church.

Any discussion of the Church, past and future, has to focus on two popes — the one with the most numbers after his name, John XXIII, who is about to be canonized, and the one with the fewest, Francis I, who has generated much curiosity and interest worldwide, as did John over half a century ago.

Originally, I intended to devote this column to my favorite passages from Francis' breathtaking recent interview, published in 14 Jesuit periodicals around the world — including America magazine in this country.

Well, that didn't work out because I ended up underlining pretty much the entire interview. But I'll include a few passages and hope they inspire you — Catholics, ex-Catholics and non-Catholics — to read this genuinely spiritual document, which is destined to be oft-quoted and long-admired.

Let's face facts: Most popes sound the same and say pretty much the same thing. They defend the faith against "enemies," real or imagined, they urge the "sheep" to stay tucked inside the fold, and they condemn any ideas they think are harmful — which is basically any new idea.

There have been two exceptions: John XXIII and Francis I, who don't sound anything like the others for three main reasons:

1) They put human beings before the institution,

2) They praise what is good rather than condemning what is bad, and

3) There was/is joy in them, and joy is a sure sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

"The Church is the people of God on a journey through history, with its joys and sorrows," said Francis, echoing the opening lines of the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes. "Thinking with the Church, therefore, is my way of being part of this people. … When dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit. … We should not even think, therefore, that 'thinking with the Church' means only with the hierarchy of the Church."

Haven't heard talk like that from a pope in 50 years.

"This Church is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity. … The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. …

"Prophecy makes noise, uproar, some say 'a mess.' But in reality, the charism of religious people is like yeast: prophecy announces the spirit of the Gospel. …

"In ecumenical relations, it is important not only to know each other better but also to recognize what the Spirit has sown in the other as a gift for us. … We must walk united with our differences: there is no other way to become one. …

"For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions, that is the proof that God is not with him. It means he is a false prophet using religion only for himself. The great leaders of the people of God have always left room for doubt. … We must be humble. …

"If a Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. … Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal 'security,' those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists — they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.

"I have one certainty: God is in every person's life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person's life. You must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. …

"In every age of history, humans try to understand and express themselves better. So human beings in time change the way they perceive themselves. Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning. … When does a formulation of thought cease to be valid? When it loses sight of the human or even when it is afraid of the human or deluded about itself. … The thinking of the Church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today in order to develop and deepen the Church's teaching."

As wonderful as all of this is, it won't mean anything if real change, real reform doesn't follow.

Vatican II wasn't something that we Vatican IIers wildly exaggerated or misinterpreted and need re-interpreted by a hierarchy that has long been hostile to what happened back then.

Those who witnessed what has been called "the greatest religious event of the 20th century" will tell you 50 years later, with a clarity undimmed by time and aging memory, that the Spirit was very much present during Vatican II — and it changed their lives.

The Second Vatican Council proved, to me anyway, that the Spirit is in all of us and works through us if we open the window, like John XXIII did — and as Francis appears to be doing.

The anti-Vatican II hierarchy of the last 50 years has done everything it could to stifle that Spirit. They failed. The Spirit can't be controlled.

And it will work through whatever avenue we choose, religious or non-religious. That is the church of the open window and we are all members.

Join us tonight at 7 p.m. and we can talk more about this.


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