By Tom Holmes
Br. Joseph Kilikevice, OP, director of the Shem Center in Oak Park, uses the image of a fortress to describe the Roman Catholic Church he knew in the summer of 1962.
People retreat into fortresses when they feel they are being threatened by enemies. The perceived enemies of the Church, according to Kilikevice, were the "world" and other religions, including non-Catholic Christians as well non-Christian faiths like Buddhism and Islam. The hierarchy attempted to maintain discipline among rank-and-file Catholics within the fortress, using "laws, threats and coercion."
Understanding that many Catholics in the Oak Park-River Forest area felt like their Church had a fortress mentality provides insight into why the Second Vatican Council which convened in Rome 50 years ago tomorrow — Oct. 11, 1962 — was, in Kilikevice's words, "an exhilarating experience."
The image frequently used to symbolize what Pope John XXIII did when he opened the council is throwing open the windows of the fortress to let great drafts of fresh air blow through the Church. Indeed, Pope John not only opened windows — he also let down the drawbridge and dismantled parts of the fortress wall.
Dr. Hugh McElwain, professor of theology and department chair at Dominican University, was a graduate student in Rome in 1959 when the Pope announced that he would be convening the council in three years. McElwain recalls that he made the announcement after celebrating a Mass in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, which turned out to be a kind of metaphor for the whole council.
The Curia — the administrative body through which the pope governs the Roman Catholic Church — was against convening the council in the first place and then, once it was called, tried to "control the conciliar representatives and the council's agenda," McElwain said. Pope John's vision prevailed, however, and the council opened with roughly 2,500 bishops present from all over the world, 80 ecumenical observers and, eventually, 22 women.
"Needless to say," McElwain said, "I was hardly able to believe that this elderly Pope, elected as an interim pontiff … could have pulled off this miraculous moment."
Oak Park resident Wayne Vanek recalled that the opening of the council "was like an explosion" in the seminary in which he was studying to be a priest.
"The theology we were studying was so dated," he noted, "and the methodology so defensive. Here were over 2,000 bishops from around the world dealing with real problems of the day. The council was not defensive but, following the lead of good Pope John, it was looking at the world as Christ did."
Bern Wheel, a member of St. Catherine-St. Lucy Catholic Church at the corner of Washington and Austin boulevards, was in his 30s while the council was in session. "At first, I did not know what to expect," he said, "but as the months went by … a sense of freedom grew within me. I was being told it is OK to think and question because we don't have all the answers."
"Tradition is a beautiful thing," he continued. "However, walls were built up over the years that hindered evolution and growth. Vatican II breached those walls, and evolution was given a chance once more."
"The Council changed almost everything in my life," Vanek declared. "We were all 'the people of God.' … I felt that I could be a real human person as well as a priest."
Barbara Vanek, who eventually married Wayne after he had been laicized, felt the impact in another direction. As a lay person, she felt empowered by the council to take her place in the Church as a minister.
She wrote in an email, "To me, the most affecting Vatican II message was, 'We are the church.' It confirmed what I already knew/felt deep within but, of course, had never articulated for myself. It meant that if the church was to be in the world, I was called to act. The post-Vatican II church was open, accepting and ready to receive my contribution."
Upon graduation from college, she joined a lay missionary program called Extension Volunteers and was sent to serve a parish in the Oklahoma panhandle, not known at the time as an area where people welcomed change and innovation. She and her team were cautious as they attempted to delay the introduction of the sacrament of penance to children until after their first communion. The thinking behind introducing children to penance when they were too young to understand its meaning was that even newborns were burdened with original sin, so the sooner they received the Church's absolution the better.
"To our delight," she remembered, "the response was overwhelmingly positive. These parents knew/felt in their hearts that their young children were not in sin. 'We are the church' resonated with them just as it did with me. They just hadn't had anyone encourage them to trust themselves and their life experience and to act on that."
Sr. Mary McNulty, O.P., the director of Adult Religious Education at St. Giles Catholic Church on the north side of Oak Park, was in the sixth grade in 1962. "As I came to adulthood in the 'new era,'" she said, "I grew into the joy of being Catholic. The feeling of duty and guilt faded away."
One of the changes sparked by the council was a reform of religious orders. Vatican II encouraged members of orders to reflect on their original missions and discern together whether they wanted to take their ministries in different directions. Many nuns traded in their long robes, coifs and wimples for knee-length skirts and blouses and came out from behind the walls of their convents and monasteries to be active in the world. One nun who walked into her classroom with her legs showing for the first time snapped at her staring students, "What did you think I had — wheels?!"
"In grade school," McNulty recalled, "I had a curiosity about the sisters in our school and tried to imagine myself as one. The prospect seemed like a fantasy until the reform happened. Those habits changed. I saw women I could grow up to be like."
The Second Vatican Council also initiated many changes in the way Catholics worshiped. Altars were moved away from the wall and pews were rearranged to surround the altar as a way of replacing what Vanek referred to as the "dated" thinking of the Mass as a sacrifice. A new dimension was added: celebrating the Eucharist as a community meal — i.e. as "communion." Participation was encouraged. Lay people began taking leadership in many parts of the liturgy and, to the delight of younger folks and the chagrin of some older more traditional worshipers, peppy contemporary songs accompanied by guitars were sung at some Masses.
The changes were evidenced not only in the arrangement of church furniture and types of music but also in the sharing of liturgical leadership by priests with people who were not members of the clergy.
Sr. Teresita Weind, a pastoral associate at St. Catherine-St. Lucy in the 1980s and '90s, was a novice in the Congregation of the Sisters of Mary of the Presentation when the council opened. What she remembers clearly is the feeling of being respected as an equal by priests who had embraced what was frequently referred to as "the spirit of Vatican II."
"The clear and strong support for collegiality," she said, "was real in the pastoral teams with whom I ministered," she said. For a time, she was even permitted to give homilies at St. Catherine-St. Lucy while serving there, but an increasingly conservative hierarchy eventually cracked down, and she moved to a diocese in Michigan.
Fr. Larry McNally, pastor of Ascension Catholic Church, said one positive change that came out of the council was the shift away from thinking of the "Church" as an impersonal institution and toward the Church as "the people of God." He believes that the restoration of the Diaconate — i.e. men who can marry but are ordained to minister in the areas of preaching, assisting in worship leadership and charity — has been a huge blessing to the church. In fact, in the Archdiocese of Chicago right now, he said, there are more permanent deacons serving than ordained priests.
"I thought it was a wonderful idea at the time [of the council]," McNally wrote in an email, "and now I feel it was a great idea. I have so enjoyed ministering alongside of deacon couples my entire priesthood."
Another change brought about by the council was an increased appreciation of, and emphasis on, the Bible, as well as an openness to studying the ancient text with clergy from other Christian traditions. Vanek, for example, would sometimes prepare his homilies with a Lutheran pastor who had a church near his parish.
Dean Lueking, pastor emeritus at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, said Vatican II allowed him to establish "ecumenical" relationships with Catholic parishes just blocks away from his church, from which they were heretofore walled off.
"Vatican II was exciting for me," he recalled, "especially for its impact where it really counts — at the local level. Together with the pastor of Ascension Catholic Church in Oak Park, I helped organize what were called "Living Room Dialogues," which brought lay people of our respective congregations together for friendship and discovery of what our shared baptismal faith meant.
"The ripples of Vatican II," Lueking added, "brought new connections between Grace Lutheran and St. Luke Catholic Church, both River Forest congregations with long histories in our town but with little to do with each other. Fr. John Fahey and I had several pulpit exchanges. This meant that we of Grace Lutheran got a taste of Fr. Fahey's luminous Christian spirit, plus his Irish wit.
"Marriages that brought Catholics and Lutherans together began to include clergy participants from each tradition … something that spouses and families could appreciate as a sign of pastors working together for the success of the marriage rather than making it more difficult."
Kilikevice has devoted a good portion of his working life reaching out ecumenically to other major world religions as well as other Christians. "Serving for many years now as a director of interfaith retreats," he declared, "I continue to be amazed that words promulgated in the Vatican II document "On the Church's Relation to Non-Christian Religions" remain such a well-kept secret. In part, the document says, 'the church rejects nothing that is true and holy in non-Christian religions' and calls for an end to hostilities between Christians and all other religions of the world."
Not all Catholics in the Oak Park-River Forest area have been happy with the effect Vatican II had on the church. The schismatic St. Pius X Society's Our Lady Immaculate Catholic Church, for example, has returned to the Tridentine Mass which their priest, Fr. Ward, says in Latin facing an altar set against the wall with his back turned towards the people in the pews, as was the practice before Vatican II.
Fr. Charles Ward declined to be interviewed for this feature, but a book from his parish's bookstore titled, Most Asked Questions about the Society of Saint Pius X, accurately summarizes his congregation's response to the Second Vatican Council.
"The council was hijacked by the liberal elements within the Church," the book charges. "The new schemas, passed as the council's decrees … contain, more or less explicitly, some of the same doctrinal errors for which liberals in the past had been condemned." (p. 31)
What supporters of Vatican II see as the tearing down of the fortress walls which had isolated the Church from the world and other faith traditions, the members of Our Lady Immaculate see as a failing to maintain the clear boundaries of doctrine and practice which the Church had followed since the Council of Nicaea in 325.
Indeed, the very groups to which the Second Vatican Council was reaching out are viewed by Fr. Ward's congregation, and the Society of Saint Pius X, as adversaries seeking to undermine the foundations of the Church. Most Asked Questions declares, "The Council … departed from traditional teaching. … We refuse to follow the Rome of neo-Modernist and neo-Protestant tendencies which became clearly manifest during the Second Vatican Council."
The members of Our Lady Immaculate are at the forefront of a current conservative pendulum swing among the clergy and leadership of the Catholic Church. As a 2002 article in the Los Angeles Times states, "Younger Roman Catholic priests in the United States are markedly more conservative than their elders, a Los Angeles Times poll has found, reflecting a global trend toward Christian orthodoxy that is reshaping the world's largest church. Clerics under age 41 expressed more allegiance to the clerical hierarchy, less dissent against traditional church teachings, and more certainty about the sinfulness of homosexuality, abortion, artificial birth control and other moral issues than did their elders, the poll found."
This conservative shift saddens and sometimes angers many Oak Park and River Forest Catholics.
"Recent events in the Church, the response to the sex abuse scandal, the investigations of the sisters' congregations and this movement to reinstall the Tridentine Mass make my heart sink," Sr. McNulty confided. "However, this time in the Church is one of great challenge to cooperate with the Holy Spirit who is trying to 'renew the face of the earth.'"
Kilikevice responded to recent attempts to undo the changes that once energized and liberated him by declaring, "Once the fortress-like thinking of a church defending itself against a hostile world was abandoned, my world opened up as well. The council began 50 years ago, and in many ways it is just beginning. A
ll people of God have been entrusted with the teachings of this sacred synod to serve the church in the modern world. And when we find anyone, be they pope, bishop, pastor or laity not doing this, then we are to call upon the prophetic voice within and courageously and respectfully ask, 'Why not?'"
The original version of this article featured a photo caption that incorrectly spelled Brother Joseph Kilikevice's last name as "Kililevice". Wednesday Journal regrets the error.