By Ken Trainor
Three and a half years is a long gestation, but I just birthed a book — my second. The Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church, 1962-65, is the entry portal, but the book is about much more.
Unfinished Pentecost – Vatican II and the Altered Lives of Those Who Witnessed It is about people's lives, individuals, known collectively as "The Council Class," who were studying in Rome at the time, expecting their lives to follow a predictable path, then finding themselves suddenly on new and different paths as the world around them changed in startling ways. All because Pope John XXIII opened a window to "let in a little fresh air."
The book is also about transformations — which is what our faith communities should be doing for us and what we should be doing for our faith communities.
It is a story that needed to be told and a story that I needed to tell.
In the process, I became reacquainted with my Catholic roots. As many of you know, I am a critic of my Church — at times a harsh one. Rev. Dean Lueking, pastor emeritus of Grace Lutheran in River Forest, recently observed that I have "the gift of stirring up holy discontent where smug triumphalism reigns." An apt description.
After reading numerous books on the subject and interviewing 27 people at some length, each of whom viewed Vatican II through a unique prism, my views became more educated and nuanced. This Church desperately needs prophets, but I now have a better sense of where my judgments fit into the overall, ongoing discussion. I no longer feel like a voice crying in the wilderness.
In other words, I learned a lot, one of the major benefits of writing a book. Another is revealing how much you don't know, which is humbling but in a healthy way.
I wanted to write a book in the spirit of Vatican II, which means openness and dialogue and participation. If the Holy Spirit could work through an ecumenical council, I hoped, maybe it would work through my book if I didn't try to control things too much. And there were times when the book did indeed seem to be organizing itself in ways I didn't expect — like taking so long to finish that the Church ended up with a new (and more promising) pope. Timing is everything, so somebody up there must be looking out for me.
I'm no theologian, and I was interviewing people who knew a lot more than I did, so I relied on what I learned over the past two decades at Wednesday Journal — reporting and editing — and, for the most part, let the participants tell their own stories (with some pontificating of my own, of course, on the side).
Writing a book is a marathon, and completing a marathon changes your perception of what is possible. It also keeps you busy and focused and "purpose-driven," as evangelical preacher Rick Warren puts it. The benefits of busyness should not be underestimated. Having a strong focus quiets internal craziness. You're concentrating too hard to mind the troublesome voices inside that vie for attention. In other words, it keeps you out of trouble.
Nonetheless, I'm thrilled to be finished with Unfinished Pentecost. It's a Catholic book, but the word "catholic" means "universal," so it is fully ecumenical in its applicability.
Just as Moneyball is about more than baseball and more than sports, so Unfinished Pentecost is about more than Catholicism, more than religion.
If you've ever wrestled with finding your place in community, if you're currently connected to any institution — religious or otherwise — that needs to keep up with the times and do a better job of tapping the full creative potential of all its members, if your life hasn't gone the way you expected, and if you detect the presence of a benevolent spirit greater than yourself at work in the world — and that pretty much covers everyone — then this book is for you.
Unfinished Pentecost explores how a group of interesting, admirable, articulate people came to terms with an experience that changed who they were and how they lived. I think we can all identify with that story.
Members of "the Council Class" ended up on paths they couldn't foresee, yet they never lost their conviction that the Spirit was working through the Council and continues to be active in their lives.
If you read this book, I hope you'll feel that spirit. Whatever your faith, or lack thereof, every one of us stands, humbled and awed, before a mystery we can't fully explain or comprehend. Catholics call it the Holy Spirit. Unitarians call it the Spirit of Life. Native Americans call it the Great Spirit. Some experience it through artistic creativity or nature's beauty or the love of another human being. Some experience it deep within themselves or whenever two or more are gathered in the name of what is good and true. Some attach the curiously pedestrian word "God" to that reality. Some don't.
The Spirit doesn't care. It's just waiting for someone like Pope John XXIII, who died 50 years ago this past Monday, to set it free.
All it needs is an open window.
You can find Unfinished Pentecost at Amazon.com or at The Book Table, 1045 Lake St.