Plaque marking the 1986 interfaith
gathering in Assisi hosted by Pope
John Paul II
The Council changed the way we thought about God, about ourselves, about our spouses, our Protestant cousins, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Jews, even the way we thought about the Russians. When a handful of bishops kept pushing for conciliar condemnation of Communism, John XXIII kept insisting that that kind of talk would only blow up the world. Pope John and his Council made some preliminary moves that helped end the Cold War. For this, the editors of Time made John XXIII the Man of the Year.
The Jews? The Council reversed the Church's long-standing anti-Semitism. Until the Council, Catholics believed that, if Jews didn't convert to Catholicism, there was something wrong with them. The Council Fathers took another look at that idea and decided that Jews were still living their ancient covenant with God. We decided there was nothing wrong with the Jews; they became our brothers and sisters. ….
Before the Council, we were told we were excommunicated if we set foot in a Protestant Church. After the Council (where Protestant observers were welcomed, given seats of honor, and spoken of no longer as Protestants, but as 'separated brethren'), we stopped fighting the Methodists and the Presbyterians and conspired with them in the fight for justice and peace and marched with them to Selma.I recently gave a talk at an adult education program in a bustling suburban parish. As I looked out at my audience before speaking I suddenly had a chilling awareness. “How many of you were born after 1962, the year the Council opened?” I asked my audience. Four-fifths of the audience raised their hands. Today most Catholics have no idea of what life was like before Vatican II. I am old enough to remember the world before the Council. I can rattle off the old “Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutum meum” of the days when altar boys were altar boys and could rightfully swagger about the sanctuary, proud of the immense amount of nonsense syllabus they had committed to memory. And I remember when to enter a Protestant Church was considered seriously sinful and when the Jews were annually called “perfidious” in the Liturgy. (Oremus et pro perfidis Iudæis…. Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui etiam iudaicam perfidiam a tua misericordia non repellis…) The Catholic Church had established a long policy condemning the ecumenical movement—or rather claiming that authentic ecumenism was that all schismatics (the Eastern Churches) and heretics (The Protestant Denominations) should “return” to the Papal Catholic fold. Any prayer with such schismatics or heretics—so much as saying the Lord’s Prayer together—was forbidden as mortally sinful. Rome had been horrified with American participation in the 1893 World Parliament of Religions held at Chicago’s Columbian Exhibition (see entry for March 30, 2011). Pius XI had been outraged at Cardinal Mericer’s “Malines Conversations” with the Anglicans in the years after World War I even though Mercier—Archbishop of Brussels in Belgium had had the permission of Pius’s Predecessor, Benedict XV for the dialogues. Pius XI issued an encyclical condemning ecumenism, Mortalium Animos, in 1928 and through the reign of Pius XII any ecumenical activity was strictly prohibited. When John XXIII announced the Council in January 1959 and explicitly declared that one aim of the Council was heal the breach in Christianity represented by the East-West Schism of 1054 and the Protestant Reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this was radical news. For these religious bodies to be invited to send official delegations to the Council and the warmth with which these delegations were received would have been unimaginable only four years previous. And when the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Reintegratio) and the Decree on Non-Christian religions were published (1964 and 1965 respectively), the book had to be rewritten from beginning to end. No, on ecumenism and interfaith dialogue the hermeneutic is certainly not “continuity” and not even “reform”—in fact not even “reform” but an entirely new beginning.