I know that I would never have become Catholic at all had it not been for the Council that made this wonderful and ancient faith accessible to someone like me.
Recently, the Church has been making a point of observing the 60th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. Catholic and other columnists have been chiming in -- some glowingly positive and others critical. Most recognize that something like Vatican II was needed, but the debate over what the conciliar documents taught -- and didn't -- rages on.
Interested readers will have no trouble finding plentiful audits and reviews -- both pro and con -- on Vatican II. That's why I will not venture to add my thoughts or attempt to provide objective analysis about the Council. Instead, I'll share more personal reflections, because for me, the Second Vatican Council is deeply personal.
My entire life has been lived in the light and shadow of Vatican II. I know the measure of 60 years intimately because I am 60 years of age. (And yes, that does sound old, even to me.) I was baptized Catholic and within a year -- the chrism still wet on my forehead -- Good Pope John opened the Council.
That didn't matter much to me then, and it wasn't only because I was an infant. Aside from an uncle's wedding when I was six, my baptism was the last time I saw the inside of a Catholic church. Both my parents had been raised Catholic, but both had also been married and divorced before they married each other. There was no place for them. At least, that is what they and most everyone thought. So, we went to the local Episcopal church. I still remember the words we prayed from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.
My mom and I still attended an Episcopal church after my parents divorced. In the 1970s, that meant enduring the experimental liturgies contained in the drab green paperback, "Services for Trial Use." But when the two of us went to a Billy Graham Crusade, we caught the personal-relationship-with-Jesus fire and eventually ended up at a non-denominational, Evangelical church -- the fastest growing congregation in the state at the time.
But when the bullying in junior high got too intense to handle, I applied to a Catholic high school for girls run by the Ursulines. The night before my first day, I took out my mom's old First Communion prayer book and memorized the Hail Mary. I intended to get along. My four years there, however, didn't quite work out that way. Despite some very positive relationships with a few of the sisters, the rocky relationships with the rest of them -- and the vacuous content of the religion textbooks -- left me with a very sour experience of Catholicism. By the time I graduated, I couldn't see the annual May Crowning as anything but idolatry. Likewise, the kind and grandfatherly priest's invitation, "Say hello to Jesus, girls, He's on the altar," seemed both syrupy and ridiculous.
What I could not have appreciated or understood at the time was the tidal shift the Ursulines were experiencing. Some were ditching the full-length habit for a modernized version. Others were not. Some were abandoning religious names and returning to their baptismal ones. Others weren't. The tension was palpable. When I think about it now, I can imagine how difficult and divisive those years must have been. But it wasn't the older sisters who necessarily stuck with tradition. Often, it was the younger ones who struggled with change. Sister Jeanne Marie was deeply upset by the 1978 conclave that elected a Polish -- and not an Italian -- pope. But she herself was Polish. That seemed inexplicably strange to me.
Still, there were two Catholics in the world that kept me from writing Catholicism off entirely: Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Curiously, I had the opportunity to be in an auditorium with Mother Teresa before I graduated and on Boston Common with Pope John Paul as a college freshman. I had absolutely no idea, not even an inkling, that God was slowly drawing me into the Church.
I wasn't able to find an evangelical church anything like the one at home, so I returned to the Episcopal church. With doctrinal and moral confusion there, it didn't take long to conclude that I was basically a homeless Christian, a disciple without a community of faith. Combined with the intellectual climate of academia, that almost cost me my faith in Christ entirely. What saved me and brought me to the threshold of the Church was the priest who gave me a copy of the Vatican II documents and told me to read "Lumen Gentium." When I did, the Catholic Church suddenly felt like home.
I am a Vatican II Catholic. I know that I would never have become Catholic at all had it not been for the Council that made this wonderful and ancient faith accessible to someone like me. The Traditional Latin Mass, lengthy personal devotions, saints, and sacraments would never have reached me. I can appreciate them now but would never have been able to do so then. I loved Jesus. But I had no ecclesiology to speak of and little sacramental theology. The Episcopal Church had given me the language of liturgy, but I had been making do on a crust of bread that was nothing like the fullness of the faith most Catholics take for granted. And I was hungry.
And so, for all its failures, missteps, and excesses, I am grateful for Vatican II. Without it, there's a good chance I would have abandoned Christ altogether. And I don't think I'm alone.
- Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and provides freelance editorial services to numerous publishers and authors as the principal of One More Basket. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.