As we move to a new year this weekend, I first want to back up a bit and take note that this fall we passed the 60th anniversary of the start of the hugely influential (and, in some corners, controversial) Second Vatican Council in 1962.
A traditional way of describing what this important gathering of Catholicism's leaders did is that it opened the windows of the church to let in some much-needed fresh air. At least that's the description used by people who favored the council's results, which included allowing the Mass to be said in languages beyond Latin and having priests face the people when they led Mass instead of turning their back on the congregation. And much more.
Fr. Thomas Reese, in this column written for Religion News Service, acknowledges that all these years later Catholics remain divided about whether Vatican II was a life-saver or a serious error.
"The distance from the council," he writes, "has allowed for different interpretations of the event.
"The far right asserts that the council was a mistake; it destroyed the church by abandoning dogma and putting the Mass into the vernacular. They argue that the church should demand strict observance of its moral teaching (although they, too, ignore the demands of the church’s social teaching).
"The left argues that the council did not go far enough in its stated purpose: updating the church for the modern world. The council was a good beginning, these critics say, but more needs to be done — allowing women priests, for example, and allowing all priests to marry. They also prioritize the church’s social teaching over the church’s teaching about sex."
The labels "far right" and "left" hide much more than they reveal. Still, it's fair to say that a primary goal of Pope Francis has been -- and continues to be -- lifting up and solidifying or revivifying the changes brought about by Vatican II and then seeing what else needs to change.
Perhaps it's why he has gained energetic supporters as well as energetic critics. And why he has attracted considerable attention and support from the Protestant world, as my co-author Paul Rock and I noted in our 2015 book Jesus, Pope Francis and the Pope Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.
(In this photo, you see Pope Francis looking at our book after Paul Rock's wife, Stacey, handed him a copy when they met him in 2022.)
Reese, by the way, concludes that Vatican II "was a revolution that opened our eyes to what the church could be if we dared."
What those of us who aren't Catholic can take away from the history of the council is that within any religious tradition change is inevitable. The key question is what one is willing to change and what one is committed to holding onto no matter what.
The problem is that in so many traditions lots of people major in the minors, meaning they fight about things that should be open to change, things that are, in the end, negotiable. And that sucks energy away from the task of understanding what isn't negotiable and why it must be forever part of the tradition.
The youth leader at my congregation has created a list of beliefs and asked young people in confirmation classes the question of what's the least you can believe on that list and still call yourself a Christian. It's a helpful exercise in that it not only draws teens to what the core of the faith is but also points out some matters that they almost certainly don't need to fight over.
Perhaps each of us who is committed to a faith tradition could promise ourselves that in this new year we'll figure out what's negotiable in our tradition and what isn't -- and then quit fighting about what can, and maybe needs to, change.
* * *
THE, UH, GROWTH OF THE MINICHURCH
Here's an interesting development in American Christianity: RNS reports that the "minichurch" is the latest trend. Probably nobody started out to create a minichurch, but with the continued diminishment of Christianity in the U.S., it's no doubt a good idea to look for the benefits found in small congregations. After all, didn't Jesus say that where two or three people are gathered in his name, he'd be there?
* * *
P.S.: When the health of retired Pope Benedict XVI took a downward turn a few days ago, Religion News Service raised -- and, in this article, tried to answer -- the question of how the Vatican prepares a funeral for a pope emeritus. Be glad you probably will never have to plan such an event. Note: We learned Saturday morning that B-16's has died. As the AP story to which I've just linked you notes, "A statement from Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni on Saturday morning said that: 'With sorrow I inform you that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died today at 9:34 in the Mater Ecclesia Monastery in the Vatican.'”