Last Thursday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Much ink and pixels have been spilled in the last month or two arguing about the meaning of the Council. The worst of these debate the various "hermeneutics" theologians have constructed. This is the epitome of corporate religion: insisting that you need a graduate degree to properly understand the Gospel. Fortunately, there are others who simply offered us firsthand perspectives on life before and after Vatican II, such as Robert Blair Kaiser, who covered the Council for Time Magazine.
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.
Let me share a family anecdote to support Kaiser's assertion. As a child, my mother attended Catholic schools, where she was taught that only baptized Catholics would go to heaven. Unfortunately, her father was not a Catholic. She knew he was a good man, but the Church told her that was not good enough. So she hid a scapular under his side of her parent's bed, in the hopes that if he died at night, maybe, just maybe, God would make an exception and let him into heaven after all.
That was the Church before Vatican II. An institution that would tell a little girl that no matter how good of a life her daddy lived, he was going to hell because he wasn't one of them. It was not said out of malice, but from a belief that this was a true expression of God's love. Scholars can trot out all the hermeneutics they want, but for me it's pretty simple: after the Council, we were no longer that Church.
John XXIII prayed that the Council would be a "new Pentecost" for the Church. I think he knew he was asking for something more than just a set of documents. The Council invited the Holy Spirit into the hearts of all the faithful, to help them reimagine who they were as a family, and she obliged by showing them how vast and majestic that family truly is. That grace is what Kaiser, my mother, and so many others experienced. Our challenge is to acknowledge that this grace did not vanish when Vatican II ended.