Fifty years ago today, the Roman Catholic Church slipped off many of its most distinguishable traditions and dressed itself anew. Fifty years ago, Roman Catholic polity and piety were transformed. Fifty years ago Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, and the world of Catholicism, for most Catholics, has never been the same.
I love deep-fried perch. On Friday, my family of Calvinists, years ago, used to regularly eat fish on special at any of a ton of places in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, only because a host of Catholic Sheboyganites literally had to eat fish. The Schaaps had no such ecclesiastical directives, but we loved perch.
"Fish on Fridays" substantively hasn't changed; the Catholic church still suggests that some form of abstinence takes place in commemoration of the suffering of our Lord. But, thanks to Vatican II, perch or halibut or catfish or whatever is no longer the rule.
Thanks to Vatican II, priests conduct mass in the language of the people instead of Latin, and when they do they turn to the congregation instead of facing the altar behind them. Roman Catholics pray with Protestants these days, even attend Protestant rituals like marriages and funerals. Life has opened up. Because of Vatican II, distinctions seemingly written in stone have been scoured away, which means old-fashioned Protestant bigots, like more than a few I know, can no longer call their Catholic neighbors "mackeral smackers."
Lately, my wife and I have taken to attending a local church in the Reformed tradition which has no faux-rock band, features no overhead screens, sings from a Psalter, and still uses, if you can believe it, a pipe organ. In Dutch Reformed terms, the worship is purely pre-Vatican II, a hold-out, which makes the congregation a bastion of conservatism--and we rather like it.
But in the last few months we've attended a ton of different churches, each of them with their own style, each of their worship patterns, some of which reveal the wounds of the worship wars just about every congregation--Protestant or Catholic--has undergone in the last several decades. In some, there are no books at all. In others, there are no overhead screens. In some, soloists still sing from the back instead of crooning up front. In some, the worship team is, at best, a duet, a couple of good singers who don't act like cheerleaders. In some, the young people, even though they've strumming guitars up front, appear just as bored as their grandparents, who were never in front, did in the Sixties.
If worship is dialogue, if worship is talking with God, then it's important, no doubt, that we use our own "language," important that in that divine communication we undertake each Sunday we don't let others speak for us in songs and hymns that are always new or in worship patterns that we find tough to own.
That's one side of the paradox. The other is Vatican II. If worship happens only in the "language" of the initiated, it won't stretch as it must to incorporate new voices. What's more, time and place are not unimportant; most sermons are applications of a changeless Word to the paths we walk today. I have a recording of a sermon my grandfather preached in 1948. Perhaps, at the time, in the First Christian Reformed Church of Oostburg, Wisconsin, it lit up the congregation (then again, perhaps not). But today, even though that sermon is grounded in scripture's riches, it's warp-and-woof make it, at best, a museum piece.
Vatican II--in style, but also in substance--modernized a Roman Catholic Church for a new world, something Pope John XXIII and 3000 other church officials thought had to be done. One Sunday somewhere in rural Belgium, we attended an age-old cathedral, where six of us visiting Protestants nearly outnumbered the ancient parishioners, each of them in scarves. For all practical purposes, the priest conducted himself up front as if no one was in nave. No wonder no one was there, I thought.
Worship is an art. It requires close attention to the importance of both ritual and change. It is ritual, after all, and we are inescapably driven by tradition in every moment of our lives. We need the familiar--I love the old ways. But once upon a time, of course, even the old ways were new. I can't imagine moving from Dutch to English, for instance.
If I were Roman Catholic, raised in the old order of things, I bet any money I'd love--just love--to hear the old Latin Mass. It would feel like home, the familiar sweet language of my childhood. But, if I were Roman Catholic, I can't imagine myself opposing Vatican II.
We're odd, I guess, aren't we?--we humans? Most of us would die for the familiar, but we really can't live without the new.
Two weeks ago, at home in Wisconsin, I had a scrumptious plate-full of deep-fried perch. In fact, we chose the restaurant, one I'd never been too, only because it served up the best perch in town. It was Friday, just like the old days.
And it was good. It was very, very good. This week we'll probably have fajitas.