The biggest challenge facing Catholics today is how to live in the City of Man without forfeiting our residency in the City of God.
It is a dilemma that is now more pronounced than it was 50 years ago. Before Vatican II everything was laid out with a legalistic certainty. Now life is more complicated.
The great promise of the ecumenical council was that it would replace the old legalism with a new attitude of love and truth. Like Jesus, priests would stop harping on the negativity of sin and the fires of Hell and show us how we could love our neighbors with greater fervor while building a better world for the poor and the downtrodden.
It was also a time of personal service to the Church. Groups such as the Lay Extension and the Papal Volunteers for Latin America cropped up all over the Catholic landscape.
I was bitten by the service bug while at Holy Cross. A priest from Extension came to school four times while I was there and during my senior year I volunteered to teach and coach basketball wherever they sent me. In August, I learned that I would help staff the faculty of St. Henry’s High School in Charleston, Missouri.
This year I returned to the Chicago area for the 50th reunion of my service. It was amazing to hear of the tales of sacrifice and service that my peers had accomplished at their mission parishes.
My greatest accomplishment was winning five of 16 varsity games at a small school that had only four the prior five years. While I was disappointed that no one from my side of Missouri attended, I was able to recapture some of the pure Catholic joy that had permeated my soul in 1965.
For the first time in my sheltered life I had experienced life in the raw with the plies of the world, the flesh and the devil. I also met and married my wife of nearly 50 years in Charleston. The seven people who exist now as a result of that—three children and four grandchildren– make my five victories pale in comparison.
For Catholics like me who spiritually matured during those sanguine days, the inner conflict between the old and the new Church would not begin until later.
All this happened while the Church was in an historic ferment. While I was happy that love had replaced fear as the predominant spiritual motivator, I was conflicted by the loss of order and permanence that the old order had instilled with regard to personal salvation and doctrinal orthodoxy.
There was no denying that the kinder, gentler Church was rife with an inordinate number of erroneous beliefs among the faithful.
Years down the road, love and service had degenerated into license and secularism. Church order had turned into confusion and moral disorder. People rationalized their personal behavior with the excuse that as long as they served the poor, it did not matter what they did behind closed doors.
The aftermath of Vatican II also extended a double-edged ecumenical olive branch to other religions, sometimes at the expense of the clarity of Catholic teachings.
While a steady diet of the Latin Mass was sometimes tedious, I was surprised by its virtual elimination. For the past 50 years it has been no more important than the relics of some obscure saint. The fact that the Tridentine Mass has been revived in some circle leads me to believe that I have not been alone in my thoughts and fears.
I am certainly not suggesting that the clock can or should be turned back.
I met a fellow after the only Latin Mass I have attended since Vatican II years ago. We started discussing the salvific chances of someone outside the Church. I mentioned the alternate forms of baptisms of blood and desire. He quickly condemned my thinking as emanating from the twisted dogma of Vatican II.
I politely informed him that I had taken the ideas from my high school religion textbook in 1959, written and approved years before Vatican II.
His dismissive grin left me with the belief that he relished the thought of eternal damnation for all those who did not believe exactly as he did.
Our brief debate also reminded me of a conversation I had with a newly ordained Jesuit friend in 1969. He told me that while Catholics had to believe in hell, we did not have to believe anyone was there except for a few fallen angels.
While his Jesuitical thinking perilously approached the old heresy of universal salvation, or what I call positive presumption, I found myself hoping that he was right. I say this out of a tainted charity because if Adolph Hitler or Josef Stalin were somehow saved by the infinite mercy of God that seemed to enhance my chances a great deal.
I guess there will be no easy remedy for my troubled Catholic soul. Like all Catholics born again on the cusp of Vatican II, we all must learn to live in the City of Man without accepting its attitudes, practices and judgments that would make us eternally unwelcome in the City of God.