National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 4, 2003

Edited by William Madges and Michael J. Daley
Twenty-Third Publications, 231 pages, $19.95
Reminiscences bring Vatican II era to life

Reviewed by DENNIS DOYLE

In 1994, Pope John Paul II wrote, “The best preparation for the new millennium . . . can only be expressed in a renewed commitment to apply, as faithfully as possible, the teachings of Vatican II to the life of every individual and of the whole church.” Now a few years into the new millennium, this task is still upon us.

Large groups of Catholics, from participants in Voice of the Faithful, to members of Catholic parishes, to students at Catholic universities, are reading the 16 documents of Vatican II. Like many historical and ecclesial documents, these writings, when read out of context, can cure insomnia. In some cases miraculous cures have been claimed, though as I understand it none were among those accepted toward the recent canonization of Pope John XXIII.

Read with a sense of their historical and ecclesial context, these 16 documents come alive to express the drama of how in the 1960s the Catholic church achieved a new sense of self-understanding in relation to the modern world. The council and its teachings are crucial to achieving and maintaining a contemporary Catholic identity as followers of Christ and as artisans of a new humanity. Now four decades after the council, we Catholics need tools to guide us in our reading. Madges and Daly present us with a text expressly designed to provide us with such tools.

Vatican II: Forty Personal Stories provides three layers of contextualization of the council. The 40 stories themselves, written by a Who’s Who of late 20th-century Catholics, supply the first layer. These stories provide many behind-the-scenes details of what went on at the council as well as what went on in the lives of those touched by the council. Many of the anecdotes are touching, revealing or funny.

Charles Curran tells how he won $5 upon the election of Angelo Roncalli as Pope John XXIII. Martin Marty relays how Patty Crowley, a laywoman on the Papal Birth Control Commission, confronted a Jesuit priest who cautioned against change because of the many who had been damned in the past due to disobedience on this issue. “Father,” she replied, “do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?”

The personal stories offer many insightful points about the development of the documents and about the underlying theological debates. The common buzz-phrases about aggiornamento and human dignity and collegiality and inculturation take on form and texture as they are discussed by prominent Catholics who have a deeply internalized understanding of such concepts.

The reader comes away with a grasp of what the actual teachings were in liturgy and revelation and church and ecumenism. Joseph Fitzmeyer, for example, explains succinctly yet precisely two of the council’s major teachings on scripture and tradition: 1) that the magisterium is not above the Word of God but in service to it; and 2) that the gospels express the third stage of a three-stage process of communicating the words and deeds of Jesus. Many of the contributors make similarly helpful points in passing.

The most significant contribution of this first level of contextualization lies in placing the teachings of the council in the lives of people who were deeply affected by it. Elizabeth Johnson tells of the impact that reading Gaudium et Spes had and continues to have on her life. Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk relates the profound influence the council documents had on his own teaching and thinking as well as on the relationships he has with the priests of his diocese.

A second level of contextualization can be found in the brief yet not too brief biographical statements that introduce each of the stories. Although their primary function is to provide background for the personal stories, a secondary yet perhaps even more important function is to give readers information about 40 people, some of whom helped to shape and all of whom were shaped by the council. In other words, as these bios directly provide context for each personal story, in their own way, they also provide context for the council itself and for its implementation in the late 20th century.

The third level of contextualization consists in the six introductory essays that mark the beginning of each major section, devoted to history, liturgy, church, revelation, dialogue and social justice. Madges and Daly provide historical and theological sketches that are critical for understanding the personal stories and the council documents.

The progressive voices in this volume clearly outnumber the traditional, though both of these are outnumbered by voices hard to label. This is a complex text about a complex council, yet written in a way that is highly accessible to a wide audience.

Dennis M. Doyle is a professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton.

National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 2003

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