Essay: Turning Around

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Forty years ago, the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church gathered for the second Vatican Council. The focus of that meeting was both internal and external, seeking reform within the Church and reconciliation with the non- Catholic world beyond. Four decades later, the Catholic Church, especially in Europe and North America, appears broken, dishonored, embarrassed by scandal. Bishops seem timid or scripted or crafty, unable to utter a word, except on the advice of their lawyers. The bishop will only testify under immunity; the cardinal resigns.

Much has changed in 40 years. The pope is no longer sequestered in the Vatican. Today the pope, the pop icon, and indisputable superstar, travels the globe precisely because the Vatican Council encouraged a new ecumenism. John Paul II visits the great synagogue of Rome, he apologizes for the church's part in the persecution of Jews. The Vatican apologizes for the persecution of Galileo and the treatment of the native peoples of the Americas. The Church apologizes for the persecution of Martin Luther. The pope has urged Catholics to join with Muslims in fasting during Ramadan.

This modernist cathedral in San Francisco is the first cathedral after the Vatican council and expresses the council's mixed success. The transcendent I3 apparent, but towering vaulted ceiling in a magnificent baldershin over the altar, but the structure has difficulty touching ground. At street level it is pedestrian. After the Vatican Council, there was great vitality in the church. As well as the sense of loss for ancient traditions left behind, as well as a sense of unraveling thousands of men left the priesthood. But this altar constructed to face the congregation remains the central of the church reformed.

No longer will the priest say the Mass with the back to the congregation, praying in Latin, that dead tongue, that language which gave such joy to my youth. In the vernacular, the Mass becomes a kind of exchange between the congregation and the priest; both are needed to make the liturgy complete. The Vatican Council assured the laity of a new stature within the family of the Church. This is your Church we were told again and again, but it was never exactly clear how the hierarchy intended to share its power.

In San Francisco, for example, an archbishop decided a few years ago to close a number of parish churches, disregarding the advice of parish councils. Then he seemed unprepared for the uproar. Pope John XXIII who convened the second Vatican Council was a man of humility and spontaneity whose popular image was that of a benevolent father, a village priest. John Paul II is admired as a man of stout heart, a lover of his Church. Within the Church many see him as sternly authoritarian, especially as regards America, his most errant child. The majority of bishops serving today were appointed by the current pope. More important, the culture of secrecy within the hierarchy seems to with withstood four decades of modernization.

Instead, it is the congregation which has taken to heart the lessons of the Vatican Council. During recent months of scandal, it has been clear that Catholics whether right-wing or left, are not leaving the Church but have been galvanized to claim the Church. Anger has turned to adult responsibility. With responsibility comes candor — one must wonder, for example, why so many of the scandals have involved assaults by priests upon children. Instead of misbehavior between equals, the crime was one of power, preying upon powerless; in a terrible way, I think the scandals mimic a hierarchy obsessed with power and secrecy, and utterly unable to imagine laypeople except as children — 40 years, 40 years must seem as nothing in the life of such an ancient institution. But if it is true that great events take a long time to unfurl, then perhaps it is also true that the Second Vatican Council is still going on. And the meeting convened by bishops 40 years ago is only now about to receive its full response from the pews.

PRIEST: The body of Christ.

RICHARD RODRIGUE: I'm Richard Rodriguez.