Wednesday, December 19, 2012

At the Corner of Fourth and Walnut

It’s a famous address.  Do you recognize it?  It was that place that a young Catholic monk named Thomas Merton realized that he and the world were not strangers but part of the same family, the same body.  In the middle of a busy shopping district in downtown Louisville, Merton had a mystical insight which changed the rest of his life:

I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.[1]

In so many ways, the story of Thomas Merton is a classic tale of conversion – not just one conversion but many.  He was converted as a brilliant yet rebellious young man who lost his scholarship at Cambridge due to an intemperate combination of bad grades, drinking and general carousing.  Later as a graduate student at Columbia he was converted when he discovered a curious yet unrelenting attraction to Catholicism.  He was converted when he realized his “true self” was found as a Trappist monk, living out the rest of his life in the relative obscurity of a Kentucky monastery.  And finally, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, Thomas Merton was converted by the penetrating insight that he and the whole of humanity were truly one.

Yet late in his life, Thomas Merton experienced a consummate conversion when he realized his distinct vocation to unity.  His life was to be about fulfilling the prayer of Jesus recounted in John 17.  “We are already one,” Merton said.  “But we imagine that we are not.  And what we have to recover is our original unity.  What we have to be is what we are.”[2] 

During a moment in our country’s history when all of us are trying to understand the unimaginable cruelty unleashed in a sleepy town in southwest Connecticut, Merton’s insights may be particularly poignant.  For Merton, the importance of unity was not just a sublime platitude but a matter of life and death.  In a 1961 letter written to his dear friend Dorothy Day, Merton wrestled, “I don’t feel that I can in conscience, at a time like this, go on writing just about things like meditation. I think I have to face the big issues, the life-and-death issues.”[3]

The violence of Newtown is situated in a much larger arc of human division that started with Cain and Able.  While the creation narratives of Genesis make it clear that God created humanity as one family, the primordial presence of sin is always there to tear at the fabric of God’s handiwork.  Deception leads to division leads to violence.  Yet Merton reminds us that the madness of violence begins with an illusion which prompts the human tendency to divide:

Violence rests on the assumption that the enemy and I are entirely different: the enemy is evil and I am good.  The enemy must be destroyed but I must be saved.  But love sees things differently.  It sees that even the enemy suffers from the same sorrows and limitations that I do.  That we both have the same hopes, the same needs, the same aspiration for a peaceful and harmless human life. . . There must be a new force, the power of love, the power of understanding and human compassion, the strength of selflessness and cooperation, and the creative dynamism of the will to live and to build, and the will to forgive.  The will for reconciliation.[4]

The road to peace is peace.  The journey of reconciliation begins with the same epiphany that stopped Merton in his tracks on the corner of Fourth and Walnut – that we are all united, we are one body, willed by God from the beginning of time for a fraternity of love.  “The kingdom of God is within you,” Jesus said.  It is only a matter of becoming who we really are.  

Let us not give into the temptation of division in this time of trial.  We stand at a crossroad.  In a certain sense, all of us find ourselves at the corner of Fourth and Walnut.  Let us choose unity and let us choose life.

Life is on our side.
The silence and the Cross of which we know
are forces that cannot be defeated.
In silence and suffering,
in the heartbreaking effort to be honest
in the midst of dishonesty (most of all our own dishonesty),
in all these is victory.

It is Christ in us who drives us through darkness
to a light of which we have no conception
and which can only be found
by passing through apparent despair.
Everything has to be tested.
All relationships have to be tried.
All loyalties have to pass through the fire.
Much has to be lost.
Much in us has to be killed,
Even much that is best in us.

But Victory is certain.
The Resurrection is the only light,
and with that light there is no error.[5]

[1]             Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, NY: Doubleday, 1966.
[2]             Thomas Merton, The Asian Journey, 308.
[3]             Thomas Merton, “Letter to Dorothy Day, August 23, 1961,” The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, ed. William H. Shannon, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985, 140.
[4]             Thomas Merton, “Preface to the Vietnamese edition of No Man Is an Island” taken from “Honorable Reader”: Reflections on My Work, ed. Robert E. Daggy, NY: Crossroad, 1989, 124.
[5]             Thomas Merton, “Letter to Czeslaw Milosz, February 28, 1959,” The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers, ed. Christine M. Bochen, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993, 57-58.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Shall We Stop This Bleeding?

My wife and I were moved to tears on several occasions through the two and a half hour showing of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Yet it was one line that stopped me in my tracks – “Shall we stop this bleeding?”  Abraham Lincoln presided over the United States during a period of immense struggle and loss.  New research estimates that up to 850,000 American lives were lost in the Civil War, more than in any other armed conflict in U.S. history.[1]  We were literally shredding ourselves to pieces.  Lincoln’s soft-spoken principles and longsuffering patience not only brought the country out of war but sealed the fate of millions for freedom.

“Shall we stop this bleeding?”  The line drew my attention to a situation in a Young Life area I had recently been called on for consultation.  A member of the local Young Life committee refused to work with Catholics in the oversight and support of the ministry.  Citing biblical references and centuries-old Catholic resources, this individual pronounced that Catholicism’s works righteousness blatantly contradicted the clear biblical witness of salvation by grace.  Accordingly, the church (and Young Life) needed to be purged of such doctrinal profanation brought about by the slippery slope of ecumenical partnership.

“Shall we stop this bleeding?”  What this individual would not accept, after repeated attempts by the local Young Life staff, is that this issue has already been settled.  Justification, the crux of all the disputes of the Reformation, “the article upon which the church stands or falls,” has achieved a common understanding.  The 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification pronounced an official agreement between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church: “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works”(JD, 15).

“Shall we stop this bleeding?”  The wound has been mended, the sutures in place.  We are, in this most central issue, already one.  Yet one careless word or one belligerent insistence on the past can easily reopen the injury and render the church powerless to do its work of making disciples of all nations.  I am proud to be a part of the “big tent” approach of both Young Life and the Catholic Church who, despite our remaining differences, have chosen to stand side by side in the fight to rescue young people. 

“Shall we stop this bleeding?”  It is up to you.    

[1]             Guy Gugliotta, “New Estimates Raises Civil War Death Toll,” The New York Times (April 2, 2012), (accessed December 12, 2012).

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bridges, Not Bombs

Last week I attended the National Conference on Catholic Youth Ministry in Orlando, Florida along with thousands of other youth ministers, priests, publishers, deacons, missionaries and religious educators.  I spoke to many people, from Texas to Alaska, Seattle to DC. 

Invariably, I got two different reactions when I was introduced as a representative of Young Life.  One reaction involved a spontaneous smile, a flicker in the eyes and some variation of, “Oh, I love Young Life!”  I met Catholics who were Young Life kids, Young Life leaders, even a few former Young Life staff.  Those who had been on the “inside” of Young Life’s ministry were deeply touched by the dynamic and palpable presence of Christ in the YL community.  Without exception, each one of them carried the vision and passion of Young Life’s incarnational model of evangelization into their current Catholic ministries.

The second type of reaction was quite different.  I could see it in their eyes the moment they heard the word, “Young Life.”  They were clearly caught off guard, trying to remain pleasant while cautiously sharing their negative experiences of Young Life.  I encouraged them to be honest and a few shared with me that Young Life staff in their areas were particularly unfriendly to Catholics.  Some, particularly in the South, noted a consistent anti-Catholic tone from Young Life.  None of the Catholics working in youth ministry ever had a Young Life staff come to them and say, “Hey, I’ve got a Catholic kid I’ve been working with and I wanted to try to connect him/her with what you’re doing.”

This tells me two things:
1)     We need to open the doors of Young Life wide and invite our Catholic brothers and sisters to experience what we’ve experienced in this mission.  Not to convert them, not to show off our incredible camps, but to welcome them into the unique Young Life spirituality that is neither Protestant or Catholic, but simply and passionately Christian.  We have an enormous opportunity to bless our Catholic friends and encourage them in their ministry.
2)    We must be exceedingly intentional about building bridges with local Catholic parishes and youth ministers.  If it is true that “we are not the church,” if our ultimate goal is to set kids on fire for Christ and integrate them into a local church community where they can continue to grow in their faith, then we need to establish real relationships with Catholic churches and let them know that we are serious about collaborating with them in the great work of evangelization.  It is not enough to say, “Oh I don’t have anything against the Catholic Church.”  We must, as St. Francis of Assisi is believed to have said, “Preach the gospel to all people and if necessary, use words.”[1]

Bridges, not bombs.  Our God is calling us together to lift up the name of Jesus, to bring comfort to the afflicted and hope to the downtrodden.  Start building today.  We are one body.

[1]             As a matter of intellectual integrity, there is no scholarly evidence to suggest that Francis of Assisi ever said those words.  Another exceedingly overlooked point is that St. Francis was a man of many words and he unabashedly proclaimed the gospel, both in word and deed, at every turn.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Gift and the Giver

I am historically distracted by holidays - Advent, Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries, 4th of July and Columbus Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day (which I inevitably get mixed up), Lent and Easter. I know what each celebration is supposed to be about but it is so easy to get caught up in. . . well . . . everything else! This Thanksgiving proved no different. We ate turkey and drank wine (both delicious). We watched football and played football (still sore).  We shopped and we cursed shopping (with the exception of Bass Pro Shop which was a hit all around). Yet I enter back into another week wondering if all the festivities left me, in a word, thankful? Do I find myself closer to my family, to my friends, to God?

This point was beautifully made by a 10th century mystic who was asked by one of his disciples, “If you could choose one thing from God, either great joy or great suffering, which would you choose?”  After deliberating for some time, the wise sage responded, “I would choose great suffering.”  Utterly perplexed the disciple inquired, “Why?” The humble master offered up a tender smile and said, “Because then I could be sure that my choosing was not for the gift but for the Giver.” 

Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that everything boils down to one essential gift.  “The gift of God is God himself.  The ‘good things’ he gives us are himself.”[1]  With all of the accoutrements and good tidings of the holiday season, it is so easy to lose sight of the one essential thing (Lk 10:42).  I pray (and ask for your prayers) that we might remember that Jesus Christ is the great treasure and the pearl of great price. Our greatest gift informs our greatest privilege. Our greatest gift is the same as the one expressed by the Bishop of Rome, “to help foster the growth of a living relationship with him.”[2]

By the way, it is National Bavarian Cream Pie Day.

[1]             Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. I, NY: Doublday, 2007, 136-137.
[2]             Ibid, xxiv.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Bridging the Gap: Church Teaching and Church Living

In the Evangelical world, the “bridge diagram” became a standard way to express the human condition, our separation from God due to sin and the reconciling (a.k.a. “bridge building”) work of Christ on the Cross.  Our sin has created a chasm between us and God tantamount to the Grand Canyon that we, no matter how we try or how “good” we are, can’t overcome.  Only Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross can bridge the gap and bring us into right relationship with God again.  This simple diagram could be explained in an elevator, written on a napkin and easily understood by young and old alike.  It typically looked something like this:

Recently another chasm has been reported and it is causing some serious headaches in the Catholic Church.  In her latest work, Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell writes, “There is a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon between the [Catholic] Church’s sophisticated theology . . . and the lived spiritual experience of the majority of our people.”[2]  In other words, the truths and teachings of the Catholic Church are fine.  Matter of fact, they are beautiful, magnificent, timeless treasures.  The problem is, somehow all that sophistication is not “trickling down” to the masses.  Most Catholics are not living into the reality of the Church’s high calling.

The result?  Weddell continues, “As long as this holds true, the theology of the laity and the Church’s teaching on evangelization will remain beautiful ideals that are, practically speaking, dead letters for the vast majority of Catholics.”[3]  Wisdom is only valuable when it is used, when it is lived.  The sophisticated truths of the Catholic tradition are not simply intellectual statues to be lauded and adored.  It is not enough that “our team” has accumulated a trove of spiritual trophies.  Christ calls every baptized Christian to a conscious human response that is deeply personal, lived daily and communally embodied.

What is the cross that the Church must carry in order to bridge this tragic gap that has developed between its teachings and its flock?  In a word – discipleship.  It is not enough to ask people to lay their lives at the foot of the Cross.  We must tell them what to pick up.  We must show them through our lives and witness what it means to follow Jesus.  God’s Incarnate Son showed us in the flesh how to live a life in tune with the Father, in step with the Spirit (Gal 5:25).  The role of Young Life leaders is not to lead kids away from the Church but to help them live into the highest ideals of Catholicism marked on them at Baptism.

“And as the Father has sent me,” Jesus said, “so I am sending you”(Jn 20:21).  Let us, as Catholics, take up the cross of discipleship and follow in the footsteps of the Savior.  The world is waiting for true bridge-builders.

[1]             If you still can’t figure it out, just ask your local Evangelical whose entire world would light up to hear you ask, “Hey, could you explain to me the bridge diagram please?” 
[2]             Sherry A. Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2012, 11.
[3]             Ibid.

Friday, November 9, 2012

What Does the Catholic Church Have To Offer Young Life?

Last week I spoke about the “ecumenical gift exchange,” the idea that God calls every member of the body of Christ to share their gifts at the common table of the world’s needs.  We need each other if we are going to provide a compelling witness to the world today.  Another way to put it is that we are “mutually impoverished” when we fail to recognize and actively partner with other members of the body.  I made the suggestion that there is a “YL-sized hole in the Catholic Church,” that the Church would be strengthened by the gifts that Young Life has to offer.  The dynamism of Young Life’s initial proclamation of the gospel to kids (the kerygma), the call to true conversion and the commitment to ongoing discipleship is precisely what the Catholic Church struggles with, according to recent research.[1] 

So it may be clear what Young Life might offer the Catholic Church in this exchange, but what do you think the Catholic Church has to offer Young Life?  This was the question posed by one of my readers who directs the office of youth ministry at a prominent metropolitan diocese in the U.S.  What do Catholics, and the long-standing religious tradition that has formed them, have to give Young Life leaders?  I could not be more excited to answer this question.  Clearly, both Young Life and the Catholic Church have something to give and receive.  By no means does Young Life see itself as the solitary antidote for the Church’s ills.  Matter of fact, I would argue that Young Life has much more to gain in the ecumenical gift exchange.

The Catholic tradition represents a veritable treasure trove of theological reflection and spiritual wisdom. Its sacramental worldview, its reconciliation of faith and reason and its commitment to justice are but a few of the gifts which our Protestant brothers and sisters would be blessed to receive and explore. Many of my Protestant friends are elated to discover the lives and teachings of Catholics who they’ve never heard of but nonetheless inspire their faith – Francis de Sales, Therese of Lisieux, Charles de Foucauld, Yves Congar, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and countless others.

Beyond its rich intellectual tradition, the Catholic Church also has an immense deposit of pastoral gifts to offer Young Life’s leaders as they pursue “every kid, everywhere.”  With over one billion Catholics worldwide, there is no bigger body of believers to welcome and support Young Life staff wherever they may find themselves. The depth of its liturgy and the intimacy of the Eucharist offers real nourishment for those who draw near. Lectio divina, the liturgy of the hours and Eucharistic adoration are incredible ways to strengthen our relationship with God and others. The Catholic Church has much to give to the mission of Young Life.

“The moment has come,” Pope John Paul II said, "for the entire body of Christ to commit to evangelization.”[2] A dynamic partnership between Young Life and the Catholic Church not only represents a significant step toward fulfilling the Great Commission, but it also has the potential to showcase the depth, beauty and sophistication of the Catholic tradition to those outside her communion. While Young Life has the potential to help reanimate the core of the Christian faith for millions of Catholics around the world, non-Catholics within Young Life might also uncover the incredible depth of spiritual wisdom and blessing as they build relationships with their Catholic friends.

Are we, as Catholics, ready to offer our gifts at the table of kids' needs?  Are we ready to enter the great ecumenical gift exchange?

[1]             See Pew Research Center, “’Nones’ on the Rise: One in Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation,” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Oct 9, 2012; Pew Research Center, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Feb 2008; and Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), “Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice among U.S. Catholics,” CARA, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., (accessed October 25, 2012).
[2]             Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio (Mission of the Redeemer), 3.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A YL-Sized Hole in the Church?

Young Life leaders are fond of saying to kids, “There is a God-sized hole in your heart,” meaning that human beings were made to have God at the center of our lives.  St. Augustine said this in another way late in the fourth century, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”[1]  However and whomever says it, we all understand the basic wisdom here.  There is an inherent reciprocity between us and God.  We were made for relationship and things are going to be not quite right until we come together as we were designed. 

The same could be said for the Church.  Paul talks about the Church as one body with many parts, each made perfectly to operate in relationship with the other parts.  Even those parts we think are less important are actually, in truth, “indispensable” and worthy of special attention.[2]  The point is that no part is disposable, each plays a crucial part in the body of Christ.

Could it be that Young Life and the Catholic Church were made for one another?  Is it possible that at this point in history, the Catholic Church needs something that Young Life is uniquely (but certainly not solely) equipped to offer?  Recent research suggests this is so.  According to the Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey of 2008, only 30% of Americans who were raised Catholic still practice their faith today.[3]  Less than 20% of U.S. Catholics attend Mass each week.[4]  Nearly four times as many adults have left the Catholic Church as have entered it, most by the age of eighteen.

What is interesting about this data is the reason why Catholics are leaving the Church.  It is not because of controversial issues like abortion, birth control and same-sex marriage.  It is not because Catholics, by in large, take issue with Church teaching.  The CARA report reveals that our Catholic brothers and sisters are “simply drifting away from the Church.”[5]  Their spiritual needs are not being met.  Sherry Weddell of the Catherine of Sienna Institute notes that “the majority of Catholics in the United States are sacramentalized but not evangelized,” meaning they have not been called into an explicit personal, growing relationship with Christ.[6]

Young Life’s unique mission is to call adolescents into a personal relationship with Christ and help them grow in their faith.  In other words, it is uniquely equipped to evangelize and disciple.  Young Life’s bread and butter is reading the signs of the times, building real relationships, earning the right to be heard and calling kids to a life-changing, ever-growing relationship with God.  It excels at the very things the Church is struggling with.

Could it be that God is calling us into relationship?  Has the Lord set the stage for an ecumenical gift exchange where each part of the body of Christ contributes toward the common good?  I pray that we might have eyes to see and ears to hear.

[1]             St. Augustine, Confessions, I, 1.
[2]             1 Cor 12:22-23.
[3]             Pew Research Center, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Feb 2008.
[4]             Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), “Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice among U.S. Catholics,” CARA, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., (accessed October 25, 2012).
[5]             Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, Disciples Called to Witness: The New Evangelization, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C., 2012.
[6]             Sherry A. Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2012, 46.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Entering the Conversation: Protestant Reflections from Catholic Country

When a Protestant Young Life staffer finds himself right smack in the middle of Catholic country, lots of interesting things can happen.  I'm pleased to introduce Brad Sytsma, a seasoned area director ministering in and around one of our nation's greatest Catholic universities.  I pray your heart will be encouraged as you read his reflections. . .

When is the last time you talked theology with a devout Catholic?  Have you ever had a conversation with someone who left their Protestant church for the Catholic Church?  What are the “real” differences between Catholics and Protestants?  Do Catholics really believe all the things we have heard they believe?  Have you ever asked why Catholics believe what they do from a biblical standpoint?

About a year ago, my wife and three children moved to South Bend, Indiana where I am currently the Area Director for Young Life.  With the University of Notre Dame in our back yard, there are many devout Catholics in our community.   In Young Life here, we have at least six Catholic leaders.  One of my team leaders is a dynamic and faithful Catholic who is working on a Masters of Divinity degree here at Notre Dame. 

Since I have been here, I have been engaged in some amazing conversations with a couple of people who have converted to Catholicism from a Protestant past.  I’ve also spoken with devout Catholics who love Jesus and have a thriving relationship with him.  On the other hand, I’ve had plenty of conversations with Catholics and Protestants alike who are not engaged in the “faith” conversation.

In my work in Young Life and in my daily life as a Christian I’ve discovered several things:
1) We have a lot to learn about each other (Protestants and Catholics) and we need each other 
2) There is a rich theology in Catholicism that we are missing as Protestants
3) Protestants need to stop protesting and start uniting with our Catholic brothers and sisters for the sake of the Gospel (take a look at 1 Corinthians 1:10-2:5)

Obviously, I’m just scratching the surface here and trying to wet the Protestant whistle.  There is so much to discuss.  The question remains: Are you willing to enter the conversation?

“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”
1 Corinthians 1:10

Brad suggests reading:
How to go from being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in 95 Difficult Steps by Christian Smith
If Protestantism is True by Devin Rose

Brad and his wife Amy tailgating at a ND football game

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"Luther's Unfinished Reformation": What Protestants (and Catholics) Should Know about Vatican II

This year, 2012, marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, otherwise known as Vatican II.  While most Catholics are intimately familiar with this groundbreaking event (as it radically changed the way Catholics worship), many Protestants are left wondering, “What is this Vatican II that I’m always hearing about?  And why does it matter to me?” 

When Pope John XXIII called the council only ninety days into his pontificate, nobody could anticipate the colossal legacy of renewal and reform that would be inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council.  The son of Italian peasants, the lovable Pope John was famously asked why he called the council.  It is reported that “Good Pope John” opened a window and said, “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.”

This symbolic act would characterize the great aggiornamento (or “updating”) that the Catholic Church would welcome as a product of the four-year deliberations of Vatican II between 1962 and 1965.  In the four hundred years since the beginning of the Reformation, the Catholic Church’s posture to both Protestants and the modern world at large was primarily closed, defensive and triumphalistic.  As the humble servant of the servants of God, Pope John XXIII effectively flung open the arms of the Church to embrace and illuminate the world as the “city on a hill” Christ called her to be.[1]

What is an “ecumenical council” anyway?
To provide a little background, Vatican II was the 21st ecumenical council of the Catholic Church.  These historical councils have been called throughout the history of the church to settle theological disputes, define Christian doctrine and promote the effective promulgation of the gospel throughout the known world (the word ecumenical comes from the Greek word oikoumene which means “the inhabited world”). 

Interestingly, the precedent for ecumenical councils comes from the Bible.  More specifically their model draws from the fifteenth chapter of Acts of the Apostles where Peter, Paul, Barnabas and a whole host of elders and apostles proclaimed the true gospel at the Council of Jerusalem.[2]  Here the early church, as a forerunner to the twenty-one ecumenical councils that would follow to date, gathered to challenge unorthodox teaching (in this case the obligation to follow Mosaic law as Christians) and to proclaim that “we believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved.”[3] 

These biblically based councils have been convened throughout history to adjudicate some of the most intense disputes and define some of the most critical formulations of Christian theology.  The first official ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.), condemned Arianism, which had denied that Jesus was fully God.  The Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) repudiated Pelagius and his contention that humanity could overcome sin without God’s help.  At the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) the Nestorian heresy was finally condemned.  These ecumenical councils, particularly the first seven, are accepted by both Protestants and Catholics as the authoritative debates which established the essential doctrinal backbone for Christianity.

Vatican II & the Reformation
Avery Dulles, American theologian, Jesuit scholar and Cardinal of the Catholic Church, described Vatican II as “Luther’s Unfinished Reformation.”[4]  Of all the things that could be said about Vatican II, a crucial point of interest for those seeking unity within the body of Christ is that the Second Vatican Council can be understood as a long-awaited acknowledgment of some of Martin Luther’s concerns and an answer to his original desire to reform, not separate from, the Catholic Church.  Marquette University historical theologian Patrick Casey noted that “Luther had emphasized the Bible as more important than Aristotle, the need for a vernacular liturgy, the restoration of the role of the laity, a ministerial clergy, and better preaching – values that had sustained Protestantism throughout the centuries and values that Vatican II was now reasserting.”[5]

It would seem that Luther’s Reformation represents one chapter of an ongoing process of reform and renewal that can be witnessed in historic events like Vatican II.[6]   We, the church, are ever in need of continual reformation in the light of Christ and the restoration of unity among Christians is one of our highest callings.  We still have a road to travel before we arrive at total reunification.  It would be unwise to simply overlook those issues that still divide us.  Yet the openness, honest dialogue, and prayerful humility of the Second Vatican Council are models for us all as we hope for unity under “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.”[7]  May we continue to open the windows of our hearts to let the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit breathe new streams of aggiornamento into the church today. 

[1]             Mt 5:14.
[2]             Acts 15:1-35.  Some scholars also believe that the Council of Jerusalem was documented by the apostle Paul in Galatians 2:1-10.
[3]             Acts 15:11.
[4]             Patrick W. Carey, Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ: A Model Theologian, NY: Paulist Press, 2010, p.159.
[5]             Ibid.
[6]             Originally drawn from a sermon delivered by Avery Dulles entitled “Luther’s Unfinished Reformation,” this thesis was later published in the periodical Catholic Mind, issue 63 (April 1965), pp.32-35, quotation on 35.
[7]             Eph 4:5.