The Second Vatican Council has been described as a missionary council, convened to engage the world within and outside the church. Pacem in Terris, written by Pope John XXIII during the Council, departs from all previous encyclicals in its address, not to the church alone, but “to all Men of Good Will.” It is this missionary impulse, more than any other, which I believe has been lost and must be found.
I’ve been thinking of St. Isaac Jogues. He did not come to North America as a tourist. He did not come to report and leave. He came to live, as a member of the community. He would live and die among the people he was called to serve.
In one of Jogue’s first letters home he writes that he is learning the language of the Hurons. First task: he learned the language of the people he served.
When I talk to my children and their friends, I am struck by the inability or the unwillingness of those in the hierarchy of the church to learn the language. And, trust me, there is a new language to be learned. The Oxford American Dictionary had chosen the word of the year for 2012, "GIF." It's short for graphic interface format.
When I heard “Gif,” I thought they were talking about a brief moment in time, as in, “I’ll be there in a jiff.” I still don’t know what graphic interface format means.
I see this failure of language most painfully and plainly when we talk about homosexuality and marriage. My husband and I were shocked to realize, a decade or more after we graduated, how many of our best friends from Notre Dame were, and are, gay. Back in the ‘70’s, we had no idea. But neither did our gay friends. We — all of us — had no language for it. One of our friends, a priest, says, “If I had realized on the day I entered seminary that I was gay, I would have packed my bags and left.”
By the time he had the language to understand his orientation, he also had the skills and experience to integrate his attractions into the rest of his life. He remains a celibate priest, one who knows that his sexual orientation is towards men.
Our oldest child’s godfather is gay. When we asked him to stand as Abram’s godfather, he was a Trappist monk. He left the monastery and met the man who became his life partner and companion for over thirty years. He has been a faithful and loving presence in our son’s life, and now in the lives of his children.
My children have friends who came out in middle school. They grew up with homosexual friends. They have shared dorm rooms and locker rooms and road trips and sleepovers with them and they know the experience to be unremarkable.
My middle daughter grew up with a girl whose parents are devout Catholics. So is their daughter. She is also gay. She and her partner could not marry in the Catholic Church, but they put together a very Catholic Liturgy of the Word. She and her spouse want to have children. But they will not pursue IVF or any other form of artificial insemination, because it is against Church teaching. My daughter will point out that, at the same time her lesbian friend is struggling to stay in the Church, she has straight, Catholic friends who are undergoing IVF without any concern for Church teaching.
Who, my daughter asks, is the faithful one?
So, here we are, in the aftermath of an expensive campaign regarding same sex marriage. Expensive, in terms of time and money, but also in terms of people who’ve come to believe that the Church only counts sexual sins.
Those entrusted with implementing Vatican II’s Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy published guidelines. A section regarding the tabernacle reads:
An issue closely linked to that of the altar is the tabernacle. We can hardly give here prescriptions of a general and uniform character. An attentive study needs to be made in each case, with due attention to the material and spiritual circumstances proper to each place. Artists will little by little suggest the best solution.
Artists will lead. Why? Because the tabernacle is about beauty, the beauty within and the beauty without. The one who seeks and the One who is sought, held in beauty. Artists speak and work in the language of beauty.
How will this kind of leadership that is needed to address human sexuality, the leadership to learn the language of beauty and faithfulness in previously unexpected places, happen? Little by little. It will take time and thought and reflection and prayer.
How will artists lead? By suggestion. Not fiat. Just as the Council sought to persuade rather to anathematize.
Forty years ago, if I thought of homosexuals at all, they were shadows, not people I knew and loved. In that time, which is no time at all, the world’s awareness of the variations of human sexuality changed in ways I still do not understand.
I never know which words to use: Husband and husband, wife and wife, spouse, partner? I seldom get all the initials, LGBTQIA, in the right order. I confess I am confused that the California legislature passed a bill making it illegal to offer gay conversion therapy to minors, while keeping it legal to give minors drugs that will suppress naturally occurring hormonal changes in trans-gendered children. Governor Jerry Brown calls the one therapy “quackery” and the other “science,” but we’re not far enough down this road to speak with certainty about much in the way of therapy, other than to acknowledge that medical fads (Remember frontal lobotomies? Refrigerator mothers?) of all sorts have done great harm.
I am reluctant to agree to sweeping changes in our understanding of marriage. And that includes my grave misgivings about the way heterosexuals have redefined marriage not as a lifelong relationship, but as one governed by changing moods and affections. I have even heard the lukewarm vow, “As long as you both shall love,” pronounced at (heterosexual) weddings.
Wide reading and lived experience tells me a child is best raised by her married, biological mother and father. Also, lived experience has left me with the memories of other revolutions that were supposed to be about increased freedom and greater equality. Remember no-fault divorce? It was supposed to even the playing field and advance the cause of women’s progress. It has been a disaster for women and children. Poverty has increased, not decreased, and single women and their dependent children suffer.
“Little by little” is the way of the wise, especially when the path is newly cut and still rough, with few reliable maps to warn of pitfalls and dangers.
But, just as I am reluctant to endorse radical changes in ancient practices, so am I reluctant to act as if no practices can, or should, ever develop. We have a lot to learn.
The missionary impulse, I think, is akin to what psychiatrists call the “therapeutic alliance.” The physician seeks to ally with whatever in the patient is healthy or seeks health. That leads us back to the language of the Council as we address all men and women of good will and say that we are unable, at this time, to give “prescriptions of a general and uniform character. An attentive study needs to be made in each case, with due attention to the material and spiritual circumstances proper to each place.”
We need to learn the language. Learning the language requires interaction with those who speak it. Learning the language requires listening. Learning the language requires interpretation. I may know how a word is received in my language, but I may not understand how it is received in yours. I know what a gesture means in my language, but I may not understand what it means in yours.
Sometimes, when people don’t know the language, they start talking louder and more emphatically. It’s easy to get the impression today that faith in Christ is a series of intellectual assents. The scoring works just like a personality quiz in Ladies Home Journal. Check off a sufficient number of boxes and you’re inside. Below a certain number, you’re out.
I sit in the library looking at copies of Christmas carols Jesuit missionaries wrote in the Algonquin language. I wonder at the time it took to take the story and bring it to a people for whom the phrases “house of David” and “land of Judah” had no meaning. It meant learning Algonquin stories first. What place in their imagination could stand for Bethlehem? Translating the story meant learning what in their stories and culture affirmed the gospel of Christ, and weaving the stories they received with the stories they brought.
That’s the faith. We’re living a life, hearing the ancient stories and telling our own, joining them as believers have done for centuries.
So what of the beautiful idea, shining from the heart of the Roman bureaucracy, that artists will lead us? The vision that those whose life is beauty will lead us to beauty. Perhaps we would be wise to begin here by talking to people who do the hard work of love. By love I mean the daily hospitality and charity of my son’s godfather and his partner. What might happen if their bishop asked to meet with them, asked to hear about the last thirty years: the heart problems and the money woes and the care they together gave to E’s dying mother. What if they listened as the bishop spoke about his understanding of Church teaching? Perhaps all of us will find that their stories translate into a language we can understand together.
When, at the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel, the risen Christ tells his disciples to go into all the world, making disciples of people in every nation, we assume that the call is purely geographical. But we know there are borders of heart and mind and custom. There are borders of identity and upbringing. The whole earth is mission territory and the Church is called to learn the languages that we might share the good news of Christ.