As Catholics living in the twenty-first century our faith has been much affected by the Second Vatican Council. The Council, which began in 1962, clarified and codified a lot of things. Sadly, as human beings, we all read things into the Council documents that weren’t really there. Also, as human beings, a lot of us were resistant to some of the things that the Council said. Some of us still are.
As an adult convert, the modern Catholic Church is the only Church I’ve ever belonged to. Some of the things that the rest of you grew up with are very foreign to me. My mass has always been in English. In my experience, the priest has always faced the congregation. Joining the Church in 1968, all the big changes had already taken place before I ever set foot into a Catholic Church.
Because the Church works so slowly, it’s almost fifty years since Vatican II and some Catholics are still resisting some of the so-called “new” things. Ironically, my life has been more affected by one of the Vatican II reforms than most of you. That would be the restoration of the Permanent Diaconate. If not for the Council, I wouldn’t have a clerical vocation, or a job.
Church Councils don’t happen very often. Vatican II was the twenty-first Church Council in the 2,000 year history of the Church. Historically Church Councils have been called to deal with controversy and heresy. The very first Council took place in Jerusalem around 50 AD. It was called the Council of Jerusalem and we read about it today in the first reading.
The issue with the council was whether you had to be an observant Jew in order to be a Christian. More importantly, at least for the men, was whether you had to be circumcised to follow Christ. Obviously, the Jewish converts were much more agreeable to this than the Gentiles. It was a big deal and threatened the future of the new Church. So, the Apostles agreed to meet and discuss the issue.
As we know, the Gentiles won the argument. The only requirement to join the new Church was to abstain from certain foods and from unlawful marriage. “If you keep free of these things, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.” Notice that the Apostles said “It’s the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us…” In 50 AD, and in 2016, our leaders are guided by the Spirit.
Here we are, twenty centuries later, and we’re faced once again with the issue of unlawful marriage. It’s funny how things keep coming around. Just this week our Missouri legislature failed to address religious freedom. After all these centuries, marriage is still a contentious issue.
Here at Saint John Nepomuk we have a lot of weddings. These are “lawful marriages”, the only kind that the Church recognizes. Thanks to Vatican II, this is an issue for me, just as it is for all Catholic clergy. Don’t get me wrong. If a couple chooses to have a civil union, that’s not my concern. Whether it’s a man and a woman, two men, or two women, the Church doesn’t recognize a civil union as a sacrament. It’s just a contract. And without a sacramental marriage, a couple living together as man and wife are committing a mortal sin.
And no matter what the Supreme Court says, no matter what the Missouri legislature says, if you show up at Saint John Nepomuk wanting an unlawful marriage, I won’t do it. You’ll have to go somewhere else. Given the political climate in the United States today, I suppose there’s a good chance that I might be sued or even arrested. Who knows? But, regardless of the consequences, I’ll still refuse. I don’t think the Scriptures could be more plain. It’s right there in today’s first reading. “If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.”
Now, some of you may not care what happens to me. And that’s ok. A lot of better people than me have suffered for their faith. I’d be proud to be in their company. Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”
I will keep Jesus’ word; no matter what. That’s all there is to it. Because of my vocation, I’m in a position where some day I may have to put up or shut up. That’s not a surprise to me. I knew what I was getting in to when I was ordained.
But, what about you? Chances are you’ll never be in a position where you have to take such a serious stand. But we’re coming up on an important election. I can’t tell you who to vote for and I wouldn’t expect you to vote for a candidate just because I told you to. In fact, what you do at the polls is between you and God. But I would suggest that you think seriously about the consequences of your decision.
Little by little we’re losing our religious freedom. If we don’t pay attention one day we may wake up and find that our beliefs are illegal. It’s happening already. Please take this seriously. Most of our ancestors, including the Bohemians who built this church, came to the United States for religious freedom. It would be a shame if all their efforts were in vain.