Faith saved by a mix of old and new

by Tracy Tiemeier

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Edited by Thomas H. Groome and Michael J. Daley
Published by Orbis Books, $22

I was born in 1975, well after the Second Vatican Council. My Catholic parish in the suburbs of St. Louis was a vibrant place of contemporary Christian music, Marian devotions, progressive dinners, eucharistic adorations and adult Bible studies. It was a mix of old and new, tradition and innovation.

This rather chaotic environment suited me in many ways, as it seemed, for the most part, that anything was possible. If there were two things that troubled my young mind, it was my inability to participate in church life as fully as the boys and my marginalization as a mixed Japanese-American girl in a parish that was largely white.

When we became old enough, the boys who wished to become altar servers were excused from class in order to be trained. I was crushed that I couldn’t join the boys. I was told instead to devote myself to the Blessed Mother -- but I could not see myself in her. At our church, Mary was a gorgeous, blond-haired, blue-eyed woman, and I was a chubby brown girl. It seemed just as impossible for me to identify with her as it was for me to follow the boys.

It would be a combination of old and new that would save my faith.

Could it be that retrieving our pre-Vatican II past is key for the church in the 21st century? So contend the authors of the fascinating book Reclaiming Catholicism. Thomas H. Groome, theology and religious education professor at Boston College, and Michael J. Daley, columnist and religious studies teacher at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, retrieve the past without critical nostalgia and make suggestions for future directions in the church.

Full of autobiographical reflections of a time prior to Vatican II, with narratives on important Catholic figures of the era, and examinations of Catholic practices past and present, the book is a valuable collection of story theology for the new millennium.

The volume’s authors are some of the most prominent Catholic theologians of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, including Richard McBrien, Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Susan Ross, Avery Dulles, Charles Curran, Mary Hines, Luke Timothy Johnson and Christine Gudorf. Those writers reflect on a wide range of people and issues, from Jesus, the Mass, Thomas Merton and Catholic schools, to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Bible, Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, parish life, the priesthood, contraception, and many more.

Familiar concerns emerge: the dwindling numbers of men and women religious, the lack of basic catechetical knowledge among the faithful, the loss of a Catholic cultural identity, and the declining significance of religious practices such as fasting, feasts and devotionals. However, this book does not propose regression. The authors argue that many of the changes initiated by Vatican II have been essential for making the church viable in the modern world, not least the church’s approach to religious freedom, to other religious traditions, and to science.

Vatican II made the church viable for me.

My Japanese-American mother had converted to Catholicism when she married my father, but she still had many Buddhist relatives. I was taught in school that only Christians were saved, and I feared for my Buddhist family. Luckily, my father had gone to a Catholic university in the years just after Vatican II. He helped me to understand the church’s more open stance toward persons from other traditions. And so, I became captivated by my grandmother’s family altar and learned to serve my ancestors through it. This love of the dead made me ripe for learning to love the saints.

Even if I still felt marginalized as a biracial girl, this connection among Buddhism, ancestors and saints allowed me to find a home in the church. Devotion to the saints may have been lost in many quarters of American Catholicism, but it is an aspect of my spirituality that has endured.

The book does an excellent job offering essays by and about women, both in appreciation for how women have been active members of the church and in critique for how they have also been shut out. There are fewer chapters dedicated to Catholics from underrepresented racial and ethnic communities. However, Cyprian Davis’ standout piece on the contributions of African Americans to the pre-Vatican church speaks well to the largely unknown history of black Catholics. And Isasi-Díaz’s touching chapter on devotion to Mary illustrates the ongoing significance of Marian devotion for contemporary struggles for liberation in Latin America and beyond.

Finally, there is little treatment of the church in relation to other religious traditions, though Mary Boys does an excellent job in her essay, particularly in regards to the church’s approach to Judaism.

Certainly, not all post-Vatican II American Catholics have the same concerns. The students I teach are incredibly diverse -- racially, ethnically, religiously, politically, economically -- and their concerns are just as diverse. However, I do see some convergences. Most of my graduate students are laypersons who work in parishes or teach religion in Catholic schools. Many struggle to be heard and fear that their church is regressing. For them, the process of reclamation is therefore fraught with risk.

My undergraduate students, however, seem less suspicious of religious authority. They simply ignore church teachings they find useless. If my graduate students tend to be concerned with the priest sex-abuse scandal and the visitation of women religious, my undergraduates tend to be concerned with the church’s approach to same-sex marriage and the environment.

Although the preoccupations of the past are not always the preoccupations of the present, reflecting on the past can teach us about who we are and where we are going. Reclaiming Catholicism is a wonderful collection of meditations on the church that invites us all to appreciate our past and imagine our future.

[Tracy Sayuki Tiemeier is assistant professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.]

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