The sky is the most amazing cerulean blue. Families lounge on blankets listening to the lyrical passions of the Mariachi music. There is the flash of color and brilliant white of the Ballet Folklorico dancers. Away from the stage, children create chalk designs on the sidewalk leading to the mansion, a place steeped in the history of El Pueblo de Los Angeles. There is the smell of tacos in the air, a gustatory salute to the street cuisine of the city. Through a shaded door into a quiet room, pilgrims make their way in reflective splendor around a labyrinth drawn on a cloth and laid out on the floor. Back out in the sunlight, there are voices and languages under a canopy of trees. In the distance is the dome of St. Vincent de Paul’s Church, a Los Angeles cultural monument and the second Roman Catholic house of worship to be consecrated in the city. On this perfect spring day, every act is a prayer, every word contains a universe of resonance across the City of Angels.
The Catholics of the city have come to the Doheny campus of Mount Saint Mary’s University to conclude a three-year series of symposia entitled Vatican II@50, co-sponsored by Loyola Marymount University. The Second Vatican Council was convened a half century ago by Pope John XXIII and over the course of three years, from 1962-1965, revolutionized the Church in modern times. Vatican II is easily the most important event in the Catholic Church in the 20th century. It was there in those convocations, synods and discussions that the Church welcomed a new age. The Council was so significant, so far reaching and all inclusive, that the ramifications are still being felt and its missives and documents are still being studied and implemented.
At this event, called Aggiornamento!, the celebration of culture took center stage. In Los Angeles, Catholic culture is Latino/a culture because the city, since its formal inception in 1781, has been decidedly Hispanic. However, Catholic Los Angeles includes Filipino, Vietnamese, Irish, and many other ethnicities and cultures. The Catholic Church encompasses the world, and the so-called Third World now accounts for a large percentage of new Catholics each year. It is significant that Pope Francis hails from South America, the first pope to originate from somewhere other than Europe in more than 1200 years.
At the Doheny campus, all cultures had representation, but there was no doubt the assembled group had a strong Latino flavor like the city itself. It was also readily apparent that culture, fellowship, and a celebration of differences took precedence over dogma or catechesis. Aggiornamento! was all about celebrating faith community across racial and economic lines.
In all of this spring weather and celebration, my thoughts wandered to the darker shades of the labyrinth that is the journey of faith. Like life, it is often difficult to chart a course through the minefields of clashing belief systems and points-of-view. Instead, we must follow the turns and twists of fortune and fate. I wonder if the bishops and cardinals, the theologians and scholars gathered at that sacred Council ever imagined the self-proclaimed Islamic State as they drafted the document “Nostra Aetate,” or “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” It is much the same as wondering if the founding fathers of America envisioned school shootings when writing the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The Council wrote regarding other faiths, including Muslims, that “The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions.” They echoed Justin Martyr in the belief that all religions “reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) could hardly be considered “enlightened” when they behead non-believers like journalist and Catholic James Foley, to cite just one of their many victims we see being slaughtered or burned to death on the evening news.
Jim Yardley, writing in The New York Times on February 21, 2015, said that “Mr. Foley’s death in Syria transformed him into a symbol of faith under the most brutal of conditions.” Allegedly and under great duress, Foley converted to Islam in an attempt to save himself from beheading. However, James Martin, S.J., editor at America, “expressed doubts about the genuineness of his conversion.” Those captured and imprisoned with Foley also said they questioned the conversion. Some said he engaged his captors in a discussion of Islam and his own Catholic faith. He often read the Quran and seemed to relish his prayer sessions five times each day. His mother said he was always interested in studying other faiths, “but she still strongly believes that her son died a Christian and that his conversion was an act of practicality.”
Did the convocation at the Vatican during those years of discussion and change ever envision this kind of self-proclaimed jihad, or holy war from their Muslim brethren? The participants in Vatican II probably had the historical Catholic persecution of Muslims in mind, namely the Crusades and were attempting to find a way to draft an apology for past crimes and forge a new direction for Catholic-Muslim relations. “Although in the course of the centuries many quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems,” commentators write, “this most sacred Synod urges all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding.” However, in a footnote, they assert that there were Muslim Crusades as well. “Those were ideological wars,” they wrote. “This Council, as it also makes clear in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, wants to disassociate itself from war.”
It would seem now that the world has a war with Islam, and that no disassociation is possible. The group of radical Muslims presents a threat not just to Catholics, Jews and other religions and ethnicities, but to the world. Even Pope Francis has called for an end to the persecution of Christians in the region. ISIS continues to grow, and their atrocities become even more bloody and heinous with each passing week. This is difficult to reconcile with lines in the Vatican II document that state: “Upon the Moslems, too, the Church looks with esteem.” These radical Islamists fly in the face of the idea that “On behalf of all mankind, let them make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace, and freedom.”
These were my thoughts on this beautiful early spring day in Los Angeles. There is a darkness on the horizon, one that is fraught with danger and uncertainty, that overshadows how we must appreciate other cultures and other faiths as stated in the documents from that convocation fifty years ago. The prescient nature of the Second Vatican Council documents has presented many challenges to Catholics around the globe. How do we greet the modern world using precepts and teachings that go back 2000 years to a simple carpenter’s son who wandered the desert where modern radicals now blow themselves up in colossal acts of self-immolation? How do we live in a world where an offer of an olive branch or a call to recognize a “ray of truth” in another faith results in the most brutal of murders?
In the self-proclaimed Islamic State, there is nothing “true or holy.” In fact, all humanity and compassion have evaporated in the heat from the fire of self-righteous hate and bigotry. The day of reckoning is here; the world must respond against such atrocities.
More than anything, the situation indicates that faith is a living thing, always changing in response to a transitory and often brutal world. Faith teaches many lessons in the face of human and worldly imperfection. Catholics celebrating an opening of doors to the modern world fifty years ago know that old habits die hard and new challenges are always ahead. This is what the participants in Vatican II understood. We must accept challenges to our beliefs and continue forge on. We must try to find the Imago dei in the faces we meet, even those who appear on CNN each evening holding a knife to the throat of a helpless and bound victim. Yes, those faces continue to attack the world with explosives, guns, knives and murderous intent, but if we are to follow the lessons of Christ, we must still reach out to embrace them, and that might prove to be too much of a challenge this time.
So on this beautiful day near downtown Los Angeles, with the Mariachi’s guitars and the trumpets and the dome of St. Vincent’s, the faithful gather to celebrate, to pray, and to hope, against all evidence to the contrary, for a better world ahead.
Abbott, Walter M., Joseph Gallagher, eds. The Documents of Vatican II With Notes and Comments by Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Authorities. Piscataway, NJ: New Century Publishers, Inc., 1966.
Yardley, Jim. “Debating a Change of Faith Under Brutal Captivity.” The New York Times. New York, NY: The New York Times Co., 21 February, 2015. p. A6.