THE BLOG
03/04/2013 01:17 pm ET Updated May 04, 2013

Remember Vatican II Because Who Becomes Pope Matters to the Rest of Us

Two years before Vatican II, I was consecrated a Lutheran deaconess. My uncle, a Roman Catholic, could not come to the service because he believed his church would not permit it. A week ago, I, now an ordained Lutheran pastor and seminary professor, was guest lecturer at a Roman Catholic University in Florida celebrating the 50th anniversary of Vatican II. How things have changed! Vatican II helped usher in a time of ecumenical dialog with churches of the Reformation.

So why talk about Vatican II at a time when cardinals meet in Rome to choose a new pope? Because their choice matters to the rest of us. Oh, not the way news coverage often gives the impression: as though the pope of the Roman Catholic Church were the leader of all Christian church bodies. He is not. Rather because the leadership of any faith body impacts the way all religions do or do not interact respectfully and productively for the common good of the world.

Our family lived in inner city New Haven, Conn., during the 1960s, where "living room dialogs" between Protestants and Roman Catholics on how to put faith into action led to establishing Christian Community Action, which to this day provides help, housing and hope to those who are poor in New Haven.

The Schools of Theology of Dubuque, including Acquinas Institute (Roman Catholic), the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary (Presbyterian) and Wartburg Theological Seminary (Lutheran), after students and faculty worked together to hold back the flooding waters of the Mississippi River, became one of the first ecumenical theological consortiums in the world.

Each October people walk for CROP (Communities Responding to Overcome Poverty), appreciating one another and the fact that we of many faiths can do much together to say "no" to the injustice of hunger. On Thanksgiving Eve people join together in Dubuque for an interfaith service. The offering supports PIN (People in Need).

Dubuque Area Christians United is now Dubuque Area Congregations United, becoming interfaith. The mission: "Through prayerful dependence on God and respectful cooperation with each other, we will make a difference in our world by fostering an awareness and understanding of human need."

Change is not without resistance, however. Forces of fear push back. We Lutherans speak not just about the Reformation but about being an ongoing reforming church, particularly toward justice and peace. And there are still promises of Vatican II to be realized. That historic three-year assembly (1962-1965) would change the way the Roman Catholic Church viewed themselves, their church and the rest of the world.

The Reformation and Vatican II breakthroughs provided radical new possibilities for all kinds of people to serve within the church and to make significant vocational contributions to society. There was a break from reliance on authority in a person's determining what to think and what to do in the world. The restoration of unity among all Christians was one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Pope John XXIII said that the unity of the Church was the compelling motive for his calling the Council.

Today, our challenge is not more narrow, but even more broad. I often say, whether in the classroom, a faith community, a neighborhood, city or the world itself, "How do we set and maintain trustworthy environments for us to be difference together?" How do we appreciate a healthy pluralism where leaders encourage and empower people of faith to become actors in the drama of being agents of change for the sake of the world?

Pope John XXIII said frequently that he convened the council because he thought it was time to open the windows and let in some fresh air. For some that became a gale force. The changes didn't stop when the Mass ended. Women and men in religious orders started taking on causes. It hasn't stopped. This summer Nuns on the Bus rolled across this country calling for just economic policies.

We live in a time when people in the public sphere both watch and reject religious leaders. The role of clerical leadership in the community has been redefined. Today, the greatest gift leaders, from parish pastors to bishops (we Lutherans have bishops, too), give is a sense of God's calling to serve our neighbors, working together with leaders of other faith communities, non-profit organizations and the network of civic leadership.

More challenges call. For example, the new group, a "Culture of Nonviolence Coalition," including people from a wide variety of Dubuque religious and community groups met for just the third time last Saturday, discerning which actions to take at the local, state and federal level to address our culture of violence.

What ecumenical and interfaith experiences are you part of today? What challenges lie before us as we are called to work together in a world in need of justice and healing?