09/25/2012 02:06 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

Vatican II: A Call to Break Down Barriers

"Finally, may Christ inflame the desires of all men to break through the barriers which divide them, to strengthen the bonds of mutual love, to learn to understand one another, and to pardon those who have done them wrong."

These words bring the encyclical Pacem in Terris to a monumental conclusion in that Pope John XXIII calls all of us to witness our differences, but more importantly embrace our common commitment to love. It is this very sentence from John XXIII's famous letter to the world, that captures well my understanding of Catholicism and the universal church. Over the past few months, I've been fortunate to encounter many people with regards to the essays I've written regarding the Catholic Church and the great love that I have for it. Although others may not always agree with my reflections and observations -- as I, too, may disagree with their perspective -- the reality is that our common identity as Christians unites us even amid our differences.

Whenever I encounter questions or even doubts regarding my faith, I find great comfort in turning to the words of John XXIII and the fathers of the Second Vatican Council. Consider for instance the following excerpt from Lumen Gentium, "If therefore in the Church everyone does not proceed by the same path, nevertheless all are called to sanctity and have received an equal privilege of faith through the justice of God." In this, the Council recognized that we all travel a unique path to God in our journey toward peace and justice. Even amid differences, the Council reinforced the singular nature of the human experience of God in Gaudium et Spes:

"For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man. He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin."

Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium are only two examples of how the prophetic voice of the Council called the Church out into the world and the world into the Church. In this way, the magnificent love which embodies Catholicism spoke prophetically through the Council's many sessions and subsequent documents. Still though, for me, the Council's greatest teachable moment is not found within the confines of a constitution or decree, but rather the dialogue which took place between people of faith from all over the world with starkly different lived experiences. Their willingness to engage in fruitful debate serves as an example for many of us feeling as if we are at a similar juncture in the history of the Church.

In fact, standing on a New York City sidewalk, I have engaged in debates with a number of people representing a multitude of opinions on issues facing the Church; however, the moment we enter the Church to celebrate the Eucharist the minutia that appeared to divide us is overcome by the love that unites us. It is this moment of unity that sheds all barriers and instead instills in us a sense of belonging, an attachment to those around us, and a willingness to share in the Eucharist from a single table. To some, this statement may seem like a gross exaggeration, especially to those who criticize either the Church or the diverse voices within the communion, however, to those I would say:
  • Visit Immaculate Conception in Astoria and see the great socioeconomic diversity that embodies this vibrant parish community;
  • Stop in for Mass on Sunday at the Church of St. Francis Xavier and witness the diverse families who call this community home;
  • Experience the prophetic work of St. Malachy's as they reach out to the theater community and senior citizens alike;
  • Attend Mass at the Church of the Holy Innocents, which reaches out to those finding comfort in either the Latin or the vernacular;
  • Travel up to the Church of St. Paul the Apostle and experience the lived wisdom of Servant of God Fr. Isaac Hecker, C.S.P., as the parish welcomes all; or
  • Meander into the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Midtown on a Sunday evening to experience their contemporary worship reaching thousands of New Yorkers from all walks of life or experience the Mass in Korean earlier in the day.
These are but a few examples from the city I call home, however, this is not isolated to New York City. The reality is that the Church is alive and fervently seeking to serve those with both physical and spiritual needs. It is this image of church that frequently misses the front page of The New York Times and The Washington Post, but lives on in the hope of many Catholics.

So perhaps you're wondering, "OK, got it, the Church is all about love, so what?" Well, it is this understanding of Church that I believe we all need to reflect on. Whether we consider ourselves more traditional or progressive, hold opposing views on life issues, disagree regarding the status of gay and lesbian people, prefer the Latin over the vernacular, or find ourselves divided by other issues, at the end of the day being people of faith unites us. For me, this is the universal lesson of the Second Vatican Council. In fact, if an ecumenical council were held in New York City today, it seems clear to me that the bishops would likely find themselves seated in different parishes on a Sunday, but united by the common thread that makes us one: ad quem ibimus, "Lord to whom shall we go" (John 6:68).

As a Church, I'm sure that we'll continue to experience what appear to be barriers that divide us, only to discover that they are doors which need only be opened. Although a building may be comprised of many rooms, we still call it a house. In the case of the Catholic Church, we should look to the Council for guidance and wisdom as we seek to make our house a place where no door is ever locked, but only awaiting a knock. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Church celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council at this juncture in its history as we work to open the doors that separate us to truly discover the Love and Truth that unites us.