My wife and I had come with the intention of sitting quietly in the back of the chapel. That seemed an accurate reflection of my present stance to the church — neither fully connected nor as completely dismissive as I once had been.
The problem was that there was no “back” to sit in. The old chapel, which had been reconfigured in the late 1960s to reflect Vatican II theology, had been reconfigured again. In the first reconfiguration, a new altar was placed closer to the congregation and faced the people, who sat on pews that stretched all the way to the rear of the chapel. With the second new look, in addition to these two altars, there was a simple wooden table at the center of the chapel, flanked by 50 comfortable, fabric-covered chairs, each half of the congregation facing the other — very good for a sense of intimacy and engagement, not so good for hiding.
We had come to Milwaukee for a reunion of the Saint Francis Seminary class; I was a member from 1957 through 1965. In 1995 I had written a book about our class, Married to the Church, in which I tried to make sense of our overall story as a group of men shaped by the traditional church, converted (for the most part) to a liberal Vatican II perspective and now dealing variously (and uneasily) with a church that has returned in so many ways to its traditional stances.
Although I had left the seminary and the church long ago, I felt connected to my classmates and still connected to the institution; I wanted to know how both were doing now. Somewhat to my surprise, my wife, Ivona — born to an atheist family in Poland and still skeptical of institutional religions — agreed to come with me. She had been unable to attend the 1985 reunion that had sparked my book and wanted to find out more about the classmates I kept talking about. I was glad she had decided to come but uneasy about how this group of believers would strike her, and vice versa.
What I was most worried about, for both of us, was the opening liturgy in the old Christ the King chapel. The chapel still constitutes the heart of the shrunken seminary, down from eight buildings in its prime to one now — and down from 29 priests ordained in 1969 (my class) to one or two a year now. I knew I couldn’t bring myself to receive communion, which is still too emotionally charged for me to partake in casually. But the primary celebrant, Father Matt, had been my most influential seminary teacher and counselor, and I wanted to acknowledge him by being there for the liturgy. So we came and quietly sat in the row closest to the side wall.
Despite my ambivalence, Father Matt’s sermon drew me in quickly, not so much through his message but through the passion he brought to it. At age 73 and in tenuous health, he nonetheless was completely there, immersed in what he was doing and in his connection with his listeners. When I complimented him after the ceremony, he shook his head, laughed, and said, “I was faking it, Ray.” But I don’t think so; I saw no falloff from the energy he had brought to teaching and preaching 43 years ago, when he and my class entered the seminary at the same time. His relish for what he did had had a lot to do with my own eventual choice of a teaching career.
What made his intensity all the more impressive is that he has maintained it in spite of severe reservations about the institutional positions and practices of the current church. I had known of his disenchantment for a long time; he confirmed it over dinner by recommending Garry Wills’s recent book, Papal Sin, a searing critique (by a committed Catholic) of the papacy’s tendency to perpetuate past mistakes in the interest of maintaining its claims to a history of unbroken institutional rectitude.
Father Matt’s discomfort was not a new note for me: In the extensive interviews I had conducted earlier with the priests in my class, the tension between their fierce commitment to their work and their equally deep uneasiness with the church today had been the dominant theme. It was a tribute to the force of Father Matt’s faith that he could still conjure such energy when his body was betraying him and his institutional distress had, if anything, heightened. I wondered once again whether the church knows what price it is exacting of its best representatives.
During other parts of the liturgy, my mind was elsewhere. I had not picked up a hymnal on our way in; I didn’t want that degree of engagement — and I did not want my once-notorious voice to draw attention to itself again. So while everyone else was singing, I looked around — and saw in the chapel itself, especially in its three altars, an intriguing encapsulation of the church’s entire history.
The original, 19th-century altar that I remembered from the early 1960s was still there against the back wall of the chapel, marble and massive, a clear manifestation of the traditional church’s sense of itself. There were two rows of Romanesque arches built into the lower levels of the altar, acknowledging the church’s roots in the classical world. Above them was the altar table itself with the tabernacle at its center, flanked by yet another row of arches — the classical world not eliminated by the tabernacle but now reflective of and deferring to it. Above that row stood four archangels, and above even them, the crucifix, focusing final attention on the God-man whose death presided over and gave meaning to everything beneath him. A five-tier altar befitting a church proud of its hierarchies and confident of who had trumped whom.
Twenty feet in front of that altar and one level of steps down from it, less removed from the congregation in both ways, stood the post-Vatican II altar, also marble but much smaller. It had its own row of Roman arches under the altar top: The church’s triumphant history was still there, but muted, scaled down. And the altar was now evidently a table, not a monument — marble to be sure, but gesturing laterally rather than up, reaching out into the world and (almost) level with it. That was the configuration I remembered from the 1985 reunion, when there was still a long row of pews stretching all the way back from the altar table to the entrance to the chapel. A more democratic church, though not without elements of hierarchy and distance.
Thirty feet in front of the old/new altar, three steps down from it and on the same level with the congregation, now sits the graceful, elegant wooden table — larger than a coffee table, smaller than a dining table — that was the center of today’s yet newer liturgy. Just the sort of table I would like to have in my home, it suggests that the spiritual realm can be reached through — is present in — the things of this world rather than in removal from or triumph over them.
Similarly, the chair in which Father Matt sat during various readings and hymns is not the imperial throne I remember from my days of serving Mass — that has in fact been removed from the chapel — but a wooden, fabric-covered chair, its back only 6 inches higher (though still higher, to be sure) than the similar chairs in which the rest of us are sitting as we flank the wooden altar/table. We are gathered here together not to insist on distinctions and emphasize hierarchies nor to remove us from this corrupt earthly realm, but — the church as people of God — to share a common enterprise that might bring us all together. The church, always a master of the symbolic, has not lost its touch.
The communion and its aftermath made it clear that the connective note extended — or at least could be made to extend — beyond the furnishings. The sharing of the wine required all who were to participate to leave their seats, gather around the midlevel altar rather than around the table — and leave behind the six of us who chose not to join in. Immediately afterward, the kiss of peace took place, with everyone already around the altar — classmates, spouses, seminary faculty — hugging, shaking hands, kissing.
At that point, several of my classmates rescued what loomed as an awkward moment: They stepped out of the inner circle and came back down the three steps that separated us to embrace my wife and me and the others who had stayed behind. In response, I went up the steps and embraced several of them. This was the most emotional moment of the evening for me: the warmth, the inclusiveness, the mutual acceptance across what could have been seen as barriers of belief and nonbelief. I know the kiss of peace is a ritual, and I know rituals can be empty. But my classmates had made an unscripted gesture in moving toward us, and I felt moved in a way that I never recall being moved during my nine years of attending Mass in the seminary.
The rest of the evening carried through on that note. Ivona, who was known to most of my classmates only through her presence in my book, was welcomed at every turn, and not superficially. She found these men — most of them believers about whom she had harbored her own suspicions — to be warm, open, interested and interesting. She did not find herself on the other side of the classmate/spouse divide that can poison reunions in general; more to the point, she did not find herself on the other side of the old “believer/non-believer divide” that could have reared its head in this particular reunion. If the church is indeed, now, the people of God, with everything that implies, then my classmates made the best case for the church that I have experienced in a long time.
But as we drove home, those three altars haunted me. For the last several years I have been teaching seminars and retreats on the subject of stories: how stories are the primary medium through which humans create and reshape a sense of coherence and direction — and therefore meaning — in our lives. The past, I always make a point of saying, is inevitably a part of our present; the beginning of our stories always continues to shape whatever middle we are in. Is this what the seminary is acknowledging through these three altars? Is their presence together in the same chapel a mature, healthy acknowledgment that the past is never fully past, that the old church, in its history and shaping effects, is still (of course, inevitably) part of the new church? Is the preservation of the old altar in particular a sign that the church, like anything with a history, is always a sum of all its parts, an accumulation of all its eras? Does the old seminary altar assert that “now” is never separate from or wholly free from “then,” that what the church is today is always defined in part by what it has been, that the past therefore should always be recognized and in that sense at least, honored? If these are the implications, all to the good; the continuing presence of the past is undeniable and there is little to be gained by denying it.
And yet, stirred by the uneasiness I had seen in Father Matt and which I already knew characterized most of the priests in my class, I couldn’t ward off darker thoughts as I looked at that massive altar looming in the back. What if its presence signals not simply a sense of history but a portent of things to come, of an insistently hierarchical church biding its time, waiting for the right moment to return and reassert itself even more openly? Is the old church primarily an impressive thing of the past — and in that sense still leaving its mark on the present — or is it still very much alive, waiting patiently in the shadows, willing to let the current church entertain for a time its Vatican II notions of inclusion, relative democracy and openness but secure in the conviction that its own time will come again?
In present-day Rome the past exists, to be sure, but mainly as ruins. The Roman Empire shows no sign of reviving; the Coliseum does not suggest the immanent revival of lethal gladiatorial contests. Sixteenth-century Saint Peter’s, of course, is still fully functional, a reminder that at the highest level the new church is indeed the old church. But even here in the democratized seminary chapel, the intentions and direction of the present church — the church as “people of God” — are not entirely clear. Where is the center of the seminary chapel: at the table in the midst, on a level with its surroundings or at the intimidating altar in the back, ready and waiting once again to move front and center precisely by not moving at all?
Not that even now the old church has receded very far; there is no need to catalogue once again its insistent stands on birth control, the ordination of women, celibacy. In that sense, any Catholic chapel or church that presented only a simple table as its center would offer a deceptive symbol to its people, suggesting a degree of church transformation that has not taken place. Still, the new church is real in its own right. The rise of the laity, the pervasive sharing of authority with them on the local level, the new openness to and respect for people not sworn to the “one true faith” — these are genuine and powerful gestures. I felt the presence of that church at my reunion, and I was moved by it. But how long will this openness last? How to weigh its importance in the context of other trends that are more ominous? In their conversations with me, my classmates spoke repeatedly of the older generation of priests, many of whom never made peace with Vatican II; my classmates see them as representative of an old church whose day has passed but who deserve respect. They spoke more anxiously, however, of the younger generation coming up behind them, a generation they see as deeply invested in reviving the trappings, aura and dictates of the old church — and with the patience and energy to do it. A wooden table is a lot easier to remove than a massive marble altar. Which church, which aspects of a very complex church, will prove more enduring?
I know my priest classmates are wondering this, as they watch movements within the church and speculate on papal succession. They long for something akin to the fall of the Berlin wall (their image, not mine): an unlikely near-miracle against the grain of all realistic expectation. My reunion exuded the spirit of the Vatican II church, and I felt at home, welcomed, valued even in my distance from the institution. But is the Vatican II church the current church? Was the spirit of that reunion an accurate reflection of the current church? Or was it the result of my classmates’ personal willingness to assert the values of the church they believe in against the grain of the institution that does not, for them, represent that church — a distinction so many of the current laity make on a daily basis and which, I discovered to my surprise in writing my book, characterizes my classmates’ generation of priests as well?
My class’s reunion invited me to feel, in fact, reunited — and to think about the issue of reuniting with the church. What would reuniting mean? What kind of partner would someone like me be reconnecting with if he were to pursue that impulse? Would it be reconnecting with a transformed spouse, more attractive and compatible in her values than the one I left? Or would it be the old spouse, dressed a little differently but unchanged at the core? Are there others out there — divorced from the church, but never wholly separated from it; not seeking a remarriage but wondering more than idly just what that might offer — asking the same question?
Ray Hedin is the author of Married to the Church and a professor of English at Indiana University, Bloomington.