A Time to Speak – The constant in life is change

Father Ronald J. Knott

Many times when Catholics use the phrase “changes in the church,” they assume that the only “changes” that have occurred have happened in their lifetimes — at Vatican Council II. When we think that way, we reveal a glaring ignorance of church history. 

The Council of Jerusalem is dated to roughly 15 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. That meeting was called to debate whether male Gentiles who were converting to Christianity were required to be circumcised — that is to become Jews first! 

A meeting was called to decide this issue because certain individuals were teaching that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Others disagreed. It was eventually decided not to make circumcision a requirement.

Another council, recorded in Acts of the Apostles, was called about how to deal with the problems brought on by the rapid growth of non-Jewish converts. Overwhelmed, the Twelve called the community together and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Select from among you seven reputable men whom we shall appoint to this task.” They presented seven men to the apostles to serve as deacons.

Not counting these two church councils, there have been 21 ecumenical councils to deal with changes in the church. 

It’s laughable to think that the church was “change resistant” before Vatican II. In my estimation, the best scriptural story to explain what happens during major cultural shifts is the story of the Exodus. 

In that story, the people of God are trapped in slavery in Egypt. They get an opportunity to escape and go to a country of their own. At first, they were excited thinking that happiness was right around the corner. In a desert for 40 years, they lost patience and began to yearn for their imagined “good old days” back in Egypt. 

The story of the Exodus teaches us that making a decision to change and setting out is the easy part — whether it is going on a diet, entering a treatment program or changing jobs. That is why so many people undergoing difficult changes often try to “go back to Egypt” when the “harshness of the desert” gets to be too much.

The Exodus story is a template for all difficult changes we set out to make. Here are two examples.

First, take the changes in the church initiated at Vatican Council II. For many of us, the control exerted from the top had become a version of slavery. For me, and many of the people who went through it, Vatican Council II was like “leaving Egypt.” 

Looking back, however, we were pretty naïve. It never crossed our minds that we would have to go through a “desert” with its many years of confusion and disappointment. 

As a result, some of our members now want to “go back to Egypt.” They idealize the “good old days” and tell themselves that “back then” things were not that bad compared to the chaos that Vatican II changes unleashed! Talk about selective memory!

Others of us are determined to push on, believing that if the Church is to survive, it must change and adapt just as it always has in the past. If it doesn’t change and adapt, it is doomed to become an inbred little cult that will shrink even more into irrelevance.

Second, our country is going through a similar crisis. Our country has been changing gradually for many years now. Most women, minorities and immigrants like the changes and the freedom that the past few years have brought. On the other hand, these changes are forcing others to give up their privileged positions of power and status. Those resisting these changes want to “return to Egypt,” to “the way America used to be,” when things were “better!” Better for them, of course! 

Trying to keep our country from changing, they are fighting a losing battle. Women are not going to stand back and shut up. African Americans are not going back to Africa or return to their slavery days. Immigrants are not about to give up their hopes to experience the “American dream.” Women will lead! Our country will continue to become browner. Immigrants will continue to arrive. 

No, we cannot “go back to Egypt,” no matter how uncomfortable this “desert” gets. 

Big changes are always like that — whether it is serious personal change, changes in our church or changes in our country. We are not dying. We are giving birth. In times like these, it is hard to know which pain is which! 

Father Ronald Knott is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville and formerly wrote the weekly Record column “An Encouraging Word.” He blogs at revjrknott.blogspot.com/.

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