I want to share with you a story I recently heard from my brothers. It is not factual, as I shall explain, but there is a core of truth that I want to reflect on and that I invite you to reflect on as well. It highlights a fundamental change in the Church since Vatican II, one which we sometimes forget about.
A few weeks ago my Uncle Bill (William Hasseler) died; he was my Mom’s younger brother. I was out of the country; two of my older brothers were on the West coast and none of us could get home for the funeral. So we tried to write a short memorial that could be shared with the family. One of my brothers recounted the following anecdote as part of it:
Our family’s relationship with Bill didn’t start so smoothly. When Lillian [our mother] became engaged to our father, she asked Bill to walk with her into the church and give her away at the altar. Fate stepped in the person of the priest, our future grandmother Ruth and our future father Antonio who banished Bill from the church and attendant ceremony as he had become a Lutheran in order to marry Kay [Bill’s wife]. Fortunately for all of us in the family both Bill and Kay let this slide off and they became fixtures in our family life as both of our families grew.
So it is true that my Uncle Bill became a Lutheran in order to marry Aunt Kay. And it is also true that my grandfather had died about five years before my Mom got married, and she did not like any of her uncles, so it would have made sense for her to think of asking her brother Bill to give her away. The rest of the story, however, cannot be factual. My parents were married in 1946, when Bill was 17. He did not meet Kay and get married until the early 1950s, after he joined the Army and served in the Korean war. I do not know who, if anyone walked my mother down the aisle, but at the time of the wedding the only objection to having Bill do it would have been his age.
When I pointed this out to my brothers they conceded that it could not have happened the way they described it, but they did remember our Father making a scene at least once when they were little with Uncle Bill about his “apostasy. ” (My word: my father–no theologian–would have been much more blunt.) I am much younger than them: by the late 60’s when I have my first memories of Uncle Bill, this particular sore point seems to have healed over and I never remember the question coming up. (Of course, my family’s relationship with the Church was itself entering a rocky period at this time.)
There is a coda of sorts to this story. Forty years later, when my wife Gabrielle and I got married (and Uncle Bill and Aunt Kay were there), the Franciscan priest who married us, knowing that there were a number of non-Catholic Christians present, graciously extended an invitation to them to receive communion. I do not remember for certain whether Bill and Kay came up to receive communion, though I think they did not. For what it is worth, I was and remain of mixed minds about this (I do not recall if the priest asked me about doing this), and we can thrash out the pros and cons in the commboxes if any of you are interested. For the moment, I only bring this up to highlight how much things have changed since then.
And indeed, things have changed even more. Twenty years ago the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification made a strong case that Lutherans and Catholics are much closer together than 500 years of polemic would admit. The Pope regularly receives delegations of Lutheran bishops in Rome. Currently, the German bishops are debating opening communion to the Protestant spouses of Catholics in mixed marriages. In the US, some of the most conservative Lutherans maintain their traditional anti-Catholicism, but for the most part, there is a tacit agreement that we have a lot in common.
So why am I bringing this up? Partly, because it is family history, which in turn is intertwined with the history of the Catholic Church in America. I think it is important to remember how different our relations with Protestants were essentially a long generation ago. I have no direct memory of a time when inter-mingling, socially or religiously, with Protestants was forbidden, but for my older brothers, this was part of the natural order of things. The change brought about by Vatican II was both sudden and massive and we need to remember that this happened, and why. To slightly paraphrase a quote from Merlin in the movie Excalibur,
Remember! Always remember! For it is ever the doom of men to forget.
I had meant to write last fall about the 500-th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. This story, in some small way, reflects how we are slowly laying the ghosts of the Reformation to rest. But what other lessons can we draw from it?