If I asked you to play a word association game, and said, “Vatican II,” you might respond, “Mass in English” or “nuns not wearing habits.” The Second Vatican Council is usually associated with actions like the translation of the Latin Mass into vernacular languages and the abandonment of habits by congregations of Women Religious. It would come as a surprise to most Catholics that these reforms were not mandated by the Council; they were actions taken after the Council concluded.
Equally surprising to most Catholics would be the list of reforms mandated by the Council, but never enacted. The Council mandated that the texts and teachings of the Scriptures be made easily accessible to all Catholics (DV 22), and that all the faithful should read and pray with the Scriptures frequently. (DV 25) To emphasize the gravity of their commitment to promoting Scripture reading and a Scripturally based prayer life, the Bishops of Vatican II quoted Jerome, the translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible. Jerome, in his own inimitable style, wrote that “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” (Commentary on Isaiah, Prologue)
Today’s second reading provides an excellent illustration of what St. Jerome and the Second Vatican Council meant by the words, “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” This selection from the First Letter to the Corinthians is a small excerpt from a long instruction by Paul. Although it might not be obvious from the limited context of this reading, Paul was addressing a very complicated moral and religious issue facing the Corinthian congregation. The troublesome issue was the practice of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols.
It might seem strange to us that the Christians of Corinth would be troubled by a practice that appears so easy to avoid. It was, however, a very troublesome issue. Foods that had been sacrificed to idols were ubiquitous in large pagan cities such as Corinth.
Corinth was a center of government and trade. The practice of sacrificing food to pagan gods was not a strictly religious matter, at least not in the way that we would think of religion today. It was very common to sacrifice food to idols as a way to solemnize judicial and governmental acts, business agreements, weddings, funerals, and other social occasions.
In a city like Corinth, it would have been nearly impossible to avoid meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Doing so would have required abstaining from all social occasions and even family occasions, if one had non-Christian family members. Coupled with this near impossibility, the Christians at Corinth faced a second impossible task.
At least some of the members of the church at Corinth were converts from Judaism. Despite their conversion to faith in Jesus, they retained their absolute abhorrence of anything that even vaguely resembled idolatry. As a consequence, a number of members of the congregation faced a serious conflict of conscience. They had to choose between offending wider society or offending some fellow believers.
Paul’s advice on the subject was, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Avoid giving offence, whether to Jews or Greeks or the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved.” (1 Cor 10:31-33)
This passage of Scripture intends to form our faith and conscience; understanding Paul’s words leads us to understand Jesus and his teaching. Paul said that the moral metric for the baptized is the potential impact that one’s actions might have on other people. Seeking the greater glory of God always means seeking that which best serves one’s neighbor.
This brings me to another reform mandated by the Second Vatican Council, but never enacted. The Bishops at the Council placed great emphasis on the unique, ecclesial identity conferred by Baptism; encouraging the faithful to understand and reclaim their baptismal identity became a central focus of the Bishops’ reform efforts. (LG 7, 11, 31, 33)
Lent begins this Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday we participate in a communal act of repentance: the sign of ashes. All the faithful are required to fast, pray, and do penance during this season. The purpose of these Lenten practices is that we might reclaim and renew our Baptismal identity, according to the instruction given by the Second Vatican Council.
To that end, I recommend that every one of us make a daily effort to read the Scriptures and pray with the Scriptures. The fasting and penance we do for Lent will have no merit if it does not lead us to be more aware and appreciative of our communal identity as belonging to the Baptismal Covenant; the place to encounter the meaning of this identity is God’s Word.
If you’re not certain how to begin praying with the Scriptures, take Mark’s Gospel or the prophet Isaiah, read one phrase or sentence each morning. Remind yourself of that phrase or sentence throughout the day. Let the words of Scripture create an environment of reverence and gratitude in your thoughts. No great effort is required; be present to the Scriptures, and let the Scriptures be present to you. If you practice this prayer daily throughout Lent, you will grow in compassion toward other people, and grow in gratitude to God.
In a little over seven weeks, when Lent concludes, it will be very apparent whether or not your efforts were worthwhile. The measurement of success of Lenten penance, and every other activity in the life of faith, is the metric that St. Paul gave to the church at Corinth: “not seeking my own benefit but that of the many.” (1 Cor 10:31-33) Seeking the greater glory of God always means seeking that which best serves one’s neighbor.