At 14, I came close to being thrown out of my high school seminary for naively stating that I hoped the Eucharistic Scripture readings would one day be proclaimed in English.

During a private audience with the rector, I quickly learned about the "liturgical wars" being waged in American seminaries during that pre-Vatican II era -- and also to keep my mouth shut about such "radical" ideas.

Considering what later happened in Rome between 1962 and '65, my wish was harmless. So harmless, that those who have little knowledge of what our Church was like 50 years ago can't understand why anyone would have gotten uptight about it.

Looking back

It's one thing to look back at situations like the reformed liturgy; it's a totally different thing to actually live through them.

Sunday's three sacred authors are operating from the look-back position. The problem then didn't revolve around liturgical language. It arose over a more fundamental issue: What actions must followers of Jesus perform as outward signs that they're "saved"?

John the Evangelist (John 15:9-17) and the author of the second reading (I John 4:7-10) -- both writing in the late 90s -- answer that question in a way quite familiar to us modern Christians. The Gospel writer ends with Jesus' Last Supper statement: "This I command you: Love one another." The I John passage begins with the words, "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love."

For both writers, love of others is the one action Christians are always expected to perform. Yet we know from Paul's letter to the Galatians that many followers of Jesus believed there was one other essential action: All Christians had to be Jews. It took at least two generations before the early churches dropped the obligation to keep the 613 laws of Moses.

Luke (Acts 10:25-26,34-35,44-48) gives us just a glimpse of the "war" being waged over this issue. The key to understanding the passage is to know that Cornelius is a Gentile. While Peter is telling this Roman officer about Jesus, "the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word. The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles also."

The "Cornelius event" is Luke's sign that being a circumcised Jew isn't essential to being a Christian, especially when we return this passage to its original place in Acts: immediately after Peter is told in a vision that all foods (even those forbidden by Jewish law) are "clean."

Scripture scholars believe that such scenarios in Acts are more theological than historical. Things probably didn't happen in such a clear, exact way.

What God wants

It seems Luke, writing 50 years after the events he narrates, has simplified something that was originally quite complex. It's easy to see, once the issue has been resolved, what God wanted all along. But before a Church consensus about Gentile conversions was reached, the situation wasn't as black-and-white as Luke describes it.

In my own case, what was against Church teaching in 1954 actually became Church teaching by 1964.

I'm glad that those who were sensitive to liturgical reform back then never gave up the fight. If they had, we might never have discovered God's will.

(5/18/06)