Long before Matthew Clark, future bishop of Rochester, arrived to study in Rome, plans were in the works for the Second Vatican Council to address major changes in the church and in a world that had been rocked by two world wars and the horror of the Holocaust.
Bishop Clark was a seminarian in Rome during Vatican II’s first, third and fourth sessions. He recalled great excitement about the council’s work among seminarians and graduate students. Grad students, for example, had the opportunity to hear the views of prominent Catholic speakers who had traveled to the council, he recalled.
"It was quite exciting," Bishop Clark said. "It was a very hopeful time. Looking back on it we were very, very young and in a sense inexperienced. I’m forever grateful that the beginnings of my priesthood came at that time."
Now, 50 years after Pope John XXIII called for the council, debate about implementation of the Second Vatican Council continues in the church and diocese — and also continues to frame his tenure as a bishop. When Bishop Clark gets together with friends even now, the discussion often turns to the early days of the council.
"We grew up with a certain concept of a church, a certain pastoral situation, and a certain liturgical expression, and all of that was now coming into considerable change," Bishop Clark said. "All of us in some way or another had to find out the way to do that personally — to give ourselves to it as best we could, whether we were enthusiastic about it or not — but I think there was a basic attitude of enthusiasm and hope and genuine joy."
As he noted in "The Fire in the Thornbush," his 1982 pastoral letter on the role of women in the church, the Second Vatican Council built on the church’s legacy of responding to contemporary issues.
"It has ever been the task of the Church to let the questions of the day challenge and deepen her understanding of that heritage," Bishop Clark wrote in the pastoral letter. "It is this kind of dialogue between believers and their culture, given encouragement in Vatican Council II, which under the guidance of the Holy Spirit keeps us growing toward the full stature of Christ. The Church must teach faithfully in every age; and we must be ready to learn in every age."
Becoming bishop of Rochester in 1979, he was tasked with continuing the implementation of Vatican II reforms that had been begun by his predecessors, Bishop Joseph L. Hogan, Bishop — later archbishop — Fulton J. Sheen and Bishop James E. Kearney.
"They were visionary men, and they were committed to doing all they could to help interpret, initiate and support the renewal to which we were called by the council," Bishop Clark said. "They were willing to wade into the issue with all of its controversy and challenges in a very generous spirit."
Among the major liturgical changes arising from the council were rotating the celebrant’s position at Mass to face the faithful; translating the Mass into English and other languages; permitting lay people to serve as lectors and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion; and distributing Communion in the hand.
"I think the liturgy as we celebrate it today is inviting," Bishop Clark said, reflecting on the effect of the changes. "It’s inclusive. I think the Scripture is much more available now as it was earlier. I think the preaching is richer and more meaningful to people. I think people feel a part of our celebration in ways they might not have before."
He noted that the hard work that went into implementing Vatican II reforms in the Diocese of Rochester was apparent at his installation.
"That liturgy was the symbol of a tremendous amount of work of study and negotiation and struggling together to put flesh on something that excited people and also was seen as a threat to other people," he recalled.
Such challenges are still keenly felt, according to Timothy Thibodeau, a Nazareth College professor who specializes in the history of the Catholic Church and the papacy. Having served as an altar boy at his home parish in Maine in the years immediately after the council, Thibodeau recalled the confusion and pain caused there by the rapid implementation of liturgical changes.
"It was really chaotic and confusing," he said. "Thinking of my own experience in my parish, I remember how upset and angered the older people were. There was a lack of understanding and explanation."
Demographic studies have shown that some Catholics left the Roman Catholic Church in the years after Vatican II and went to Eastern rite and Orthodox churches and other faiths, Thibodeau said. He noted that some who opposed the changes did not necessarily oppose the documents of Vatican II, but merely the way they had been interpreted.
"It has been a reaction not to Vatican II, but a reaction to things done in the name of Vatican II," Thibodeau said.
Yet even as some Catholics were put off by the changes, others were extremely eager to adopt them, Bishop Clark said.
"I think it’s one of the strengths of the church that over time these things came to be better understood and some people who were initially quite reluctant about the whole thing now find it very good for them," he said.
Both Bishop Clark and David Stosur, associate professor of systematic theology and liturgy at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford, noted that translation of the Latin Mass remains a continuing subject of debate over Vatican II.
"The council actually says that Latin is the official language of the church, but where it is helpful for the participation of the people, the vernacular can be employed," Stosur said.
Following the council, the Latin Mass was translated into English and other languages using the philosophy of "dynamic equivalence," which attempted to maintain the flow and poetic beauty of the original Latin and idioms common to the language in which it was being translated, even if it was not a word-for-word translation, Stosur said. Today, work is being done on a new translation of the Mass that is expected to produce a much more literal translation.
Throughout disputes over translations or disagreements over liturgical forms, the faithful should remember that all these things are meant to help bring us to Christ, Bishop Clark said. Catholics also should be nourished constantly by God’s word, the Eucharist, and the encouragement of brothers and sisters in faith, he said.
"I or others may agree or disagree with this or that point, but I think we all agree that the liturgy is never static because our understanding of our faith and how we express it in liturgy is nourished in it by the liturgy," Bishop Clark said.
Another aspect of liturgical changes inspired by the council was its call for the laity — through the investiture of their baptisms — to take an active role in the church on matters about which they have special knowledge, Stosur said.
The council’s "overall vision on the role of the laity was to be the witness of church in the temporal world," he said.
Bishop Clark explored this topic in "The Fire in the Thornbush," and the question of how to engage energetic and enthusiastic women in worship and ministry remains relevant today, Thibodeau said.
"The Vatican Council invited us to reconsider who we are as a people and to take a fresh look at how we relate to the world in which we find ourselves," Bishop Clark said. "To me those are the deepest and beautiful challenges of the Vatican Council, to me those are the things that we are trying to understand and live out and reinterpret."
In encouraging the laity to new participation, Bishop Clark built on Bishop Hogan’s pastoral letter, "You Are Living Stones," which explained some of the sweeping changes brought about by Vatican II, according to Father Michael Conboy, diocesan director of priest personnel and a close friend of the late Bishop Hogan. The pastoral letter called on pastors and religious to be renewed in their missions, and for the laity to take a more active role throughout the diocese.
"Bishop Clark, in my opinion, has adopted that framework as a basis for his own ministry," Father Conboy said.
Father Conboy noted that Bishop Clark has faced many challenges never envisioned during Bishop Hogan’s time and has dealt with dramatic change in the diocese. The priest noted that Bishop Clark is known for drawing on the Gospel, ingenuity, a collaborative spirit and an active prayer life in meeting challenges.
"That prayer is located in the Holy Spirit, which operates through him," Father Conboy said. "It doesn’t mean that there isn’t any pain or difficulty, but you can be assured that things are going hopefully in the right direction."
Bishop Clark noted that the church has changed greatly from his own pre-Vatican II upbringing.
"There was a time when I was growing up as a boy, if you went to Sunday Mass, you normally saw two or … more servers, all of whom were boys, serving the Mass in beautiful and dignified ways, but you wouldn’t see any other laity participating that I can recall," he said. "Now if you look around our parishes, it’s a totally different experience in who participates and how."
The bishop noted that lay participation in Catholic Charities, catechetical education and other ministries also has increased in ways similar to the laity’s increased involvement in the liturgy.
"It’s hard for me to imagine going back to that earlier form, when in truth, the ordained really sort of ran everything and there was very little participation of the laity," Bishop Clark said.
Bishop Clark also has been very supportive of continuing ecumenical and interfaith dialogue as called for by the documents of Vatican II, Thibodeau said. The concrete expressions of his support have been groundbreaking agreements of cooperation and understanding with the local Jewish and Muslim communities.
"Bishop Clark has the reputation for leadership, not just in this diocese, but on a national level, on interfaith dialogue," Thibodeau said.
The bishop explained that ecumenical and interfaith relations have always been important to him because he has drawn from Jesus’ prayer that all should be one.
"I hope that’s not oversimplifying to say that that’s a divine mandate that we should be one family and that our interaction with one another should reflect that fact, and that we who profess to be followers of Christ should be endlessly and deeply challenged by the divisions that still exist among us," Bishop Clark said. "It’s a scandal in a way to the world that we are so divided when it’s Christ’s manifest will that we be one."
Thibodeau said the bishop’s participation in dialogue has been sincere and has moved from conversation into action.
"There’s a long trajectory with what Bishop Clark has tried to accomplish, and not without some controversy, to continue this process begun by John XXIII," Thibodeau said.
The council documents showed leadership in promoting the engagement of religious dialogue as a means to foster understanding, Thibodeau said. It’s work that may be even more important today, he said.
"As we sit here, people are being murdered for their religious faith all over the planet," Thibodeau said. "Religious violence is probably a greater threat to our world order than the old ideological beliefs are."
Unity should be the goal, and lacking that, the faithful should treat one another with respect and embrace the truth wherever it is found, Bishop Clark said.
"I think we’ve been pretty clear that while it’s our belief that our church retains all that we need to to know God in Christ, we don’t have a monopoly on the truth," Bishop Clark said. "We need to be open to our own frailty and humanity and fallibility, to truth available to us from whatever source."