Just Good Company
A Cyberjournal of Religion and Culture
Link to Text-only Table of Contents


Vatican II – Before, During, and After


Some Personal Anecdotal Reflections

John J. Deeney

—“Be agents of change in society … We are faced with an impossible task unless those very structures are changed.”
(Pedro Arrupe, Jesuit General)

—“These are the times that try men’s souls.” (Thomas Paine, American patriot)

I had just completed two years of intensive Chinese language studies in Taiwan when Pope John XXIII announced in January 1959 that he would convoke the Church’s 21st ecumenical council. For the next three years, during the Council’s preparation period, I worked on my doctorate in literature in the U.S. Then, near the end of that ordeal, I had the good fortune of being the last Jesuit accepted to do my theology along with some 300 other Jesuits at Woodstock College in Maryland. Many of them already had Ph.D.’s in everything from astrophysics to zoology and almost everyone else seemed to have earned at least a Master’s degree. The superior, was one of the most open and enlightened Jesuits I had ever met. (It was perhaps no accident that that marvelous human being left the Society not many years later – to marry.) Somehow he managed to hold this remarkable mass of disparate talent together in a vibrantly happy community life.

For me, this was a heady time, intellectually and spiritually – principally because Woodstock had such a great faculty. At the time, that faculty included Avery Dulles (now Cardinal Dulles), Joseph Fitzmyer (world-class Scripture scholar), Walter Burghardt (patristics expert and famous preacher), Gustave Weigel (church historian and humorist), and the very distinguished and rather stiff John Courtney Murray. He was a kind of “living cathedral on wheels”– but his door was always open.

Murray and Weigel were flying back and forth from frequent meetings in Rome helping to prepare for the Council. Their prognostications were not optimistic. Courtney Murray had been singled out for the conservative Cardinal Ottaviani’s special wrath because of Murray’s rather liberal ideas on the relations between the Church and the socio-political order. He had been officially excluded from the first session of the Council, but Cardinal Spellman insisted that he participate in the following sessions as one of the Council’s official periti. Courtney Murray was largely responsible for the final (sixth) draft of the “Declaration of Religious Freedom” which he referred to as “the most controversial of the whole Council” and “the greatest argument on religious freedom in all history.”

After the Council’s first session, Weigel came back, particularly discouraged, and reported: “There is only one person in Rome who wants this Council to succeed and that is Pope John, but he is being boxed in on all sides.” Weigel peppered his Church history lectures with many a humorous aside to keep us attentive. I will always remember his gloss on Thomas A’Kempis’s “I would rather feel compunction than be able to define it,” with his own mischievous take: “And I’d rather feel concupiscence than be able to define it”!

After my first year at Woodstock (in 1961-62), I was invited to stay for my remaining three years of theology, but I decided to go back to the Chinese Pontifical Theologate, in Philippine exile after the Communist defeat of the Nationalists in the 1949 Civil War. I thought, mistakenly, that there would be an all-out effort in this Chinese theologate to teach every aspect of theology in the context of Chinese culture. After all, the entire faculty was dedicated to the China apostolate. But I would soon learn it didn’t give much of a dam about Chinese culture. Moving from Woodstock to Baguio was probably the biggest mistake of my Jesuit life. That led me up and down a multi-dimensional zigzaggery of confusing paths. Intellectually and emotionally, I never quite got over it.

#

I pen these lines on July 4, America’s Independence Day and, appropriately, a fitting time to trace my own personal declaration of independence from certain Church structures. The first warning sign I can recall on my long Jesuit journey occurred in 1951, two years after I had entered the Society of Jesus from St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco. We were being congratulated on taking our first vows when a rather somber Jesuit priest came up to me and said, rather ruefully, “And now the long road to disillusionment begins.” Two years later as I was about to enter three years of philosophy, his words were echoed by the California superior after he asked what other studies I was interested in. I said I’d like to study literature. “Why?” he asked. Among other things, I said: “Because I think it will also help me learn more about human nature.” He looked at me coldly and said, “You will learn all you have to know about human nature in philosophy.” Their words were like stop signs that appeared out of nowhere, but I just came to a rolling stop and moved on. Stubborn and hardheaded character that I am, it took me another 26 years of Jesuit life before I reached a fork in the road and made my decision to leave the Society.

My account is necessarily subjective and critical. But it is all true. Whatever misgivings I may have had about the Church and the Jesuits during all those years, I remain deeply loyal and grateful for the genuine love and generous training I received from both. If I hadn’t experienced all that Ignatian spirituality gave me and if I had not been inspired by Pope John XXIII’s aggiornamento, I would be much less a person than I am today. Many things in the Church and the Society of Jesus have changed for the better, though much, of course, always remains to be done. I do not relate the anecdotes that follow in a spiteful spirit. I add them to the historical record, to share some of what it was like to have lived through and beyond the Vatican Council as a Jesuit in Asia. My truest and primary vocation has always been China.

I left the Jesuits in 1979 when we accepted the fact of our “irreconcilable differences,” but I have never left China. I am still teaching in Taiwan today. Although new paths have opened up, my spiritual guidebooks still remain the Bible and The Documents of Vatican II.

#

Immediately after taking my examinations at Woodstock, I flew off to the Chinese theologate in the beautiful mountain resort town of Baguio overlooking the South China Sea where classes had already started. Never have I experienced such spectacular sunrises and sunsets! I was exhausted after the long flight, to say nothing of the fact that, in order to complete my dissertation and prepare for classes at Woodstock, I had been getting along on 5 or 6 hours of sleep a day. The first trivial–though ominous–sign occurred a few hours after I arrived. I had collapsed into an exhausted sleep only to be rudely awakened a short time later and told that I must report for Vespers in the chapel with the rest of the community. This was my first introduction into the stern, Jansenistic asceticism of the theologate matched only by its stifling medieval dogmatism.

Meanwhile, the first session of the Council had concluded on December 8, 1962, and Pope John had passed away. Much else died with him. But Pope Paul VI seemed committed to carry on with Pope John’s aggiornamento, and he urged the Council Fathers to continue what they had begun – to engage in ecumenical dialogue with other religions (including those of Buddhism, Islamism, etc.) and, especially with the modern world. In December, 1963, they promulgated the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy with its encouragement for the faithful to celebrate Mass in the vernacular – with a priest who was facing them, for a change).

But the directors of our pontifical theologate in Baguio, still had us facing in the opposite direction – in more ways than one. They trained us to say Mass in Latin and they tested us on all 500-plus rubrics for its “proper celebration.” In fact, we were still conducting all our classes in Latin. During the “break” periods between and after classes we were not allowed to speak at all and, during “recreation” periods, we were expected to speak Chinese. Speaking Chinese was fine by me because I wanted to retrieve the little bit of Chinese I had studied five years earlier. I also welcomed the opportunity to broaden my horizons by being an American minority member of an international community where there were also Austrians, Canadians, Chinese, French, Germans, Italians, South Americans, Spaniards, and Swiss. But my hopes of studying theology in a Chinese context were hopelessly dashed. It was as if the Council never happened. They had us studying from Latin textbooks edited by conservative Spanish authors and they never allowed us to depart from the system of old-fashioned “proofs” derived from syllogistic reasoning, Church authority, tradition, and a pro forma smidgen of quotations from the Bible. They put even more formidable bumps in the road ahead.

The faculty gave us little access to publications that were not in line with their conservative thinking. They did not encourage us to study in the context of what was going on at the Vatican Council. They prided themselves on the fact that they were a Pontifical Institute, not seeming to realize that this accolade was based on simple, “blind obedience” to all and any of Rome’s directives rather than on independent and critical thinking. They interpreted the officially promulgated conciliar decrees in ways that suited their old traditional thinking. I should have realized what was up when I learned that the professor of Scripture was not allowed to teach any passages from the Bible that were being used at the same time by the professor of Dogma. It was as if there was a “Do Not Enter” sign at the entrance to the dogmatists’ turf – from which all roads led to Rome. They did this to protect us mere neophytes from being confused by the possible discrepancies that might appear when a clearly-defined doctrinal statement was not so clearly supported by a token snippet or two from scripture. The Bible professor might make the “mistake” of informing us that such and such a scripture passage did not really mean what the dogma professor claimed it meant.

But, even when the professor of Scripture confined himself to his own discipline, he led a self-blinkered existence about how other pertinent disciplines like archeology, linguistics, literary theory and criticism might complement his own. I had just come from three years of training in literature where “ambiguity” had no pejorative connotations, where ambiguity only underscored the rich, multi-layered levels of significance and connotations that language has. For me the Bible was also a literary document. I suggested, during one class, that the words about the rejection of Christ as the “Light,” in the beginning of St. John’s gospel, “and the darkness grasped [from the Latin, comprehendere] it not,” might not only mean to intellectually understand something, but also could retain its metaphorical meaning of physical grasping, overpowering, or imprisonment. He said, no, that it had to be one or the other.

Fortunately, this “either . . . or” vs. “both . . . and” dichotomy was resolved, partially at least, by the Council. Near the end of my theological training manqué, the Council was about to publish De Ecclesia, its pivotal document on the nature of the Church not only as structure but also as mystery. The document was laced with multiple references to Scripture and described the Church through beautiful biblical metaphors such as Flock, Vineyard, Temple, Spouse, etc. Alas, De Ecclesia was too late to filter down to our class of theologians.

On another occasion, I was assigned to defend a theological thesis that opened itself to obvious objections from a non-Christian culture like the Chinese. The procedure was for one student to present the thesis according to the fixed medieval tradition of argumentation (State of the Question, Terminology, Adversaries, Syllogistic Proof including Church Teaching, Ancient Tradition, the required Scripture Snippet or two), and for another to offer “objections” which were demolished by a series of pat syllogisms. I asked one of my Chinese classmates if he would like to participate and offer some real objections from a Chinese point of view. He agreed and I went to the Dean to get his permission to proceed. He condescendingly replied that such a procedure was absolutely out of the question and that we were to continue going by the book, that is, to virtually memorize what was in the Latin textbook. This obstacle course to real learning was gradually wearing most of us down.

In desperation, I tried to devote my spare time to relating what I was studying in theology to my love for literature. I produced a paper on Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (perhaps the first book on how to read a book) and traced Augustine’s thoughts on the use of figurative language and its relationship to the proper reading of the Bible. The article was published but when the faculty got wind of it, instead of being delighted that one of their students had published something relating theology and scripture to literature and criticism, I was admonished for distracting myself and not concentrating on pure theology! So much for liberating Vatican II reforms at Baguio.

There was some comic relief outside the theologate, however, when we had a chance to take side trips from our usual straight and narrow theological routings, and were able to intermingle with the friendly and fun-loving Filipino population. Baguio was close to a number of aborigine villages and, occasionally, we would walk in that area. Once we came across one of the many roadside shrines dedicated to the Blessed Mother at the bottom of which was inscribed, “PRAY FOR US.” An aborigine was standing nearby, muttering, “And why should I pray for the U.S.?” On another occasion we saw a huge billboard with the words, “Jesus is the answer!” Underneath it someone had scrawled in large letters, “But what is the question?” I am sure John XXIII would have got a good chuckle out of that, but certainly not most of our humorless teachers who were like Blake’s “Priests in black gowns … walking their rounds,/And binding with briars my joys and desires.”

Lest we be distracted or corrupted by worldly matters, we were not given access to the radio or TV, and all “secular” publications were heavily censored with black crayon, especially photographs or sketches of women. In order to escape this stifling atmosphere, I would sometimes go to the library and borrow books on Chinese and Western art. Upon opening a couple of these illustrated works, I was shocked to observe that the “private parts” of all the nudes had been covered in masking tape! When I asked one of my artistic classmates if he was aware of this, he confessed that he had been ordered to do the “masking” because – being an artist – superiors thought he would be less likely to be unduly influenced. He smiled and turned to a page that he claimed was his masterpiece of censorship. It was the depiction of the famous temptation scene where Buddha, sitting in meditation under the Bodhi tree, was surrounded by naked dancing girls. My ingenious friend had painted hip-high diaphanous skirts on each one of the temptresses.

In a fury, I went to the superior with these desecrated books in hand and argued for over two hours that such an adolescent practice be stopped. I naively thought I had persuaded him – he even agreed with some of my arguments from psychology and common sense – and when I said, “Well, I’m glad you agree to stop this kind of censorship,” he responded firmly: “Oh no! I am responsible for protecting these young theologians.” I sputtered, “And who is going to protect them when they leave here and join the real world? What happened to the Jesuit ideal of training the ‘whole man’?” As I was going out the door, his parting shot was: “If you think this is unreasonable, just consider it a kind of training for all the more unreasonable things you will be asked to do under holy obedience in the future.” Ah, yes, there were many more bumps in the road to come.

Another very talented American classmate decided to wait until the top superior of all the Jesuits in Southeast Asia visited us. In light of what he was reading in the Vatican II documents, he complained about all the “sandbox” games we were playing and the uselessness of the irrelevant theological sandcastles we were building. Many of them, he said, would crumble away as one more kind of irrelevant Western speculation before the very practical and down-to-earth values of Chinese culture. The superior was shocked and aghast: “Don’t you realize this is not just an ordinary theologate; it is one of the few highly ranked Pontifical Institutes in the world!” To which, my rather brash and outspoken classmate replied (knowing the superior’s German origins and emphasizing the last word): “This is a pontifical kindergarten!” Needless to say, by mutual consent, he left Baguio to continue his studies in California.

Meanwhile, I continued to try and learn more about the language and culture of China from my Chinese classmates who suffered in silence despite all the mis-training that they had been inflicted upon them. Imagine! They were being brainwashed by constant exposure to Western humanities, philosophy, theology, and spirituality, etc. and all this training was conducted in Latin! And, then, were expected to go out and “convert” the Chinese world that they had left 15 years before! As a Westerner, I felt guilty by association. In fact, it was only after a long period of testing by my Chinese classmates that I was gradually welcomed into their confidence. And what an earful I got. They taught me much more about the largely unfortunate history of the Church in China than all the books I had read on the subject. During this daily process of personal cross-cultural communication with my Chinese classmates, I began to realize what a long way the post-conciliar Church had to go before it could begin to understand, appreciate, and communicate with the Chinese mind.

#

I am about midway through my account here and I feel it is necessary to digress a bit on the “missionary” character of the “old China hand,” sometimes facetiously described as, “five shaky fingers around a Scotch glass.” In truth, most of the Jesuits I knew were part of the great tradition of St. Francis Xavier and Matteo Ricci. They were generous and dedicated men, but nurtured on a highly individualistic “only Jesus-and-me” vertical spirituality and an asceticism of constant personal sacrifice. Naturally (or should I say, “supernaturally”), they did not manifest an expectation or desire for any kind of affective community life. They commanded respect, though not always affection.

Despite our many differences of opinion, I admired all these men for their hard work and persevering devotion to their vocation.

I knew a number of these men who had heroically endured mental and physical torture for years in Chinese Communist prisons. One especially touching incident stands out in my mind. This particular Jesuit had been thrown into a squalid, toiletless prison cell already crowded with 13 women (he called it his “harem”). One of the women was desperate because she had no milk to suckle her newborn. Father took a stale, meager crust of bread and munched on it until it had become a kind of gruel in his mouth. He then fed the infant from his own lips and saved its life.

#

To return now to my narrative. I was ordained a priest in 1964 and, then, sent to Manila to complete my final 16th year of Jesuit training. We lived in a place that had been given the same name as our Chinese language school, “Chabanel Hall.” Ironically, the school was named after a 17th-century French Jesuit missionary and martyr who – despite his heroic efforts – never was able to learn the American Indian language and loathed their savage customs. It was a former World War II Japanese concentration camp in the outskirts of Manila, on a scorched, arid, desolate plain, and we were housed there in mosquito-ridden corrugated-iron ovens, without benefit of air-conditioning. We dubbed it “Chabanel Hell.” This was a final year of testing to “mortify” us and to keep us humble by a variety of physical and spiritual tasks. This was also the place where we made a 30-day retreat in prayer and silence, recapitulating the same month-long spiritual adventure we had undertaken during our first year as Jesuit novices. I’ll never forget what the retreat master told me when I asked why he never made eye contact with us when he read from his carefully prepared text during the five long, spiritual talks he gave us every day. Unabashed, he responded simply, “You distract me.”

Despite the circumstances, my fellow inmates and I were fairly optimistic because our time of liberation was near at hand and the Vatican Council was drawing to a close with some astounding reform documents. Unfortunately, we were too late to benefit from the Council documents on Priestly Formation and Renewal of Religious Life, but we were ecstatic about the last four texts promulgated: The Church in the Modern World, The Ministry and Life of Priests, Missionary Activity and Religious Freedom (so different from the traditional doctrine espoused by some theologians about “No salvation outside the Church.”)

Adding to our enthusiasm was the fact that the Jesuits were holding their own General Congregation (May-July, 1965 and September-November 1966) to which all were invited to send suggestions. At this crucial crossroads in the Church’s history, we felt we were on the cutting edge of a post-Vatican II world, and tried to establish some useful signposts that might give a better direction to the outmoded kind of training we had been receiving. Our superior was suspicious and uneasy about our activities, but despite admonitions from him hinting at insubordination, disobedience, etc., we continued to meet and drafted a number of practical proposals to our leaders in Rome. Perhaps, this is what he meant, later on, when he said I seemed to have a problem with authority. He certainly would not have approved of another reference to authority that some wag gave to Jesuit-style governance as “an absolute monarchy attenuated only by the insubordination of its subjects and the incompetence of its superiors.” To our dismay, a “Judas” in the group revealed our “nefarious” activities to the superior. We were further admonished and – to add further insult to injury –our betrayer was put in charge of conducting all future meetings. Well, we tried.

My most distinct memory of this dreadful experience was my final meeting with the superior before I was to be sent out to “set the world on fire” with missionary zeal. He began by telling me that he and his advisors had unanimously agreed on my case. I waited, breathlessly, expecting to be told of some major flaw in my training or character defect that would somehow sidetrack my career of service to the Chinese universities in Taiwan where I had been accepted to teach. He said: “We all agree”. . . [dramatic pause] . . . that you eat too much . . . and . . . too slowly.” (The custom was that everyone ate together and no one could leave until the last person had finished. I had a healthy appetite, but some members of the faculty were living with half a stomach or less, and they were anxious not to be late for their favorite TV programs.) I should have been flattered, I suppose, that this was all they had on me. Instead, I gaped, dumbfounded, and then blurted out a matching incongruity: “And I don’t like the way you part your hair.” This flippant remark was not in keeping with my usually docile and cooperative manner but was, I suppose, a measure of my exasperated frustration. Communication kind of fell apart at that point and it was with a feeling of mutual good riddance that I set off on my teaching career in Taiwan.

My “intellectual apostolate” among Chinese in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the China Mainland actually began in the fall of 1965. My experience in Taiwan was as successful and exciting as community life at the Jesuit residence I had been assigned to was an unmitigated disaster. I should have known after my first “formal” introduction to the community. Despite my protests that I was the youngest and least experienced member of the community, my well-intentioned superior insisted I give the monthly spiritual exhortation since I was up-to-date on the reforms of Vatican II. I reluctantly agreed and picked out three of my favorite themes from the Documents of Vatican II that had become my second bible. I amply supported my points by duplicating scores of quotations to illustrate the themes of Change, Unity, and Cooperation.

At lunch which followed after the talk, a fellow Jesuit said, “Well, it was nice, for a change, to have someone talk to us rather than read at us” (Exhortations were usually read from a carefully prepared text). I naively said, “This time I was a bit nervous so I had to talk from an outline. Next time, I won’t even use an outline but just speak from the heart.” He replied, “There won’t be a next time.” I lived in that community for 13 years; there was no next time.

If I needed a reminder of the true state of affairs, it occurred a few months later when I was discussing the on-going Jesuit General Congregation with a fellow Jesuit. Despite many obvious difficulties, I was hopeful about the ultimate success of this post-Vatican II meeting and said: “We shouldn’t be pessimistic. The Vatican Council also had its difficulties, but the Holy Spirit finally stepped in and look at the wonderful results.” He curtly replied, “You think the Holy Spirit inspired the Council. I am convinced it was the devil!”

A year after I began my university teaching, I was asked to become the graduate chairman of the Literature program. This was very flattering, of course, especially since I was following in the footsteps of Taiwan’s most distinguished man of letters who had retired. Unfortunately for me, I was quickly trapped in complex, political machinations between the University President and the Dean of my college and was unceremoniously deposed. This was a great public loss of face, of course, but what surprised me more was the fact that no one in my Jesuit community had either congratulated me on my initial appointment or showed any sympathy at my dis-appointment. As another former Jesuit wrote recently about his community, “The thing that struck me about them was how emotionally flat they seemed.” I didn’t realize how alienated I had already become. Only the former Chairman tried to console me with one of those enigmatic Chinese sayings: “The wise person sometimes has to play the fool.”

Nevertheless, during my years of teaching in Taiwan, I was extremely busy and productive, not only in teaching, research, and publication, but also in giving academic lectures and spiritual talks, in English and Chinese, all over the island. On religious topics, the documents of the Vatican Council were central for me, whether it was a homily at Mass, a talk at a pastoral workshop, or a retreat presentation. I remember one conference, in particular, for over a hundred nuns from all over Taiwan (all orders, all nationalities, and all ages were represented). My co-keynote speaker was a Maryknoll priest, about my age, who set the post-Vatican II tone when he urged all to cut through the Spaghetti Curtain of pre-Vatican II Rome and, liberate themselves by reading and praying over the Scriptures in light of Vatican II documents. I followed up with a talk on the “new missionary” or the post-Vatican II servant of God and the Chinese people. We had to abandon our numbers-game mentality of counting success by tallying baptisms at the end of each year. On principle, I never “converted” anyone, though I am happy to say that some students spontaneously told me that they had experienced Christ through me.

The more I tried to immerse myself in the fascinating culture of China, the more convinced I became that rather than bringing Christ to China, I should first try to discover Him there. And I did. As I was about to retire from The Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1997, I was interviewed by the editor of the prestigious Peking University Journal. In my concluding remarks, I said:

Given my personal background, steeped in long, rather abstract philosophical and highly spiritualized theological traditions, I guess my exposure to the wonderful practicality and humanistic emphasis of Chinese culture brought me down to earth and came as a great relief! I think Chinese culture helped me better to appreciate our humanity or, to put it in terms of my Christian belief, it helped me to understand more profoundly the full meaning of Incarnation when the divine became human in the person of Jesus Christ.

Although “pre-evangelization” was a new missiology buzz-word at the time (that is, one should learn more about the culture one is in before trying to evangelize it), I suggested that we should acknowledge that the Church was, by and large, already in a state of “post-evangelization.” By this I meant that many of the old-fashioned conversion methods had been tried for centuries and, obviously, had failed in China. So, why, I said, don’t we call for an indefinite moratorium on conversions, pause for a few generations, and reflect on why and how we had so often been sidetracked or led into dead-ends?

I insisted that we had to ask ourselves some difficult questions and answer them honestly. Are we really willing to spend the time learning about the rich and complex culture of China? What does Chinese history tell us, not least of all about the many failed attempts at converting it to Christianity? What does it mean to adapt or acculturate oneself to China? How much do we really know about the rich traditions of Confucianism? Taoism? Buddhism? Chinese Modernism? In the spirit of selfless service, what contributions can the Church of Vatican II make to China’s real development? Are we capable of just listening and learning, for a change, rather than doing all the talking and teaching?

In other words, we could be more sure we were following the right way if we tried to discern what the people’s real needs were and then responded accordingly, simply motivated by Christ’s love for mankind. I was reminded of a statement made by Pearl Buck about her Protestant missionary parents in China. Something to the effect that they were both good and zealous people who felt compelled to convert the Chinese or they would have to question their own existence. Pearl Buck then referred to Thoreau (who she thought must have gotten the idea from Confucius) and said: But when someone comes to do his or her own good for you, you should flee that person.

In the late 60s, a Maryknoll nun, two other priests and myself, gave an 8-day retreat in a rather conservative diocese. The retreat was comprised of men and women, Chinese and Westerners, Catholics and Protestants, and was held in a convent. Mother Superior felt compelled to inform her bishop about this very mixed bag of participants and asked us, “What shall I say if the bishop objects to the possibility of the Anglican lady wanting to receive Communion? My Maryknoll priest friend said, “Tell him not to worry, Sister; she won’t hurt Jesus!” Incidentally, the evaluation sheets passed around after the retreat proved conclusively that the nun had been the most successful presenter in this unlikely foursome. Unencumbered by pre-Vatican II dogmatic theology and excluded from the old-boys network of clerical thinking, she was one of the daring pioneers who, like so many nuns today, have educated themselves and become the vanguard and hope of a renewed Church.

Unfortunately, many of the bishops and religious superiors in Taiwan – both Western and Chinese – seemed to have missed the trees for the leaves in discerning what the main issues of Vatican II actually were. They were concentrating on such things as lock-step obedience and figleaf discipline. Their energies seemed to be focused on such things as mounting full-scale attacks on nuns who were gradually modifying their medieval habits into something resembling normal, modest attire, to say nothing of refusing to give Communion to Catholics who thought they could receive the Sacrament in their hands while standing.

More demoralizing, were the results of two pastoral workshops held in the early 70s. One was organized by the Chinese Language school students at Chabanel Hall. (The irony of naming a language school after the missionary martyr, Noel Chabanel, who was an utter failure in learning the American Indian language and customs, may have have been intentional, but was bizarrely inept, despite his saintly perseverance. On the other hand, this mind-set fit in perfectly with the "grin and bear it" spirituality of pain so prevalent.) There were over a hundred young priests, seminarians, and nuns of all nationalities in attendance. I was a regular lecturer on Chinese culture and literature for this group and had become an unofficial kind of spiritual father for some of them. These dedicated people had prepared a sophisticated sociological survey of Taiwan’s needs and reported enthusiastically about the challenges ahead for a post-Vatican II Church.

They ended the workshop with a question respectfully presented to the representatives of the Bishops and Major Religious Superiors: “Since you call us the hope of the future, what concrete plans do you have for us?” Caught off guard, a Church spokesman said, lamely, but honestly, “We haven’t given it any thought.” The bishops and religious superiors had presumed that all these young people would just obediently staff the over-extended and dying church institutions built all over Taiwan. The students were flabbergasted and the meeting broke up in chaos. I date this period as the occasion that provoked the exodus of young “missionaries” from Taiwan. Personally, I was still confident that John XXIII had opened the Church’s windows and the reforms he initiated would not be reversed. My younger friends were more prescient than I, and many of them, about to be assigned to continue a variety of dubious apostolates, were already feeling the reactionary forces closing in upon them.

For those who still doubted that such a dire turn of events was occurring, all misgivings were confirmed at another diocese-wide pastoral workshop. A representative group of nuns from different orders and nationalities had drafted a very modest resolution proposing that they should be given opportunities for better education and training. But, before the vote was taken, a major male superior took the floor and passionately begged the nuns to remain simple “handmaids of the Lord” in the service of the Church (read, they should remain uneducated and unpaid servants of their higher male superiors and bishops). Sadly, the intimidated majority of obedient “handmaids” voted down their own liberation and continued to allow their own personhood and womanhood to be suppressed.

By 1977, my own frustration level had reached its peak in Taiwan. It was getting more and more difficult to distinguish between the sublime and the ridiculous. I had been criticized at one community meeting for not following the proper Mass rubrics, such as not extending one’s hands more than 12 inches when facing the congregation and saying, “May the Lord be with you.” I had committed the unforgivable sin of extending my hands at arms length in an all-embracing gesture. I could better understand objections from my more sedate Jesuit community members, to my Mass homily that included a blast from the choir loft of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” But, after all, I protested, the congregation consisted mostly of young Chinese college students who were very much in tune with Western popular songs. Then there was the shocking and repeated accusation that I had deliberately “acted in bad faith,” on a certain occasion, even after I had quite honestly and clearly proven the contrary.

I was feeling more and more alienated in my own Jesuit community and gravitated naturally to my Chinese students and fellow teachers. Thus, I was hoisted with my own petard for not being a community man. One of the final straws that just about broke my spirit was the gratuitous remark made by a fellow Jesuit in my community: “You are neither a good priest nor a good Jesuit “missionary.” He was dead serious. I was bewildered. Despite saying Mass on a daily basis in the student chapel or convents for nuns, giving homilies in English and Chinese, hearing confessions, conducting retreats, doing research on religious issues in Taiwan, organizing and speaking at workshops for religious, teaching aspects of Chinese literature and culture to young priests, seminarians, nuns, etc., writing religious articles, all this was not enough. In retrospect, I suspect that most of my Jesuit colleagues felt I was a failure because I had not even tried to make any converts. So all my “secular” efforts in university education, such as a full-time teaching load, writing, research, editing, and publishing as well as being in charge of organizing most of the cultural activities at our student center went for naught.

Coincidentally and most fortunately, at this desperate time, a job opportunity was offered to me by The Chinese University of Hong Kong where I taught for the next 20 years. The Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976) had just ended and this gave me an excellent opportunity to lecture in many of China’s major universities. I was also able to promote Chinese-Western Comparative Literature studies by providing graduate students and more senior scholars with scholarships at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Finally, my university colleagues and I were able to organize conferences and sponsor publications where scholars from both the China Mainland and Taiwan could exchange views in then-neutral Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong and the China Mainland, I continued what I had been doing in Taiwan as a university teacher and a Jesuit priest. But, by 1979, I had to acknowledge that the Church and Jesuit structures I thought would have changed far more quickly and radically had not done so. In addition, I felt there was a lack of affective life that I thought the Jesuit esprit d’corps was meant to provide. I decided I had to rethink my whole life in the context of making my third Ignatian 30-day retreat. I invited a Jesuit priest friend I have known and admired for over 50 years now, to come to Hong Kong from California and assist me in discerning where the Spirit might be leading. During that period, I prayerfully sought the Spirit’s guidance and, by the end of the 30 days, it was quite clear to me that I had come to a parting of the ways.

All the Jesuits in Hong Kong were extremely understanding and supportive, but my superior reminded me of something I (or he?) had completely misunderstood about Jesuit vows, namely, that I had to give up a life of affectivity. I had never vowed that because I always thought that such affectivity was a Jesuit characteristic based on the experience of Ignatius and his early companeros. In fact, Ignatius liked to call his group, Companions of Jesus.

I have often wondered how many of the diocesan clergy would marry, while remaining priests, if they were given that choice of loving companionship to support them in need and stave off their loneliness. With that thought in mind, I wonder how many of them have read Robert Frost’s famous poem:

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other . . .

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In any case, all my Jesuit superiors supported my appeal to Rome to be released from my vows so that I could legitimately return to the lay state. I agonized over how I should appeal to a post-Vatican II Rome and prayerfully drew up a long and honest letter explaining my reasons. Unfortunately for me, two Popes died in quick succession around this time (Pope Paul VI, 1963-1978 and Pope John Paul I, August 26, 1978-September 28, 1978). This caused the usually slow Vatican bureaucracy to come to a virtual standstill and my 1979 application was shelved.

After waiting for many months, the only reply from Rome to my lengthy, anguished appeal, was a one-sentence denial, in Latin, typed into a blank space on a yellowing sheet of mimeographed paper: “Dissatisfaction with the priesthood is not a legitimate reason for dispensation.” I thought Rome must have mixed up some names; I had never even hinted that dissatisfaction with the priesthood was a reason for leaving.

On the other hand – as actually happened in the case of some other Jesuits who had left – if I had known an influential bishop or cardinal or, according to Vatican logic, if I had admitted I had been mentally unbalanced somewhere along the line or just produced a baby, the whole process could have been expedited.

My Jesuit colleagues (including a canon lawyer) encouraged me to try again, for a second, more considered, request was almost always successful. I did send a second appeal, but Rome did not even have the courtesy to acknowledge it. I did not realize that Pope John Paul II had already put a freeze on all dispensations. Finally, when I told my Jesuit superior that I was leaving, he asked me to sign some papers to that effect. Whether out of mischievous defiance or simple pique, I refused to formally “sign out” and, so, technically speaking, I never left the Jesuits. In any case, three years had passed from the time I had made my original appeal. I realized the situation was hopeless and decided to marry. Automatically, I was excommunicated. Had I left the Church or had the Church left me?


John J. Deeney was a Jesuit for 30 years, seven in the California Province, 23 in the China Province. He has taught at universities in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the People’s Republic of China. His life's work continues to be helping to improve East-West understanding through his teaching, research and publication on Chinese-Western comparative literature and culture. He is currently a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Center of International Studies and, this past school year, he taught graduate courses in Chinese-Western comparative literature and the Bible and/in/as literature at Soochow University in Taiwan. Email: deeneyjjj@yahoo.com