This summer, while driving through the ancient city of Split Croatia which in 305 CE became the site of the Palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian (245 – 312), I thought “all these old buildings and ancient people.” Then it struck me. I too am old. I have been happily married for fifty-three years, have been teaching about religion and theology for more than fifty years, and I am eighty years old. But I have never forgotten what Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) allegedly wrote: “People like you and I, though mortal of course like everyone else, do not grow old no matter how long we live. What I mean is we never cease to stand like curious children before the great Mystery into which we were born.” – Albert Einstein in a letter to Otto Julius Birger, September 29, 1942.

I remember growing up as a pious Catholic kid in southern Michigan who was very much afraid of God: the God of threat and punishment, the God who watches me and judges, the God who takes sides and causes victories and defeats, and the God who responds to appeasement and sacrificial offerings. I believed and feared that I would suffer eternal punishment in hell for missing Mass on a single Sunday or eating meat on a day of abstinence, or my great fear: committing an adolescent sexual sin. I was taught to “go to confession” every week, because God was the Supreme Judge who demands that everything in our lives be in good order. There were so many things I had to avoid “under pain of mortal sin.”

Gradually I began to grow up. Fortunately I had healthy guidance from some very good high school teachers and college professors at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. (I was never ordained but became what they called back then “a lay theolgian.”) I began to realize that God does not exist in some far-off place, watching, and judging me. God is in the here and now. I began to understand God as the empowering energy of everything and as philosopher Paul Tillich (1888 – 1965) said the “ground of being.” I began to understand that God is love and when we love we are actively living in God. There we find salvation.

As one grows up, he or she realizes that perspective is important. Scientists have determined that the universe came into being 13.8 billion years ago. We humans are a very recent development; and it was only a moment ago that Jesus lived on Earth. But Jesus still lives and shows us how to be human. My  perspective on Jesus changed greatly thanks especially to Professor Gustave Thils (1909 – 2000) at the Catholic University of Leuven and Professor Edward Schillebeeckx (1914 – 2009) at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. Both men also encouraged me and strongly supported my wish to become an historical theologian.

More growth: I remember when Richard McBrien (1936 – 2015), longtime professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, wrote that it seems more and more difficult to say something original about Jesus’ resurrection. Edward Schillebeeckx in his book Jesus: An experiment in Christology (Dutch ed. 1974), had argued that we should not imagine that the belief of the disciples that Jesus had risen was caused by an empty tomb and the resurrection appearances. He proposed instead that a belief in the resurrection was grounded in “the new orientation of living which this Jesus has brought about in their lives and was not rendered meaningless by his death – quite the opposite.”

Frankly, considering what one reads in the New Testament, it is often difficult to distinguish between what should be taken word for word and what is to be understood as metaphor in the post-resurrection accounts. As Christians we accept Jesus as the ultimate life-giver, the very word of God, realizing that we are called not only to believe, but to imitate.  John’s Gospel, chapter 12, we read “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” Indeed but for many belief is easier than imitation.

As a Catholic historical theologian, one of my concerns over the years has been an accurate portrayal of  the Mother of Jesus. It is not that easy. When a  person or an event seems larger than life, people turn to poetry, creative imagination, symbolism, and figurative speech. That has certainly been the case with Mary. And so we have the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception thanks to Bishop Augustine of Hippo’s (354 -430) concept of Original Sin, the notion that all human beings are born in a sinful condition inherited from Adam and Eve and passed on through sexual intercourse. But Mary, because she was the Mother of Jesus, the church taught, had to be exempted from Original Sin. Mary therefore had a no-original-sin Immaculate Conception. 

Today of course we realize that there was no Adam and Eve, no Garden of Eden, no tempting snake, and no angry and punishing God. And no Augustinian Original Sin. So what do we do with Mary’s Immaculate Conception? One could also ask the same question about Mary’s Assumption up above the clouds into heaven. And of course her perpetual virginity. The brothers of Jesus are named in the New Testament as James, Joses, Simon, and Jude. The Greek word translated as “brothers” is adelphoí, which literally means “from the same womb.” Jesus’ unnamed sisters are mentioned as well in Mark and Matthew. The church doctrine about Mary’s perpetual virginity, however, was first officially proclaimed at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 CE which proclaimed her “ever virgin.” Then at the Lateran Synod of 649 CE Pope Martin I (c. 590 – 655) emphasized the threefold character of her perpetual virginity: before, during, and after the birth of Jesus.

Anchored in our Christian tradition we can and we should continue to grow in our knowledge and understandings about past people and events. Mary was probably about thirteen years old when she and her husband, traditionally called “Joseph,” gave birth to Jesus. She deserves great respect and veneration for being a loving, wise, and supportive mother throughout Jesus’ life from birth to his crucifixion and death on the cross. Her son James was leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem. About her other children we know nothing. Over the centuries, Christians have certainly found the Mother of Jesus a supportive Lady of Sorrows, Consolation, and Perpetual Help. Her faith in the loving and powerful presence of God was her strength, her wisdom, and her lifeline. It is our faith as well.

And so we go on, people of faith, knowing that life brings sun and cool breezes as well as occasional storms but confident that the creative and life-giving Spirit is with us every step of the way.


PS For an excellent exploration of contemporary Catholic belief I recommend Richard G. Rento’s book It’s Not Necessarily So: A Senior Priest Separates Faith from Fiction and Makes Sense of Belief.

12 thoughts on “Growing-up a Personal Reflection

  1. Thank you for taking the time to share your spiritual and learning journey with us. You are ever the great educator! I especially appreciate your words about Mary, Mother of Jesus – “a supportive Lady of Sorrows, Consolation, and Perpetual Help.” I know this subject has been controversial in modern times. So I recognize your courage in declaring the above.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to share with us your spiritual and learning journey and the many fonts of wisdom you have encountered along the way. As always, you have given us much to consider. MUCH appreciated!

  3. Dear Jack,
    Thank you so very much for this refreshing and liberating piece. You have opened up a peace that comes through looking at and experiencing our faith through new eyes and understanding. I thrive on the vision of our God as one who envelopes us in love and isn’t waiting to punish us for our failings. This message is an invitation to Relationship with our good and loving God. I shall keep it and reread it often!
    Peace, dear friend!
    P.S. You are proof that one can grow in Wisdom, and Age, and Grace!

  4. Jack, your progression of growth in understanding is succinctly and bravely laid out for it is clearly in opposition to the path down which those in authority in our local churches are taking us. It is most difficult to feel ‘in communion’ with those around us when our leaders have reverted to the ‘traditional’ thought patterns. I honor the growth you are still achieving. To me your words are a rare breath of fresh air and light to my questing soul. Thank you, dear friend.


  5. Hello Jack, I was unaware of your background. Thank you so much for sharing it with the rest of us. I too share your concerns as we move from old to new theologies. My sorting out what I don’t want to take with me nor share with others is getting easier as I get older and are challenged with my community of older thinkers/hearts. Please keep sharing. It encourages me and others.

  6. Jack
    Just a note to say that i enjoy this and the insights you provide in your articles. Who would have thought a kid from Paw Paw would turn out this way?

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