Living the Outflow of the Second Vatican Council in the Third Millennium

Fr. David Power, OMIBy David N. Power, OMI

Having gone through formation before the Council, been a student priest in Rome during the Council, and taught theology before and after it, I could narrate much personal experience related to this event and its impact on the Church. However, I have chosen to ask what it is now, fifty years later, to live that flow of life which we associate with the renewal which it engendered.

Those of an older generation are conscious of the difference between Catholic life in the fifties and Catholic life in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, but they may also be disappointed, for quite diverse reasons, that the full potential of the council has not come to act. Those of younger generations may be mystified about what happened, or even oddly nostalgic for a preconciliar church that they never knew, but at least they are aware of the call from every side to live out what the council taught and in some cases mandated.

Much has indeed changed since Vatican II was called; the church has turned its attention to how people live in the world, to earth itself, to people of other religions and to those of none. Its dialogue and interaction is not perfect, at times it is even bad, but the conversation has been engaged. Many of the faithful have in thought and in practice shown themselves conscious of their calling and of their apostolic role as members of an apostolic church, instead of resting in a passive role of those governed. Enough has been written on the flowering of ministries not to need further elaboration (See David N Power, Mission Ministry Order, New York and London, 2008, and the much earlier work, Gifts that Differ, New York, 1980/85). In the middle of all of this, there is a catholic familiarity with the scriptures among large segments of the people which while now encouraged would have been frowned upon in times past.

In living the spiritual life, or the life of the Spirit, the image of Christ and of God, nourished by a fresh familiarity with the Gospels, is more gentle. even if in some respects more exacting. While there is always place for to talking of justice in God’s dealings with the world, it is possible to live knowing love, not just fear. To borrow a phrase from the poet, Mary Oliver in her depiction of Jesus in the stilling of the tempest we see him tender, luminous and demanding. If look to portraiture, Caravaggio’s call of Matthew or Rembrandt’s painting of the father welcoming the prodigal son may be more true an expression of contemporary faith than Michelangelo’s Sistine Judgment.

As an elder ordained before the council, and as a theologian who worked with others on an international footing, to foster the vision and mission of the council, I share regret that early promises have been unmet, even while the presence of the Spirit has been and still is tangible. What has not been fulfilled in the intervening decades is the constancy of the sense of mission and with it of dialogue, of being a living presence of Christ in the world and for the sake of the world. Preoccupation with a hierarchical internal structure (canonical and spiritual) has impeded the look “ad extra” and the efficacy of being a living presence. But this is not all negative, for while the crisis of clerical abuse and abuse of children by religious has nothing to do in itself with the council, the fact that bishops can now be called upon to be accountable to their own people and to society and not only to Rome, is in harmony with the vision of the church within its internal structure and in its mission which the experience and teaching of the council made possible.

As at one time it was fashionable to differentiate between liberals and conservative in the church, so now it is fashionable to choose between interpreting the council in the light of its continuity with what went before or in the light of how it broke with its immediate past, and perhaps even with a longer historical past. This is in itself frustrating and can be countermanded only by a serious reading of the event and of the documents of the Council in the light of its own internal pastoral intent.   One could go on listing the fruits and the frustrations of being a post-conciliar communion, but to see where communities now stand it is helpful to refer to Cardinal Suenens’ contribution to the flow of the Council with the distinction between ecclesia ad intra and ecclesia ad extra. Pope John called the council looking from within ad extra and the concern with ad intra was with the Church as apostolic, as a sign among the nations, as bearer of Christ to the world: this is said in the very first text approved at Vatican II, the introduction to SC on the liturgy of God’s people, where it echoes the image found in Isaiah of being a sign lifted up among the nations. All the internal reforms augured within the life of the Church, such as the holiness and apostolate of all the faithful, the practice of Episcopal collegiality, an expansive ministry and service, the institution of bodies that would foster relations with the world, had to do with living out within itself the church’s sense of mission. Such were the Pontifical Councils on Justice and Peace, on the Laity, on Culture and on ecumenism, relations with the Jews, and relations with other religions, with their corresponding regional or diocesan bodies.

The criterion for reading the Council and its aftermath is its pastoral orientation and purpose.       In remembering why it was called, we note the intention that it be a pastoral convocation, meant to make the Gospel transparent to the world, to the secular city, and along with this to revivify the life of faith and divine grace within the body of Christ, whose life in the course of the Council was narrated as that of God’s people, whose very story required that we read the signs of the times representing the course of human history and the signs of the action of the Spirit within and without (which is what Jesus in the Gospel called the signs of the times). The documents themselves have to be read in the light of their intended pastoral efficacy and the council’s outflow of life to be reckoned in terms of how pastorally and evangelically this has been shaped.

Pope John was emphatic that the Church and so its Council had to look outside itself to grasp its own nature and its mission. He himself gave some expression to what this means in his pastoral letters on the church’s social mission and on its contribution to peace-building (Mater et Magistra, Pacem in Terris).  While post-war institutions, such as the UNO, expressed a new-found sense of global unity and interaction, Christians generally, the bishop of Rome and over several sessions all the  bishops, were aware that this aspiration belonged within the memory and remorse of a deeply divided world. The state of the world in 1960 was one of division, in the aftermath of world war and in the present of conflicts that continued (and still continue) to determine social, commercial and political action. If there were those who thought in global terms of a world unity in justice and peace, this aspiration had its historical roots not so much within churches or religions but as an inspiration coming from what we now call a secular mindset, which liberated from the constraints of religious institutions set its focus on human development, human rights, construing a global community, and in time being one with the minute and the vast material universe. Some initiatives had been marked in the bodies which combined into the birth of the World Council of Churches and in papal social teaching, which essentially sought, with considerable internal dispute, how to take note of secular achievements and secular aspirations. It is by placing itself in this context that the Church could be held up as a living witness to God’s intent.

Furthermore, when the Council convened, the state of society around the world and most of all in the “west” was marked by what in the course of history has to be seen as a social revolution, affecting family, sexuality, community and social life, business and agriculture, education and politics. This set the agenda primarily for the pastoral document on the life and mission of the Church in the world and in dialogue with the world. At the same time, one clear sign that the Church in its life and in its teaching has not succeeded in relating to this reality is the fact that it has not yet developed a viable political, business or sexual ethics.

Pope John, several of the bishops and leading scholars, were aware that the wakening of pastoral and evangelical intent was impeded by the church’s long resistance to the modern, which bore its own fruits still in the fifties. It is that late into the modern period of history that we locate the repudiation of de Chardin’s ecology, De Lubac’s humanism with its openness to atheists and his sense of oneness in the historicity of creation between natural and supernatural, Rahner’s existentialism (the individual person, conditions of living in this world, immanent transcendent longing), and Congar’s ecumenical urgency. An engagement with the modern was and continues to be a present imperative. When we talk of the secular we have to remember the sense in which this meant releasing many sectors of life from the imperatives of an oppressive religious outlook.  How much are religions themselves responsible for the desire for a world where God is absent?

Even while regretting ecclesial obstinacy (to the events and signs of the times), Congar among others had noted that from the thirties through the fifties, an openness to world and to secular had been fostered by lay associations, often under the forms of a social apostolate or of secular institutes. The council needed to be “taught” by this and its attention to the sense of the faithful has roots in the willingness to be so instructed. This is certainly an area of ecclesial and missionary life which has in some ways stalled but is still capable of being retrieved.

In calling a pastoral council, Pope John invoked the need for the Catholic Church to join in the efforts to bring about a communion between all Christian communities. A body divided, a people wandering on diverse by-ways, cannot effectively witness to the love of God and of Christ. This ecumenical openness in the course of the council gave rise to a sense of the need to dialogue and cooperate with other religions for the sake of the world. It is hardly needful to remark that in the realization of these ecumenical and religious imperatives, we have fallen short.

A particular issue for many is the question of catholic identity, and for priestly and religious the matter of their specific identity. While we know more about the past than ever, we are less sure of how identity relates to this past. The Vatican Council indulged in no expression of fault or apology, but its approach to the catholic past and its needs for renewal, and its awareness that God acts within human history, meant that flaws, mistakes, even sins of the past were recognized. This was given full flowering in the Jubilee Year of 2000 in the apologies and repentances voiced by Pope John Paul II.  How then are we to keep to an ideal and still lament the past which needs to be lamented and redress the failure to serve and the sins committed against cultures, peoples, women, minorities, the Jewish people, Islam, etc. One significant response to this is to ground our faith and belief in Father, Son, Spirit and discipleship more firmly in a reading of the scriptures.

While the Vatican II document on the Word of God intended a just grasp of the Word and of its relation with tradition, it was the foundation for greater attention to this Word in the life of the church and in the nourishment of its sense of mission, which reminds us that this is where true Christian identity lies, that is, in its hearing of the Word and its celebration of the sacraments. The recent Synod on the Word of God encouraged prayer grounded in the scriptures and embraced in a particular way the practice of a contemporary lectio divina that grew up most particularly in small Christian communities in Latin America, Africa and Asia. This prayer on the Word of God needs to be more carefully fostered and guided in parishes, small communities, religious communities, seminaries, and priestly fraternities.  Specific Catholic identity is nurtured within its sacramental practice and its attendant devotions, but even this has to include its grounding in the Word of God that speaks to us of the Father who so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to bring it the fullness of life. The OMI chapter of 2010 rightly reminded us that there is no renewal without an ongoing conversion to Jesus Christ but this attention to the source of life that is the Word of God is core to this conversion, as well as a reading of the missionary imperatives of the signs of the times.

Such are some thoughts of what it means to mark the 50th anniversary of the Council as an impetus to evangelization, each paragraph needing elaboration and discussion. For all their brevity,  they might help us to ruminate together on what conversion and renewal mean not just in illo tempore but in hoc tempore.

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