The Church has to find new ways of being present in a new Irish society
Those of us who studied theology, at least here in Ireland, at the time of the Second Vatican Council were greatly influenced by the Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern Word: Gaudium et Spes. We were inspired and energised by the famous affirmation that “the joy and the hope of the men and women of our time are the joy and the hope of the followers of Christ as well”.
Coming out of a particular moment of a traditional and authoritarian Irish Church culture, the newness of this challenging and exciting notion of dialogue between the Church and the culture of the modern world and of a Church identifying itself with the aspirations of humankind was almost thrilling to our young ears. Rather than telling the world what to do, the Church was to listen to what the modern world was saying to and telling the Church. The newness of this document was such that even the Council itself had to find a new term with which to accommodate it within its categorization of the documents of an Ecumenical Council: Gaudium et Spes was to be a Pastoral Constitution.
Gaudium et Spes set out to examine the deep-seated changes which were taking place in the culture of the times. It looked a rapid social change, and how that social change then brought about changes in attitudes and morals and the place of religion in society. It looked at the changes and it reflected on how these changes often were linked with new aspirations and the on-going questionings of the men and women of the time.
Indeed the 1960’s during which Gaudium et Spes was drafted and later published was a time of great change. In Europe it was the time of the 1968 student ferment. It was the decade of space exploration. Around the world many countries especially in Africa attained independence. The map of the world and the list of the members of the United Nations changed. The Council saw in much of what was happening and in the reflection it was generating the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
The mystery of who man is, the Council also clearly declared, “truly only becomes clear in the mystery of the Word made flesh”. At the same time, the Council document began to elucidate how this profound Christian response could enter into dialogue with the changing culture, placing at its centre the dignity of each human being. That dignity was profoundly linked with a renewed appreciation of the gifts of intellect and truth and wisdom and above all the primacy of moral conscience. The Council affirms that: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey”. The voice of conscience calls men and women to love, to do what is good and to avoid evil. Conscience tells men and women inwardly at the right moment: do this and shun that. The Council affirms that only in freedom one can truly turn towards what is good.
The Pastoral Constitution had remarkable effects on the relations between Church and politics and Church and culture all over the world. Its effects on Irish culture were truly significant.
What was it in Irish culture that attracted so profoundly the reflection of the Council on the Church in the modern world? Firstly it came at the right moment. Irish culture had been changing and there was a growing impatience – if initially only among a certain elite – with the style of Church leadership and with the dominant position of the Church in Irish society. There was a desire for change and when change came that desire spiralled.
The Irish Church in the 1960’s had not been one marked by change. The seminary I entered in 1962, just days before the beginning of the Vatican Council, differed very little as regards the seminary rule and order of the day from that into which my professors had entered twenty or thirty years earlier. Indeed more than one of our professors had no difficulty in using for their lectures the theological notes which they had prepared many years earlier.
Theology was changing. Ireland was perhaps little conversant with the theological and liturgical developments that had been taking place in Europe and which were at the basis of the theology of Vatican II. It was clear, however, that our very static Latin textbooks were no longer the ones needed to respond to the current of change taking place in the world. My moral theology lectures on justice dealt in the abstract with questions that could have been asked one hundred years earlier. Its responses to the realities of the changing world were defined almost in simplistic and static question and answer formulae. The seminarian was to be given safe guidelines and clear-cut answers to the challenges of the changing world.
Gaudium et Spes looked on the world in a very different way. Starting out from the dynamic concept of the dignity of the human person, it addressed also the communitarian nature of the vocation of humankind, not just as abstract principles of distributive justice but looking at the concrete interdependence of the human family, which responded both to the real changes in international relationships that were taking place and the communications revolution which began to bring those changing realities into our homes and into our hearts. Gaudium et Spes built a bridge with the realities of the day going beyond an individualistic morality towards a vision of human solidarity linked with the very mystery of the incarnation. The mystery of the family of humankind “truly only becomes clear in the mystery of the Word made flesh.”
The Council reminded Christians of the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs, not as a total autonomy of human activity from morality and the law of God, but neither a fundamentalism which would only see science and faith as opposing each other.
These were revolutionary concepts. Many European countries had Christian Democratic parties in government which fostered the concept of the unity of Christians in political matters and voting for another party was almost considered betrayal. Ireland never had a political party which explicitly took on the name Christian, but the political culture was one of wide ranging synergy between Church and State.
Gaudium et Spes pleaded for new ways to foster dialogue between faith and science, between faith and culture. It admitted that this dialogue was not a one way street. The Church understood itself, and rightly so, to use a later phrase of Pope Paul VI, as “an expert in humanity”. Gaudium et Spes, however, reminded the Church that it could and must also learn from the insights of modern science, including the human sciences and the world of politics and economy. “Just as it is in the world’s interest to acknowledge the Church as a social reality and as a driving force in history, so too the Church is not unaware of how much it has profited from the history and development of humankind” (#44).It acknowledged that the church can be enriched and is being enriched by the evolution of social life. The dialogue between faith and culture would enable both sides to understand the human condition more deeply, and adapt mutual reflection more successfully to our times.
The time of the Council was time of optimism. In many ways both the Church and the world seemed going in the right direction, sharing a common concern to foster progress and equity. In my experience in international life I regularly met Christian men and women who had become real leaders in politics and international organizations and who attributed their commitment and competence to the impetus given by Gaudium et Spes.
Ireland also was changing and was becoming a more pluralist society. There was ferment in Irish political life, not in a confrontational way, but perhaps more in terms of a qualitative leap from one generation of politics to the next. Ireland was discerning its new role as a society and in the world. Ireland was re-examining the notion of its own independence. Independence was no longer looked on not just in terms of “independence from” its former colonial status. There was a new understanding of “independence for”, independence with a purpose. Ireland took the risk of moving from an inward-looking protectionist economy to becoming a more open economy within Europe. With that openness towards Europe came also new cultural challenges.
Ireland looked more and more confidently to its role within the world and its international political responsibilities. Neutrality took on a different meaning. In the 1960’s first Irish peacekeepers began their mission. Ireland began to play an increasingly important role in the life of the United Nations and began to take its own independent and leadership role on such matters as the Chinese seat at the UN (where Catholic Ireland favoured the mainland communist government) or on nuclear non-proliferation where Ireland played a pioneering role.
Many of these political innovations drew their inspiration from the Irish Christian tradition which had been strongly missionary and thus internationally focussed, especially towards developing countries. For the Irish missionaries evangelization and human advancement were never separated. The Irish missionary tradition focused especially on education and health care – very much the priorities which would be stressed by progressive devolvement theory of our own days. Irish missionary women sisters offered access to education for girls in countries and cultures where this was rare and even counter-cultural, almost revolutionary.
The changing vision of politics and models of social care in Ireland with time took on its own profile and slowly the role in society of the Church as an institution began to change. The extensive presence of the Church in education and health care in Ireland which had set out in a spirit of service by the Church – and indeed it was – began to be understood as a desire for control. Religious personnel involved in education and health care in Ireland began to dwindle. The costs of education and health care changed the balance of role between the State and the voluntary sector. The relationship between Church and State became more distant. Scandals damaged the credibility of the Church. Ireland had become more secularised and overall social policy had become more secularised also.
On the one hand some of this change can and should be welcomed as a manifestation of precisely that “rightful autonomy of earthly realities” spoken about by Gaudium et Spes. It might also be looked at in the light of the interesting affirmations on the role of politics of the Encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI Deus Caritas Est. which he stresses that: “The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State… The just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics”. But the Pope quickly adds that the Church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper”.
Put in slightly different terms Pope Benedict notes: “A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply”.
How does the Church then foster that openness of mind wished for by the Pope, at a time when politics are increasingly secular. There are indeed those who would prefer to see the Church totally banished to the margins of the “public square”. Are there today new ways in which we can, in today’s culture, render the public square a more fertile ground for the Gospel?
The French Canadian theologian, Rene Latourelle, spoke of “points of insertion” for the Gospel. Where are the “points of insertion” in Irish society? I remember Pope Benedict XVI on the occasion of my ad limina visit to him some years ago asked me almost the same question. He asked, “Where are the points of contact between the Church and those areas where the future of Irish culture are being formed?”
What then are the areas of Irish culture which seem most receptive to the message of the Gospel? What are the moments in the lives of individuals where they are most in need of the words and presence of Jesus? Are there collective moments when the Church may have something special to say to the nation? What are the characteristics of the New Ireland that make it particularly difficult to speak of God and to touch the hearts of Irish men and women?
The answer to many of these questions is linked with the concept of New Evangelization understood as a profound renewal in faith and in a coherent and authentic witness to that faith in the world and in the culture in which we live.
We have today to face the challenge of ensuring that we prepare new generations of Christians who can with competence and idealism be truly at the heart of political culture, alongside persons of different viewpoints, but fully inspired by their Christian vision. Looking toward to the future, we have to remind ourselves that, while respecting the role of politics in the broad sense, the Church has its own responsibilities to ensure the contribution of believers to the building of a strong and cohesive values-oriented society.
It was part of the great genius of Pope John Paul II that he never shirked from identifying the challenge to the Church to continually renew itself in order to live its mission of service. He noted that “The new evangelization is therefore the order of the day. This does not mean the ‘restoration of a past age’. Rather it is necessary to risk taking new steps. Together we must again proclaim the joyful and liberating message of the gospel to the people of Europe… in order to create a civilization in which the true human values transmitted by the Christian faith have a permanent place”.
In Ireland, we are confronted, for perhaps the first time, with the need for a radically renewed proclamation of the Gospel for those already baptized but who have long since not experienced a real relationship with Jesus Christ. The particular challenge in Ireland is to lead to know who Jesus is. Many nominal Catholics, including some who, notwithstanding regular attendance in church, have never reflected personally on the faith they have assimilated through societal and familial influence. In renewing our Church and in committing ourselves to a new evangelization, we are both being faithful to the mission of the Church and we are helping to construct a renewed society.
The Gospel must be preached courageously even if it does not seem to find roots in people’s lives. Resignation and keeping things ticking over will never renew the Church. A divided squabbling Church will not attract young people but only alienate them. On the other hand, no one should fear the message of the Gospel. It would be falsehood to deny the contribution that that Gospel has brought to the evolution of Ireland and the contribution it can bring to create a future Ireland at the service of hope for all.
We have passed from the optimism of the 1960’s with its dreams of progress; through years in which we have more clearly experienced what Pope Benedict calls the “ambiguity of progress”. Who in the 1960’s, when the memory was still strong only fifteen years after the end of the Second World War and its atrocities, would have imagined that further genocides and fratricidal wars of immense proportions would mark Europe and the world just twenty years later? Who in Ireland predicted the fragility of the economic situation of which the country smugly felt secure?
Progress is not linear. Perhaps in our love of progress we too easily overlooked the full dimensions of the message of Gaudium et Spes which in fact spoke not only of the joys and the hopes of the human family, but also of the grief and anguish of the men and women of our time. The analysis of Gaudium et Spes is much more sanguine that many of its supporters wished to recognise. Gaudium et Spes unambiguously stresses the reality of sin and its effects on human activity, especially when egoism and self interest begin to dominate the pattern of relations within society.
Our Eucharistic Congress celebrates that unique fellowship with is generated through our communion with Christ, a communion with his self-giving and redeeming sacrifice, which opens the path from death to life and which can engender new forms of communion with one another.
Communion is one of the great characteristics of the followers of Jesus Christ. One of the characteristics of authentic Christian living is thus the ability foster communion even amid the divisions which mark daily lives of our communities and our world. This Eucharistic Congress must help us to reflect on how a Church of communion can be a builder of communion in the wider society.
The Church has to find new ways of being present in a new Irish society. To do that the Church must re-discover its own sense of communion and sense of common purpose, overcoming its internal divisions in a spirit of love of the Church and in a dialogue of charity. My hope is that this Congress may be a signpost as to how our Communion with Christ in the Eucharist can generate a new understanding of our communion with each other in a modern world which is today very different to that of the 1960’s and in a future which will be even more different and challenging.