Celebrating the Calling of Vatican 11, fifty years ago today
October 10 Comment Call to Action Heythrop College
In the mid-sixties, Martin Luther King made a speech at the end of the people’s march on Washington DC, delivered 28 August 1963, at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, that became an iconic statement of the Civil Rights movement. It became known by just four words “I have a dream”. It stirred a generation.
Re-phrasing those words and referring them to the Vatican Council we could now justifiably say “ We had a dream”, for many hopes and dreams have not been fulfilled.
It is sometimes difficult, with the passing of many years, to remember with any clarity the Church of my childhood. There was a degree of certainty, of accepted norms, of being somehow different as Catholics and, of course, there was the dominance of prayer in Latin, a language we became very good at pronouncing but were somewhat less adept in translating.
With the arrival of the Sixties, the drab austerity of the post-War Fifties began to recede. We came to live with the reality of the Cold War, which so nearly early in the new decade, came close to nuclear conflict. In October 1962, during the tense days of the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy faced Khrushchev and the world held its collective breath. At the same time as this potentially suicidal face-off between East and West, the Second Council of the Vatican opened on October 11th. Called by Pope John XXIII, following the death of Pius XII in October 1958, the Council was to become a springboard for renewal in the Church.
This quiet, avuncular prelate, Angelo Roncalli, who had been the Patriarch of Venice, set in motion a gathering that would reinvigorate the Christian Church.
The Council would come to have a profound effect on the Church I grew up in as documents were drafted and re-drafted until accepted by the Fathers, a clearer vision of hope and joy in the Christian faith emerged.
And how that was needed in the turbulent decade of the Sixties.
Within a year of Cuba, Kennedy was assassinated and the seeds of conflict in South East Asia were sown. Vietnam was later to become the touch-stone for youth, both in protest and music. The greyness of the previous decade was replaced with a riot of colour in clothing, music and life. As with anything that has been constrained, this sudden release produced excess. In the midst of laughter and the sexual moraes of the time, together with the emerging drug culture, there was often confusion and doubt.
Surety had gone out of the window with the rule book and uncertainty knocked at the door.
There was a real feeling of expectation and hope, the expectation of challenge that the Council Documents demanded and the hope they instilled.
But within three years came the first significant disappointment, for in July 1968 Paul VI published Humanae Vitae and, in spite of the overwhelming majority view of the Commission set up to examine the issue in favour of change, this encyclical upheld the traditional teaching on contraception.
It challenged many, both priests and laity, and caused a significant stir in the national press. I can still remember the full page of letters published in the aftermath in the London Times. A number of priests felt unable to accede to its teaching and were suspended by their Bishops. The church lost their ministry. At that time I asked a good friend of mine, ordained in 1954, what he intended doing. His reply? “If I leave, who is there to help and support the people?” And so he stayed.
To this day the teaching remains a matter of contention, where, for so many, conscience has become the final arbiter rather than acceptance of the encyclical.
Two major issues that gave vitality to those post-conciliar years remain with us: collegiality and the use of the vernacular in the celebration of the Eucharist. It was the use of English that was, for most of us, the significant change, for it affected our lives in a very particular and regular way, and we welcomed it.
Contrast that to a comment made to me in 1963 when, as a student teacher, I helped arrange what we called then a “dialogue mass” where students read the Epistle and Psalm in English. I was told afterwards by a lady in her sixties that “I feel as though I have been to a protestant service”. Thank goodness we have moved beyond that narrow view.
Yet for some there appears to be this urgent need to find refuge in a holy comfort zone that is history.
Remember Sydney Carter’s words in one his songs? “So shut your bibles up and show me how, the Christ you talk about is living now”.
That doesn’t say ignore Scripture, far from it, but it does say be realistic, this is where society is, the church has to be a pilgrim church in the times we find ourselves.
There is a feeling abroad that there is now a concerted attempt to undo much of the vision of the Council. Recently the key-note presentation at a Symposium on the Council given by Professor Tracey Rowland in Leeds was critical of theologians working at that time. The Tablet quoted her as saying that she was particularly critical of Schillibeeckx and his followers for “correlating faith with modernity”. Arguments such as these seek to undermine our confidence in the work of the Council and call in to question much that has been achieved in the subsequent years. When we read in Proverbs that “where there is no vision, the people perish” we should be aware that a blurred vision is dangerous, for it leads to confusion and contention. To quote Kevin Kelly, Vatican II was not an event but a continuing process.
Hans Kung was invited earlier this year to attend a celebration of Fifty Years since the opening of the Council at the German Katholikentag in Mannheim. Four days before the congress was due to open, Kung responded, declining the invitation. “…. In my opinion there is no reason for a festive Council Gala but rather for an honest service of penance or a funeral service.”
There is also the perception of distance between the experience of the laity who come to church week by week and the hierarchy of our community. Where did we see in print an appreciation from the Bishops that for many the new translation of the missal was proving to be a significant stumbling block? We urgently need a re-connection and a recognition that faith is a shared experience that we all contribute to. Too often have I heard in recent years, people, young and not so young, talk of the hypocrisy of the church over issues relating to the option of married priests, the acceptance of gay people, together with a whole range of societal issues that we now know so much about yet teach from a historical archive. Cardinal Martini in his last interview referred to the church being 200 years out of date.
Maybe the time is fast approaching when we need to take stock once again and ask whether we should begin to make preparations for a further Council. We would be failing our grandchildren if we allowed the fruits of the Second Council of the Vatican to fade through our lack of concern. We do indeed have a duty to make the case, in faith, for the Church as it is today and for what it might become tomorrow. How do we make our church the church of our children?
How do you see the situation of the Church?
The Church is tired, in prosperous Europe and in America. Our culture is out of date; our Churches are big; our religious houses are empty, and the Churches bureaucratic apparatus is growing, and our rites and our vestments are pompous. Do such things really express what we are today? … Prosperity weighs us down. We find ourselves like the rich young man who went away sad when Jesus called him to become his disciple. I know that it’s not easy to leave everything behind. At least could we seek people who are free and closer to their neighbors, as Bishop Romero was and the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador?
Where among us are heroes to inspire us? We must never limit them by institutional bonds.
Who can help the Church today?
Fr. Karl Rahner liked to use the image of embers hidden under ashes. I see in the Church today so many ashes above the embers that I’m often assailed by a sense of powerlessness. How can the embers be freed from the ashes in order to rekindle the flame
of love? First of all, we have to look for those embers. Where are the individuals full of generosity, like the Good Samaritan? Who have faith like that of the Roman centurion?
Who are as enthusiastic as John the Baptist? Who dare new things, as Paul did? Who are faithful as Mary Magdalene was? I advise the Pope and the bishops to look for twelve people outside the lines for administrative posts [posti direzionali]–people who are close to the poorest and who are surrounded by young people and are trying out new things.
We need that comparison with people who are burning so that the spirit can spread everywhere.
What means do you advise against the Church’s weariness?
I have three important ones to mention. The first is conversion: the Church has to recognize its own errors and has to travel a radical journey of change, beginning with the Pope and the bishops. The scandals of pedophilia are driving us to undertake a journey of
conversion. Questions about sexuality and all the themes involving the body are an example of this. They are important for everyone, at times they’re also too important. In this area is the Church is still a point of reference or only a caricature in the media?
The second is the Word of God. Vatican II restored the Bible to Catholics. … Only someone who receives this Word in his heart can be among those who will help the renewal of the Church and will know how to respond to personal questions wisely. The
Word of God is simple and seeks as its companion a heart that is listening. … Neither the clergy nor Church law can substitute for a person’s inwardness. All the external rules, the laws, the dogmas were given to us in order to clarify the inner voice and to discern the spirits.
For whom are the sacraments? They are the third means of healing. The sacraments are not a disciplinary instrument, but a help for people at moments on their journey and when life makes them weak. Are we bringing the sacraments who need a new strength? I’m thinking of all the divorced people and couples who have remarried and extended families. They need a special protection. The Church maintains the indissolubility of marriage. It is a grace when a marriage and a family succeed. … The attitude we take toward extended families will determine whether their children come
near to the Church. A woman is abandoned by her husband and finds a new companion who is concerned for her and her three children. The second love succeeds. If this family is discriminated against, not only the woman, but her children, too, will be cut off. If the parents feel external to the Church and do not experience its support, the Church will lose the future generation.
Before Communion we pray: “Lord, I am not worthy…” We know
we are unworthy. … Love is grace. Love is a gift. The question whether the divorced can receive Communion would have to be turned upside down. How can the Church come to the aid of complex family situations with the power of the sacraments?
What do you do personally?
The Church is two hundred years behind. Why is it not being stirred? Are we afraid? Afraid instead of courageous? Faith is the Church’s foundation–faith, confidence, courage. I’m old and ill and depend on the help of others. The good people around me
enable me to experience love. This love is stronger than the feeling of discouragement that I sometimes feel in looking at the Church in Europe. Only love conquers weariness.
God is Love.
I have a question for you: “What can you do for the Church?”