11Oct Celebrating the Calling of Vatican 11, fifty years ago today

October 10 Comment Call to Action Heythrop College
Chris McDonnell

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?

Martini interview
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?”

4 Responses

  1. Kevin

    Quite a sad read in parts. It’s good to see he experiences what he has been for others – and in this love is realized. Isn’t that what it’s really all about at the end of the day. And I am happy to see he does not let the farce things Roman might be blind him to that realization that love conquers weariness, the discouragement he feels looking in certain directions. In itself can be a spiritual abuse, wounding – all of which can blind us to Beauty.

    None should spend too long looking only at trees. See the beauty that is the Wood/Forest too.

    I like too his recommendation of the call to conversion, the Word internlised in the heart and sacraments for healing. I am working on my own conversion this way and healing is happening at a profound level. I can only pray for the conversion of “hierarchy” from a place of faith and hope. In this maybe too Love will be realized and from those very ashes a Phoenix arise to “set the world on fire.”

  2. Association of Catholic Priests

    Paul VI and Humanae Vitae

    Brian Fahy

    Chris Mcdonnell’s fine reminiscence of our shared history contains a reference to the ‘disappointment of Humane Vitae’. It set me thinking…

    I was a young church student when ‘Humanae Vitae’ came out in July 1968. I was working as a volunteer in a home for the homeless in Liverpool. The world took against the Pope and reacted very dismissively and abusively. I remember going home to visit my mother, a lovely Irish mother from the County Mayo. She was a great lady and no pushover, a mother of four, and a woman of great faith and gentle in her thinking and her speaking about things. I asked her what her view was about the pill and contraception and what the Pope was saying.

    She thought quietly and spoke softly to me. “I think the Pope is right in what he is saying,’ was her answer to me. She spoke from her lived experience, and not as a ‘do as you’re told robot’. I, for my part, being young and sympathetic to the young generation and wanting to be in tune with the great sweep of opinion that swept over us in the modern world, felt anxious to hear the cry of those who were finding it difficult to agree or to follow this doctrine.

    Later when I became a priest, I remember many conversations in dark confessionals from agonized people. What did I know! I simply listened and was kind and encouraging, and reminded people of the ultimate court of their own human conscience as the final arbiter of their conduct. Living in a church that was strong on external discipline made it hard for people to fully hear this message about the dignity and integrity of their own conscience. The power and authority of the Church loomed large against this newly touted freedom of conscience. Hence their struggle.

    So much human communication easily gets lost or misunderstood, and teaching the true teachings of the church is no exception. I remember being told during my studies that the teaching about the number of children a family should have is governed by the principle of the ‘optimum number’. Namely, what is best for that family in their circumstances. This could in fact mean no children, if health was an issue.

    However this teaching came to be passed on as the ‘maximum number’. In other words it was your duty to keep having children, as it was the wife’s duty to keep giving her husband sexual access, since marriage was a contract entered into for the mutual exchange of rights over each other’s bodies. This was and is barbaric. Stories about the harm done to women in this matter are legion.

    These days I work as a family mediator, seeking to help separating couples make good agreements for the sake of their children. I have a ringside seat in the story of their lives. It is a privileged position. From this position I often hear stories of relationships entered into hurriedly, of sexual activity begun far too soon, before any human relationship has started. I see people who know all there is to know about sex and bodies and modern ways, but who have little or no understanding of their own delicate soul, or of their emotions and how to handle them. The world they live in urges them to consume everything, but gives precious little guidance on how to taste life gently.

    On my desk today is the encyclical letter that Pope Paul wrote in 1968. His vision for human sexual relationship is inspiring and gentle and profound, but people did not want to know about that. They wanted a quick ‘yes’ to progress and modern ways and scientific advance and away with old doctrine and outmoded tradition. “Pope says ‘No’”, was the public report. Anything else he said was drowned out or shouted down in the din of outrage and contempt for the man.

    ‘Yet wisdom has been proved right by all her children.’ (Luke 7:35) Across the years I look again at that text of Humanae Vitae, and I think it wise. I hear again the gentle voice of my mother, answering my searching questions and anxious heart. I think my mother was wise.

    Brian Fahy
    +++ +++ +++

  3. Kevin

    I’ve never read any of these documents but you have me intrigued by the inspirational, gentle and profound human sexual relationship. And good and poor teaching. My mother was pregnant most of the time from age 19 yrs till near 40.

    Regarding the issue of starving children in parts of the world she says she’d drive the bus filled with condoms there herself and hand them out. Young couples who have children and leave them while they go off down the pub, she’d send them to the vet and have ’em neutered, the man and the woman.

    Though being a mother I think this has more to do with her abhorrence of children suffering than any form of contraception. My father very deeply resented anyone, especially”celibate men, who know nothing of marriage” interfering in his or anyone else’s intimate relations with his wife, ‘dictating’ to them. He must have been poorly taught.

    Though I do wonder if the 12 that survive would be here regardless.

    I must have a read it myself. Certainly it has been poorly, tragically taught. Limbo comes to mind.

  4. Jo

    The Vatican says Vatican II did not invalidate past doctrines. “What was, still is.” -Pope Paul VI (pope during Vatican II)

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