Second Vatican Council – 50 Years Later What Does It Say To Us? Northern Catholic Conference, Liverpool 2013.
Northern Catholic Conference , June 8th, 2013 – Vatican Two – Reading the signs of the times: 50 Years Later What Does The Council Say To Us?
Also, for power point slides, see http://davidalton.net/media/
On October 11th 2012, we marked the momentous event which has defined contemporary Catholic Christianity – the official opening, by Pope John XXIII of the Second Vatican Council. The Council fathers were invited to read the signs of the times and to respond accordingly. Commentators called it a time of metanoia – meaning a transformative change of heart; a time for spiritual conversion; a time when the windows of the Vatican would be thrown open and the Holy Spirit invited in. Above all it was to be a time for renewal “a new Pentecost.”
Before turning to the main body of my remarks it is worth saying how pleased I am that your conference is taking place here in this chapel at Liverpool Hope University. It was where I worshipped while I was a student living in Newman Hall, in what was then Christ College, and it was where I was married twenty five years ago next month.
Perhaps it is also worth recording two things from recent reports: first, that an estimated 100,000 people die for their Christian faith each year and, second, that at a time when it is fashionable to attack the Church for its failings, we might just reflect for a moment on the extraordinary outpouring of good for which the Church is responsible: without any distinction of religion or race. Worldwide, the Church runs 70,544 kindergartens with 6,478,627 pupils; 92,847 primary schools with 31,151,170 pupils; 43,591 secondary schools with 17,793,559 pupils. She educates 2,304,171 high school pupils, and 3,338,455 university students. The Church’s worldwide charity and healthcare centres include: 5,305 hospitals; 18,179 dispensaries; 547 Care Homes for people with Leprosy; 17,223 Homes for the elderly, or the chronically ill or people with a disability; 9,882 orphanages; 11,379 crèches; 15,327 marriage counseling; 34,331 social rehabilitation centres and 9,391 other kinds of charitable institutions. In addition, consider its work in establishing hospices for the terminally ill and dying, it shelters for the homeless, and its work in refugee camps, among internally displaced people and with the poor. That we fail, both personally and institutionally, is self evident – and it was ever thus – but occasionally we should recall the lives that have been laid down for the religious freedoms we enjoy today and the lives which continued to be given in sacrifice or service.
If a faith is worth dying for it is worth living for – and these examples of sacrifice and self giving should inspire and animate us all. That call to give generously of ourselves – and to share our belief and love of God and the man made in his image – was at the heart of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.
Many have remarked that the missing Cardinal at the Council was Blessed John Henry Newman because many of the ideas which it proclaimed were ideas which he had put forward a century before.
In his famous “Second Spring” – sermon preached in 1852 at St.Mary’s College Oscot, where Pope Benedict Emeritus completed his four day visit to Scotland and England. Newman began with some words from The Song of Solomon:
Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come. For the winter is now past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers have appeared in our land.”<
He gave emphasis to this metaphor by asking:
Have we any right to take it strange, if, in this English land, the spring-time of the Church should turn out to be an English spring, an uncertain, anxious time of hope and fear, of joy and suffering,–of bright promise and budding hopes, yet withal, of keen blasts, and cold showers, and sudden storms?
Newman understood better than anyone that this new birth would not be without pain. Over 160 years later, men and women are still struggling with the same questions and making the same journey.
That vast numbers of our countrymen still search for deeper spiritual meaning to their lives undoubtedly puzzles the author of “The God Delusion” and his fellow protestors. They find it even more puzzling that Christians are willing to surrender something of their freedom – “freedom to choose” – for something of greater worth. Perhaps that will speak into the hearts of those demonstrating here today for their right to choose to take the lives of the unborn children.
Newman unequivocally upheld the truth of Christianity:
“To suppose that all beliefs are equally true in the eyes of God, provided they are all sincerely held, is simply unreal and a mere dream of reason.” He argued that we would come to venerate spirituality or religion rather than Christ and that “in this way religion is made to consist in contemplating ourselves instead of Christ.”
He insisted that it was a heresy to state that “any creed is as good as any other. The lie teaches that all religious declarations are equally worthy because they are no more than matters of personal opinion.”
Newman’s belief in the truth of the Christian creeds, his belief in the teaching authority of the Pope, and his desire that each person should embrace their duty to share their beliefs and to act on them in a way that would benefit society as a whole, should be central to our understanding of the theology of the Second Vatican Council – Newman’s Council – and to Pope Benedict’s decision to beatify him and to come to Birmingham to do it.
Pope Benedict Emeritus designated the year of faith as a time to mark and reflect on two things – the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I wonder how many of us – either as individuals or parishes have actually done this yet?
Despite the many negatives events of the intervening 50 years it was the Council which gave us Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI – both of whom upheld the spirit and teachings of the Council – and in Pope Francis I we have the natural successor of Pope John XXIII. For every Catholic bewildered or upset by change there were many more who knew that the Church had to speak the old truths in a new way and that inertia was not an option.
Among its s many documents the Council issued four Constitutions. One of them, Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution of the Church, defined the role of Pontiff as integrating the pope’s power of primacy with the power of the college of bishops – an issue to which Pope Francis may well return, especially in the light of his decision to repeatedly use the title of Bishop of Rome rather than that of Pope when describing himself. If he decided to develop such thinking on the decentralisation of decision making away from the Roman Curia, it might, who knows, well open the way to the convening of a Third Vatican Council.
Although Pope John XXIII was a diocesan bishop – he was Patriarch of Venice – he had also been a high ranking curial diplomat and had a mischievous sense of humour about its effectiveness. Once asked how many people work in the Vatican, he replied, “about half.”
He was also asked “Is it true the Vatican is closed in the afternoons and people don’t work then?”No” he replied, “the offices are closed in the afternoons. People don’t work in the mornings.”
Fortunately, especially at a time when it is very fashionable to attack the Curia, it must be added that the officials who do work include some remarkably diligent servant s of t he Church. Pope John was famous for his good sense of humour and ability to laugh at himself and for deflating the overly self important. When greeted by a rather officious Mother Superior who announced to him that “I’m the Superior of the Holy Spirit” he replied “I’m only the Vicar of Christ.”
In addition to looking at the internal organisation of the Church and its ability to fulfil its mission in the world, another of the great themes and goals of the Second Vatican Council was the importance of developing inter denominational and inter faith relationships and promoting religious freedom for all.
This was a theme which Pope Francis emphasised during a meeting with religious leaders of other faiths in which he pledged friendship, respect and continued dialogue with other religious leaders, promising cooperation with Orthodox churches, describing the spiritual bond between Catholics and Jews as “very special” and expressing gratitude to Muslim leaders.
“The Catholic Church is aware of the importance of the promotion of friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions,” the Pope said. “I want to repeat this: The promotion of friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions.” Among those present were Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, as well as other Orthodox leaders; representatives from different Protestant denominations; Jewish and Muslim leaders and advocates; and representatives of the Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu and Jainist faiths.
“You have an enormous responsibility and task before God and before men,” said Bartholomew, the first patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church to attend a papal investiture since the two branches of Christianity broke apart almost a millennium ago.
“The unity of the Christian churches is the first and foremost of our concerns,” he added.
Soon after his election as pope, Francis sent a message to Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, pledging a spirit of “renewed collaboration.” Rabbi Di Segni attended the Vatican meeting and praised the new pope’s outreach.
“It’s a good start,” Rabbi Di Segni said in an interview. “Hopefully, we’ll not have any accidents.” But, pointing out that disagreements are inevitable, the rabbi added, “What is important is the good will to solve them.”
Imam Yahya Pallavicini, vice president of the Italian Islamic Religious Community, shook hands with Pope Francis and presented him with a book exploring the contemplative dimensions of Islam. He said he was touched when Francis expressed his gratitude for the presence of Muslim leaders in the room, and he predicted that the new pope would deepen the relationship between Catholics and Muslims. All of us saw the symbolism and the power of love in the Pope’s decision to wash the feet of a Muslim woman during the Easter liturgies.
As we consider what remain the implications of the Second Vatican Council for the Church today – especially in the context of the Church’s mission to the world and its relationship with other faiths and denominations, I want first to say something about the context of the Council and about the man who inspired it. Both have great relevance in the words of the Book of Esther, “for such a time as this.”
John XXIII’s convening of the Council was a time of great hope for the Church but this was not mirrored in the secular world, where it was a tense time – defined by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the stand-off between Presidents J.F.Kennedy and Nikita Kruschev. The crisis was at its height and the US was carrying out nuclear tests at Johnston Island and in Nevada. The simmering Cold War conflict was being fought out in the open in proxy wars, civil wars, and revolutions, aided and abetted by the super powers.
In other stirrings which underlined the sense of change afoot everywhere, Dr.Martin Luther King had been arrested for his campaign for civil rights and a little known anti-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela, had been thrown in jail in South Africa.
Countries like Rwanda and Burundi had become independent and others, like Algeria, had voted to do the same. In 1945, 750 million people were governed by colonial powers but by 1962 two thirds of the countries in the United Nations were independent nations newly independent.
Religious and political change was also affecting the arts, music and culture. In its vanguard, the Beatles were taking their distinctive Liverpool beat into recording studios and their manager, Brian Epstein, was tying up recording contracts.
All these things were having a profound effect on my generation and at my new school, where I had just started as a first former, each morning we were asked to pray for a resolution of the dangerous confrontation between the USA and USSR and also to pray for the success of the Council.
As the Council fathers gathered in October 1962, for the twenty-first Ecumenical Council of the Church, they came with a mandate to address the relationship between the Catholic Church and the modern world. Good Pope John had signalled his intention to convene the Council just three months after his election as Pontiff in October 1958.
He frequently said that it was time to throw open the windows of the Church in order to let in some fresh air: a time for aggiornamento – a bringing-up-to-date. He argued that the Church must “keep up to date with the changing conditions of this modern world, and of modern living, for these have opened up entirely new avenues for the Catholic apostolate.” He said it was a time to address “the errors, needs and opportunities of our day” and that the key purpose of calling the Council was “that the sacred heritage of Christian truth be safeguarded and expounded with greater efficacy. “
Pope John passionately believed that Christians needed to stand together and show love and respect towards one another. He invited, and they accepted, representatives of the Protestant and Orthodox churches to attend the Council as observers.
The Council had its genesis twenty earlier during World War Two, when, as Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, he had made his annual retreat in Istanbul, where he was Nuncio. The Jesuit, Fr.Rene Follet, preached on the image of the perfect bishop and Roncalli, reflecting on the horrors being played out in the world, recorded in his diary that:
“The Bishop must be distinguished by his own understanding, and his
adequate explanation to others, of the philosophy of history, even the
history that is now, before our eyes, adding pages of blood to pages of
political and social disorders.”
He noted his intention to re-read St. Augustine’s City of God, and, having done so, he determined to bring the Church to an understanding of its contemporary prophetic role. He wanted his brother bishops and the laity to see that in every generation they must discern the signs of the times, put them into the context of the deeper patterns of history, and annunciate the still deeper principles of order (Book XIX of St. Augustine’s City of God: “peace is the tranquillity of order”) which must combat the maladies of the age.
On October 11th, in his opening address, Pope John began by reminding those gathered that “the Church must once more reaffirm that teaching authority of hers which never fails, but will endure until the end of time. For that was Our reason for calling this most authoritative assembly, and We address you now as the humble successor, the latest born, of this Prince of Apostles. “
He said that the choice for the world was “to be with Christ or against Him” and that the decision to separate ourselves from Christ results in “confusion, bitterness in their relations with one another, and the savage threat of war.”
The Council had been called, he said, “to diffuse the light of truth; to give right guidance to men both as individuals and as members of a family and a society; to evoke and strengthen their spiritual resources; and to set their minds continually on those higher values which are genuine and unfailing” and his hope was that the Church would be given “spiritual enrichment”
He expressed anxiety about those pessimists who “can see nothing but calamity and disaster in the present state of the world. They say over and over that this modern age of ours, in comparison with past ages, is definitely deteriorating. One would think from their attitude that history, that great teacher of life, had taught them nothing. They seem to imagine that in the days of the earlier councils everything was as it should be so far as doctrine and morality and the Church’s rightful liberty were concerned. “
We feel that We must disagree with these prophets of doom, who are always forecasting worse disasters, as though the end of the world were at hand. “
In stating that there was “a basis for optimism” he contrasted the freedom in which the Second Vatican Council was meeting with earlier times whilst not neglecting to mention those bishops who were missing from the Council’s deliberations: “They suffer imprisonment and every kind of disability because of their faith in Christ.” That remains the case for many bishops, priests, religious and lay people today.
His opening address reminded the church that Catholics must contribute to society; that it must not fear science but always temper it with appropriate ethics; that it must bring home the Church’s teaching to the modern world; uphold and transmit truth fearlessly: “Our duty is not just to guard this treasure, as though it were some museum-piece and we the curators, but earnestly and fearlessly to dedicate ourselves to the work that needs to be done in this modern age of ours, pursuing the path which the Church has followed for almost twenty centuries.”
He called for “a fresh approach” for the Council fathers to “blaze a trail” and to expound the truths held by the church “in a manner more consistent with a predominantly pastoral view of the Church’s teaching office.” This he says will be “a radiant dawn”… For with the opening of this Council a new day is dawning on the Church, bathing her in radiant splendour. It is yet the dawn, but the sun in its rising has already set our hearts aglow.”
Because some tend to use the Vatican Council as a pretext for attacking aspects of the Church’s teaching or liturgical practices which they may not like it is perhaps instructive to hear again the address which Pope John gave at the opening of the Council – and you can judge for yourself whether its promise has yet been fulfilled and what it continues to say to us 50 years later. I will only have time to refer to the “headlines” but you can read the rest for yourself:
Pope John XXIII – Address at the Opening of Vatican Council II – 11 October 1962
Today, Venerable Brethren is a day of joy for Mother Church: through God’s most kindly providence the longed-for day has dawned for the solemn opening of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, here at Saint Peter’s shrine. And Mary, God’s Virgin Mother, on this feast day of her noble motherhood, gives it her gracious protection….
The Church In Council
A positive proof of the Catholic Church’s vitality is furnished by every single council held in the long course of the centuries—by the twenty ecumenical councils as well as by the many thousands of memorable regional and provincial ones emblazoned on the scroll of history.
And now the Church must once more reaffirm that teaching authority of hers which never fails, but will endure until the end of time. For that was Our reason for calling this most authoritative assembly, and We address you now as the humble successor, the latest born, of this Prince of Apostles. The present Council is a special, worldwide manifestation by the Church of her teaching office, exercised in taking account of the errors, needs and opportunities of our day.
A History Of Triumph
We address you, therefore, as Christ’s vicar, and We naturally begin this General Council by setting it in its historical context. The voice of the past is both spirited and heartening. We remember with joy those early popes and their more recent successors to whom we owe so much. Their hallowed, momentous words come down to us through the councils held in both the East and the West, from the fourth century to the Middle Ages, and right down to modern times. Their uninterrupted witness, so zealously given, proclaims the triumph of Christ’s Church, that divine and human society which derives from its divine Redeemer its title, its gifts of grace, its whole dynamic force.
And Of Adversity
Here is cause indeed for spiritual joy. And yet this history has its darker side too, a fact, which cannot be glossed over. These nineteen hundred years have reaped their harvest of sorrow and bitterness. The aged Simeon’s prophecy to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, proves true in every age: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel, and for a sign that shall be contradicted.” 1 Jesus, too, when grown to manhood, made it quite clear that men in times to come would oppose Him. We remember those mysterious words of His: “He who hears you, hears me.” 2 Saint Luke, who records these words, also quotes Him later as saying: “He who is not with me is against me; and he who does not gather with me scatters.” 3
To Be With Christ Or Against Him
Certain it is that the critical issues, the thorny problems that wait upon men’s solution, have remained the same for almost twenty centuries. And why? Because the whole of history and of life hinges on the person of Jesus Christ. Either men anchor themselves on Him and His Church, and thus enjoy the blessings of light and joy, right order and peace; or they live their lives apart from Him; many positively oppose Him, and deliberately exclude themselves from the Church. The result can only be confusion in their lives, bitterness in their relations with one another, and the savage threat of war.
A Pastoral Function
But the function of every ecumenical council has always been to make a solemn proclamation of the union that exists between Christ and His Church; to diffuse the light of truth; to give right guidance to men both as individuals and as members of a family and a society; to evoke and strengthen their spiritual resources; and to set their minds continually on those higher values which are genuine and unfailing.
No study of human history during these twenty centuries of Christendom can fail to take note of the evidence of this extraordinary teaching authority of the Church as voiced in her general councils. The documents are there, whole volumes of them; a sacred heritage housed in the Roman archives and in the most famous libraries of the world.
The Decision To Hold The Second Vatican Council
A Sudden Inspiration
As regards the immediate cause for this great event, which gathers you here together at Our bidding, it is sufficient for Us to put on record once more something which, though trifling in itself, made a deep impression on Us personally. The decision to hold an ecumenical council came to Us in the first instance in a sudden flash of inspiration. We communicated this decision, without elaboration, to the Sacred College of Cardinals on that memorable January 25, 1959, the feast of Saint Paul’s Conversion, in his patriarchal basilica in the Ostien Way. 4 The response was immediate. It was as though some ray of supernatural light had entered the minds of all present: it was reflected in their faces; it shone from their eyes. At once the world was swept by a wave of enthusiasm, and men everywhere began to wait eagerly for the celebration of this Council.
For three years the arduous work of preparation continued. It consisted in making a detailed and accurate analysis of the prevailing condition of the faith, the religious practice, and the vitality of the Christian, and particularly the Catholic, body.
We are convinced that the time spent in preparing for this Ecumenical Council was in itself an initial token of grace, a gift from heaven.
Hope For Spiritual Enrichment
For We have every confidence that the Church, in the light of this Council, will gain in spiritual riches. New sources of energy will be opened to her, enabling her to face the future without fear. By introducing timely changes and a prudent system of mutual cooperation, We intend that the Church shall really succeed in bringing men, families and nations to the appreciation of supernatural values.
Thus the celebration of this Council becomes a compelling motive for whole-hearted thanksgiving to God, the giver of every good gift, and for exultantly proclaiming the glory of Christ the Lord, the triumphant and immortal King of ages and peoples.
The Timing Of This Council
And now, venerable brethren, there is another point that We would have you consider. Quite apart from the spiritual joy we all feel at this solemn moment of history, the very circumstances in which this Council is opening are supremely propitious. May We go on record as expressing this conviction openly before you now in full assembly.
In the daily exercise of Our pastoral office, it sometimes happens that We hear certain opinions which disturb Us—opinions expressed by people who, though fired with a commendable zeal for religion, are lacking in sufficient prudence and judegment in their evaluation of events. They can see nothing but calamity and disaster in the present state of the world. They say over and over that this modern age of ours, in comparison with past ages, is definitely deteriorating. One would think from their attitude that history, that great teacher of life, had taught them nothing. They seem to imagine that in the days of the earlier councils everything was as it should be so far as doctrine and morality and the Church’s rightful liberty were concerned.
We feel that We must disagree with these prophets of doom, who are always forecasting worse disasters, as though the end of the world were at hand.
A Basis For Optimism
Present indications are that the human family is on the threshold of a new era. We must recognize here the hand of God, who, as the years roll by, is ever directing men’s efforts, whether they realize it or not, towards the fulfilment of the inscrutable designs of His providence, wisely arranging everything, even adverse human fortune, for the Church’s good.
Civil Intervention Eliminated
As a simple example of what We mean, consider the extremely critical problems which exist today in the political and economic spheres. Men are so worried by these things that they give scant thought to those religious concerns, which are the province of the Church’s teaching authority. All this is evil, and we are right to condemn it. But this new state of affairs has at least one undeniable advantage: it has eliminated the innumerable obstacles erected by worldly men to impede the Church’s freedom of action. We have only to take a cursory glance through the annals of the Church to realize that even those ecumenical councils which are recorded there in letters of gold, were celebrated in the midst of serious difficulties and most distressing circumstances, through the unwarranted intervention of the civil authority. Such intervention was sometimes dictated by a sincere intention on the part of the secular princes to protect the Church’s interests, but more often than not their motives were purely political and selfish, and the resultant situation was fraught with spiritual disadvantage and danger.
Earnest Prayer For Absent Bishops
We must indeed confess to you Our deep sorrow over the fact that so many bishops are missing today from your midst. They suffer imprisonment and every kind of disability because of their faith in Christ. The thought of these dear brothers of Ours impels Us to pray for them with great earnestness. Yet We are not without hope; and We have the immense consolation of knowing that the Church, freed at last from the worldly fetters that trammelled her in past ages, can through you raise her majestic and solemn voice from this Vatican Basilica, as from a second Apostolic Cenacle.
The Council’s Principal Duty:
The Defence And Advancement Of Truth
The major interest of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred heritage of Christian truth be safeguarded and expounded with greater efficacy.
That doctrine embraces the whole man, body and soul. It bids us live as pilgrims here on earth, as we journey onwards towards our heavenly homeland.
Man’s Twofold Obligation
It demonstrates how we must conduct this mortal life of ours. If we are to achieve God’s purpose in our regard we have a twofold obligation: as citizens of earth, and as citizens of heaven. That is to say, all men without exception, both individually and in society, have a life-long obligation to strive after heavenly values through the right use of the things of this earth. These temporal goods must be used in such a way as not to jeopardize eternal happiness.
Seeking The Kingdom Of God
True enough, Christ our Lord said: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His justice,” 5 and this word “first” indicates what the primary direction of all our thoughts and energies must be. Nevertheless, we must not forget the rest of Our Lord’s injunction: “and all these things shall be given you besides.” 6 Thus the traditional as well as the contemporary Christian approach to life is to strive with all zeal for evangelical perfection, and at the same time to contribute toward the material good of humanity. It is from the living example and the charitable enterprise of such Christians as these that all that is highest and noblest in human society takes its strength and growth.
Contributing To Society
If this doctrine is to make its impact on the various spheres of human activity—in private, family and social life—then it is absolutely vital that the Church shall never for an instant lose sight of that sacred patrimony of truth inherited from the Fathers. But it is equally necessary for her to keep up to date with the changing conditions of this modern world, and of modern living, for these have opened up entirely new avenues for the Catholic apostolate.
The Church has never been stinting in her admiration for the results of man’s inventive genius and scientific progress, which have so revolutionized modern living. But neither has she been backward in assessing these new developments at their true value. While keeping a watchful eye on these things, she has constantly exhorted men to look beyond such visible phenomena—to God, the source of all wisdom and beauty. Her constant fear has been that man, who was commanded to “subject the earth and rule it,” 7 should in the process forget that other serious command: “The Lord thy God shalt thou worship, and Him only shalt thou serve.” 8 Real progress must not be impeded by a passing infatuation for transient things.
Bringing Home The Church’s Teaching To The Modern World
From what We have said, the doctrinal role of this present Council is sufficiently clear.
Transmitting The Truth Fearlessly
This twenty-first Ecumenical Council can draw upon the most effective and valued assistance of experts in every branch of sacred science, in the practical sphere of the apostolate, and in administration. Its intention is to give to the world the whole of that doctrine which, notwithstanding every difficulty and contradiction, has become the common heritage of mankind—to transmit it in all its purity, undiluted, undistorted.
It is a treasure of incalculable worth, not indeed coveted by all, but available to all men of good will.
And our duty is not just to guard this treasure, as though it were some museum-piece and we the curators, but earnestly and fearlessly to dedicate ourselves to the work that needs to be done in this modern age of ours, pursuing the path which the Church has followed for almost twenty centuries.
Nor are we here primarily to discuss certain fundamentals of Catholic doctrine, or to restate in greater detail the traditional teaching of the Fathers and of early and more recent theologians. We presume that these things are sufficiently well known and familiar to you all.
A Fresh Approach
There was no need to call a council merely to hold discussions of that nature. What is needed at the present time is a new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind in the unreserved acceptance by all of the entire Christian faith, without forfeiting that accuracy and precision in its presentation which characterized the proceedings of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council. What is needed, and what everyone imbued with a truly Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit craves today, is that this doctrine shall be more widely known, more deeply understood, and more penetrating in its effects on men’s moral lives. What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honoured teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else.
This, then, is what will require our careful, and perhaps too our patient, consideration. We must work out ways and means of expounding these truths in a manner more consistent with a predominantly pastoral view of the Church’s teaching office.
The Right Way To Suppress Error
In these days, which mark the beginning of this Second Vatican Council, it is more obvious than ever before that the Lord’s truth is indeed eternal. Human ideologies change. Successive generations give rise to varying errors, and these often vanish as quickly as they came, like mist before the sun.
The Church has always opposed these errors, and often condemned them with the utmost severity. Today, however, Christ’s Bride prefers the balm of mercy to the arm of severity. She believes that, present needs are best served by explaining more fully the purport of her doctrines, rather than by publishing condemnations.
Contemporary Repudiation Of Godlessness
Not that the need to repudiate and guard against erroneous teaching and dangerous ideologies is less today than formerly. But all such error is so manifestly contrary to rightness and goodness, and produces such fatal results, that our contemporaries show every inclination to condemn it of their own accord—especially that way of life which repudiates God and His law, and which places excessive confidence in technical progress and an exclusively material prosperity. It is more and more widely understood that personal dignity and true self-realization are of vital importance and worth every effort to achieve. More important still, experience has at long last taught men that physical violence, armed might, and political domination are no help at all in providing a happy solution to the serious problems which affect them.
A Loving Mother
The great desire, therefore, of the Catholic Church in raising aloft at this Council the torch of truth, is to show herself to the world as the loving mother of all mankind; gentle, patient, and full of tenderness and sympathy for her separated children. To the human race oppressed by so many difficulties, she says what Peter once said to the poor man who begged an alms: “Silver and gold I have none; but what I have, that I give thee. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise and walk.” 9 In other words it is not corruptible wealth, nor the promise of earthly happiness, that the Church offers the world today, but the gifts of divine grace which, since they raise men up to the dignity of being sons of God, are powerful assistance and support for the living of a more fully human life. She unseals the fountains of her life-giving doctrine, so that men, illumined by the light of Christ, will understand their true nature and dignity and purpose. Everywhere, through her children, she extends the frontiers of Christian love, the most powerful means of eradicating the seeds of discord, the most effective means of promoting concord, peace with justice, and universal brotherhood.
Promoting Unity Of The Christian And Human Family
The Church’s anxiety to promote and defend truth springs from her conviction that without the assistance of the whole of revealed doctrine man is quite incapable of attaining to that complete and steadfast unanimity which is associated with genuine peace and eternal salvation. For such is God’s plan. He “wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 10
Unhappily, however, the entire Christian family has not as yet fully and perfectly attained to this visible unity in the truth. But the Catholic Church considers it her duty to work actively for the fulfilment of that great mystery of unity for which Christ prayed so earnestly to His heavenly Father on the eve of His great sacrifice. The knowledge that she is so intimately associated with that prayer is for her an occasion of ineffable peace and joy. And why should she not rejoice sincerely when she sees Christ’s prayer extending its salvific and ever increasing efficacy even over those who are not of her fold?
Reflection Of That Unity Sought By Christ
Indeed, if we consider well the unity for which Christ prayed on behalf of His Church, it would seem to shine, as it were, with a threefold ray of supernatural, saving light. There is first of all that unity of Catholics among themselves which must always be kept steadfast and exemplary. There is also a unity of prayer and ardent longing prompting Christians separated from this Apostolic See to aspire to union with us. And finally there is a unity, which consists in the esteem and respect shown for the Catholic Church by members of various non-Christian religions.
Universality And Unity
It is therefore an overwhelming source of grief to us to know that, although Christ’s blood has redeemed every man that is born into this world, there is still a great part of the human race that does not share in those sources of supernatural grace, which exist in the Catholic Church. And yet the Church sheds her light everywhere. The power that is hers by reason of her supernatural unity redounds to the advantage of the whole family of men. She amply justifies those magnificent words of Saint Cyprian: “The Church, radiant with the light of her Lord, sheds her rays over the entire world, and that light of hers remains one, though everywhere diffused; her corporate unity is not divided. She spreads her luxuriant branches over all the earth; she sends out her fair-flowing streams ever farther afield. But the head is one; the source is one. She is the one mother of countless generations. And we are her children, born of her, fed with her milk, animated with her breath.” 11
Blazing A Trail
Such, venerable brethren, is the aim of the Second Vatican Council. It musters the Church’s best energies and studies with all earnestness how to have the message of salvation more readily welcomed by men. By that very fact it blazes a trail that leads toward that unity of the human race, which is so necessary if this earthly realm of ours is to conform to the realm of heaven, “whose king is truth, whose law is love, whose duration is eternity.” 12
Thus, venerable brethren in the episcopate, “our heart is wide open to you.” 13 Here we are assembled in this Vatican Basilica at a turning-point in the history of the Church; here at this meeting-place of earth and heaven, by Saint Peter’s tomb and the tomb of so many of Our predecessors, whose ashes in this solemn hour seem to thrill in mystic exultation.
A Radiant Dawn
For with the opening of this Council a new day is dawning on the Church, bathing her in radiant splendour. It is yet the dawn, but the sun in its rising has already set our hearts aglow. All around is the fragrance of holiness and joy. Yet there are stars to be seen in this temple, enhancing its magnificence with their brightness. You are those stars, as witness the Apostle John; 14 the churches you represent are golden candlesticks shining round the tomb of the Prince of Apostles. 15 With you We see other dignitaries come to Rome from the five continents to represent their various nations. Their attitude is one of respect and warm-hearted expectation.
Saints, Faithful, And Council Fathers
Hence, it is true to say that the citizens of earth and heaven are united in the celebration of this Council. The role of the saints in heaven is to supervise our labours; the role of the faithful on earth, to offer concerted prayer to God; your role, to show prompt obedience to the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit and to do your utmost to answer the needs and expectations of every nation on earth. To do this you will need serenity of mind, a spirit of brotherly concord, moderation in your proposals, dignity in discussion, and wisdom in deliberation.
God grant that your zeal and your labours may abundantly fulfil these aspirations. The eyes of the world are upon you; and all its hopes.
Prayer For Divine Assistance
Almighty God, we have no confidence in our own strength; all our trust is in you. Graciously look down on these Pastors of your Church. Aid their counsels and their legislation with the light of your divine grace. Be pleased to hear the prayers we offer you, united in faith, in voice, in mind.
Mary, help of Christians, help of bishops; recently in your church at Loreto, where We venerated the mystery of the Incarnation, 16 you gave us a special token of your love. Prosper now this work of ours, and by your kindly aid bring it to a happy, successful conclusion. And do you, with Saint Joseph your spouse, the holy apostles Peter and Paul, Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist, intercede for us before the throne of God.
To Jesus Christ, our most loving Redeemer, the immortal King of all peoples and all ages, be love, power and glory for ever and ever. Amen
Of course, Pope John XXIII would be dead the following year, 1963, and it would be left to Paul VI to see though the work of the Council which would end on December 8th 1965. The Council which was attended by over 2,000 bishops and advisors and observers from over 17 different Christian denominations.
The Council promulgated Four Constitutions:
• Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation)
• Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church)
• Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World)
• Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy)
• Ad Gentes (Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity)
• Apostolicam Actuositatem (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity)
• Christus Dominus (Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church)
• Inter Mirifica (Decree on the Means of Social Communication)
• Optatam Totius (Decree on the Training of Priests)
• Orientalium Ecclesiarum (Decree on the Catholic Oriental Churches)
• Perfectae Caritatis (Decree on the Up-to-date Renewal of Religious Life)
• Presbyterorum Ordinis (Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests)
• Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism)
• Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Liberty)
• Gravissimum Educationis (Declaration on Christian Education)
• Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Church’s Relations with Non-Christian
I can’t speak about all or many of these but let me refer to Lumen Gentium which not only states that lay people have a right to speak out when they believe that it would assist the Church in its apostolic work but they have a duty to do so and let me also single out another document which I think set the tone for the work of the Council along with the declaration on religious liberty.
On April 11th, 2013, we will celebrate the official publication of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris: On Establishing Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity and Liberty.
It is sometimes described as Good Pope John’s last will and testament to the Church; sometimes as the Pope’s letter to the entire world. This anniversary has particular significance for me because as a boy, in 1963, I came to Rome with my school – a brand new Jesuit Grammar School named for the English martyr, Edmund Campion – and, in St.Peter’s, in front of Pope John, we sang “Faith of Our Fathers.”
It’s a refrain we need again in these days: a recollection of what went before, the price that was paid, a reminder of how importance it is to cherish our story, to know who we are, not to lose our identity, and in every generation to understand and not to fear the need for renewal and sacrifice.
Pacem in Terris is a riposte to all those who question the role of religion in the quest for peace. A widely held opinion among intellectuals and opinion leaders insists that religion is a major source of strife and intolerance in the world. Pope Benedict not only disputed the notion that religion is necessarily “a source of discord or conflict”; he maintains that religious freedom is an important “path to peace.”
In stating this he builds upon John XXIII emphasis of the Catholic concepts of subsidiarity, solidarity, human dignity, and utter respect for God’s creation – where the man made in the image of God – imago Dei – always takes precedence over ideologies and systems.
Subsidiarity is enjoying a recent resurgence in popularity in European democracies, especially in the UK, where the government has incorporated something that seems very much like subsidiarity in to its flagship policy, but has named it localism.
Subsidiarity as we all understand it was developed by Oswald von Nell-Breuning, a German Jesuit theologian, whose thinking was pivotal in the publication of Quadragesimo Anno (1931) by Pope Pius XI, and whose writing was banned by the Nazis. Subsidiarity affirms that however complex a task may be, or however far reaching, it should be undertaken at the most local level possible.
In an increasingly globalised world where vast corporations have more wealth and power than many nation states, how much do we need our economies tempered by this principle, which hard-wires institutions against compulsive centralisation? The contrast with totalitarian and authoritarian societies – which subjugate the individual and these mediating structures to the State – could not be greater.
John XXIII was always at great pains to reject the Crushing of the Human Spirit and to oppose authoritarianism and narrow minded xenophobia.
To be Catholic is to be global. The word means “according to the whole”, and in every generation the Church’s adherents have sacrificed their lives to live out the Great Commission from Jesus to go out to all the nations of the world and to baptise all people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matthew: 28, 16-20). Worldwide there are two billion Christians; 1.2 billion Catholics. The onus is universal – it applies to all those who accept Him – and it expected to be lived out universally: “all nations”.
In his encyclical John XXIII, like Pope Francis, whose origins and characteristics are very similar, was appealing for peace and for harmonious co-existence.
His successor, in the Council’s most contentious Declaration, Dignitatis Humanae, set out the terms on which religious believers and non believers could co-exist and enrich one another. It explains our obligation to share though never to impose. Who could say that this is not a message which the world needs to hear in our own times?
Just before Easter I stood in the charred remains of an Islamic madrassa which had been burnt out in an attack by Buddhist extremists in Burma. The mosque had been desecrated and all but a handful of the 200 Muslims living in that village had fled – from a village where they had co-existed peacefully for 200 years.The same scene could be replicated in situation all over the world where believers turn on believers ,non believers on non believers, believers on non-believers and non-believers on believers. It leads to terrible suffering and painand done in the name of God or god or man made ideologies of non belief.
Last year in the top 16 countries responsible for the most egregious and systematic violations of religious freedom, listed by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, persecution of Christians occurs in every one of those nations. This signals how malign and hostile the global environment may be and also, despite our “interconnectedness”, how indifferent we frequently are to those who reside with us in the household of faith.
The Holy See says that 100,000 Christians died for their faith last year. These are a selection of headlines from new items during just the past few weeks:
In Africa and the Middle East:
* The Silent Exodus of Syria’s Christians
* Islamic Law Comes to Rebel-Held Syria and the establishment of Sharia courts
• Christians slaughtered – the world yawns.
• Sudanese Officials Bulldoze Christian Church
• Nigerian Priest: Boko Haram Destroyed 50 Churches
• Tanzania : Christians Threatened with Islamist Violence on Easter•
Egypt’s Coptic Christians Must Be Protected From Sectarian Violence
• We Abandon Christians in the East At Our Peril
• Torture Likely Led to Death of Egyptian Christian in Libya, Sources Say
• Iraq’s Endangered Christians
• McMecca: The Strange Alliance of Clerics and Businessmen in Saudi Arabia
• Only 57 Churches Left in Iraq
• UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Discusses New Report on Violence Against Baha’is in Iran
• Iranian Pastor in Prison Needs Help of White House, Panel Told; Pastor’s Wife: “I am disappointed that the west has not fully engaged in this case. … I expect more from our government.”
• St. Mark’s Coptic Church in Benghazi Torched
• Outrage Spreads As Islam’s Most Holy Relics Are Being Demolished in Mecca
• Copts Protest Church Attack in Egypt — Church Attacked Again
• Egyptian Court Sentences Christian Family to 15 Years for Converting from Islam
• Egypt’s Constitution Threatens Religious Freedom
• In Libya, Two Religious Communities Forced Out
• In Art and Education, Saudi Arabia Teaches Muslims Should “Triumph” Over Jews and Christians
• Yemen’s Persecuted Christians
• Sufi Mystics Warn of More Islamist Violence
• Iran’s Religious Crackdown
In East Asia and the Pacific
• Chinese Activist, Now in U.S., Says His Relatives Remain Under Surveillance, Tells His Story of Abuse and Brutal Torture
• Beijing Cautions New Pope on Meddling in China
• Indonesian Officials Destroy Church in Front of Worshippers as Muslims Egg Them On
• Three International NGOs Protest Legal Harassment of Buddhist Youth leader Le Cong Cau
• Ober 100 Buddhist monks burn them selves to death in self immolations.
• Muslim Group Condemns Violence in Burma
• House Church in Xinjiang Raided and Leaders Interrogated
• Persecution Rises in China as Plan Begins to End House Churches
• China Rights group lists 2012’s Top 10 Cases of Anti-Christian Persecution
• MALAYSIA: Ibrahim Ali, The Head of Perkasa, Issues Appeal to Burn Bibles
• Two North Korean Christians Killed for Their Faith
• Vietnam’s New Religion Decree Restrictive as Vietnamese Authorities Tear Down Carmelite Monastery
• Rohingya Mulsims Face Crimes Against Humanity
• Indonesia Man Receives 5 Year Sentence for Insulting Islam
In South and Central Asia
•• Azerbaijan Mosque Loses Eight-Year Struggle for Religious Freedom
• Pakistani Minorities See New Threats
• Report: Kazakhstan Court Orders Burning of Religious Books, Possibly a First for Their Government
• Appeal Sent by Catholic Congregations in Pakistan for Revision of Blasphemy Law
• Almost 90 Killed in Attack Targeting Pakistan’s Shi’a Muslims
• BANGLADESH: 20,000-strong mob attacks, Ahmadi festival
• Violence Against Christians Spreading in India
• Shiites Demand Protection
• BRUTAL MURDER IN BALUCHISTAN: Christian Refuses to Convert to Islam
• Kazakhstan’s authorities raid at least eight separate worship meetings
It is against this backdrop that we should return to Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedom, on the right of the person and of communities to social and civil freedom in matters religious), promulgated by Paul VI, December, 1965. The Council fathers set out the terms on which Christians may remain true to the central belief and calling of universality – eschewing violent proselytism and theocracy and insisting on respect and tolerance while firmly asserting the right of Christians to worship freely and to proclaim their beliefs. It’s a message which the world desperately needs to hear in time such as these.
The Second Vatican Council speaks audibly to a generation which even in a country like our own is witnessing heavy handed intolerance involving attempts to ban the saying of prayers on public occasions to the banning of the wearing of a cross; let alone the imprisonment and “re-education” of Chinese Catholic bishops, like Shanghai’s Bishop Ma, and the execution of converts to Christianity in Iran. We think of the horrors of North Korea, of Nigeria, of Egypt, of Pakistan, of Syria, of Sudan and Iraq – and many other places. Wherever it occurs, this is the crushing of the human spirit. It also diminishes those who do it and robs society of something which can be virtuous and inspirational.
Speaking, appropriately enough, in Cuba’s Revolution Square (Homily, March 2012) Pope Benedict Emeritus reminded us of two things:
First, that religious freedom solidifies society:
Strengthening religious freedom consolidates social bonds, nourishes the hope of a better world, and creates favourable conditions for peace and harmonious development, while at the same time establishing solid foundations for securing the rights of future generations.
And secondly, that we must beware of intolerance and prejudice in our own lives:
There are those who wrongly interpret this search for the truth, leading them to irrationality and fanaticism; they close themselves up in ‘their truth,’ and try to impose it on others. These are like the blind scribes who, upon seeing Jesus beaten and bloody, cry out furiously, Crucify him! ( Jn 19:6). Anyone who acts irrationally cannot become a disciple of Jesus. Faith and reason are necessary and complementary in the pursuit of truth. God created man with an innate vocation to the truth and he gave him reason for this purpose. Certainly, it is not irrationality but rather the yearning for truth which the Christian faith promotes.
This yearning for truth is the antithesis of homogenisation that implies a one size fits all vacuous western modernity to be imposed throughout the world. In Catholic thought, subsidiarity and universality sit happily alongside one another; so do reason and faith – the domains of secular rationality and religious conviction. These domains are interdependent and to be civilised we need them both.
At the heart of all our concerns must remain the inalienable and inviolate dignity of the human person – which was a central theme of the document, Huamane Dignitatis and the encyclical Pacem In Terris – and which today we have experienced something close to aphasia.
Let me close with some random thoughts of John XXIII but which tells us more of the wonderful insights of this good and holy man. Doubtless it will have been thoughts such as these which will have inspired our new Pope but they should inspire us too:
A peaceful man does more good than a learned one.
Pope John XXIII
Anybody can be Pope; the proof of this is that I have become one.
Pope John XXIII
Born poor, but of honoured and humble people, I am particularly proud to die poor.
Pope John XXIII
Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.
Pope John XXIII
Every man has the right to life, to bodily integrity.
Pope John XXIII
I am able to follow my own death step by step. Now I move softly towards the end.
Pope John XXIII
I have looked into your eyes with my eyes. I have put my heart near your heart.
Pope John XXIII
It is easier for a father to have children than for children to have a real father.
Pope John XXIII
It is now for the Catholic Church to bend herself to her work with calmness and generosity. It is for you to observe her with renewed and friendly attention.
Pope John XXIII
It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about a serious problem and decide I must tell the Pope about it. Then I wake up completely and remember that I am the Pope.
Pope John XXIII
See everything, overlook a great deal, and correct a little.
Pope John XXIII
The family is the first essential cell of human society.
Pope John XXIII
The feelings of my smallness and my nothingness always kept me good company.
Pope John XXIII
The true and solid peace of nations consists not in equality of arms, but in mutual trust alone.
Pope John XXIII
So John XIII was right when he proclaimed that “The council now beginning rises in the Church like the daybreak, a forerunner of most splendid light.”
The question for us is whether we take its message into our own times.
David Alton, 2013.