We went to the Council not just with joy but with enthusiasm. There was an incredible sense of expectation. We were hoping that all would be renewed, that there would truly be a new Pentecost, a new era of the Church, because the Church was still fairly robust at that time – Sunday Mass attendance was still good, vocations to the priesthood and to religious life were already slightly reduced, but still sufficient.
However, there was a feeling that the Church was not moving forward, that it was declining, that it seemed more a thing of the past and not the herald of the future. And at that moment, we were hoping that this relation would be renewed, that it would change; that the Church might once again be a force for tomorrow and a force for today.
And we knew that the relationship between the Church and the modern period, right from the outset, had been slightly fraught, beginning with the Church’s error in the case of Galileo Galilei; we were looking to correct this mistaken start and to rediscover the union between the Church and the best forces of the world, so as to open up humanity’s future, to open up true progress. Thus we were full of hope, full of enthusiasm, and also eager to play our own part in this process.
Reflection – I want to spend these last days of Pope Benedict’s pontificate giving excerpts from his address to the Roman clergy. This is truly one of the most interesting talks I have ever read of the Holy Father’s, which is saying a lot, and as you can see I have put in a link to the whole text on the Vatican website. It’s too long for me to blog the whole of it, but I encourage everyone to read the whole thing. The Pope in this talk seems much more relaxed, informal, even chatty, as if the impending relief of the burdens of office has already put him more at ease.
And so, like many elderly men, his thoughts go back to younger days. In his case, the reminiscences are of great value to us, since his younger days occurred at the heart of the seminal event of modern Catholicism, the Second Vatican Council. And with his sharp intellect in no way diminished, he has something to say about that seminal event.
It is all about the mission of the Church in the modern world. When the apostles—those twelve Jewish men, a motley assemblage of fishermen, tax collectors and who knows what—went out from Jerusalem into the Gentile world, they were charged with the difficult task of proclaiming Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, the Messiah of Israel, to people who knew neither the law or the prophets nor longed for this Messiah.
By the true sensus fidei already acting in their midst and by the very words of Jesus recorded in Matt 28: 19-20 they knew they must do this… but how? In the first century and following the apostles and their successors boldly claimed the language, the culture, the images, the symbols of the pagan world to express faithfully the truth of the Christian Gospel, and did this while retaining the full moral content it demanded, and the whole Jewish religious sense of the one God and the covenant model. It was arguably the greatest feat of authentic inculturation of the faith in our history, and it occurred while people were being beheaded, crucified, thrown to lions, immolated.
All of which is a slight digression to allow me to say: buck up, folks! If they could do it, we can do it! Nobody’s throwing us to lions yet, much, at least not in
and Europe. Oh, we get scoffed at and the sins of fellow
Christians thrown in our faces, ad]nd it all can be very nasty and vulgar at
times, but I don’t somehow see Ignatius of Antioch (‘let the teeth of the
beasts grind me to become the pure wheat of Christ!’) feeling toooo sorry for
us just yet.
The Vatican Council was all about seeing how best to bring the Catholic faith and the Catholic mission to the modern world which is in such disarray. What is the ‘language, culture, images, symbols’ of this modern pagan world? How can we faithfully express the message of salvation, the full weight and beauty of its teachings, and the true moral implications that flow from them, in a way that modern people can hear?