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Taking the long view

By John Thornhill

There had been only one General Council since the 16th century Council of Trent, the Vatican Council of 1870, which the Franco-Prussian war caused to be aborted in the early stages of its work.  It was not easy, therefore, for Catholics to know what to make of the council convoked by John XXIII.  For many of them it seemed to promise little more than another moment of authoritative legislation.  The Church’s long experience, however, shows that this was a very inadequate understanding of what was to take place. In the Church of the early centuries, councils – local and general – were of great significance in the Church’s life. The bishops participating saw themselves as giving witness to the faith and practice of their local Church. Their common witness, it was assumed, was an expression of the unfailing faith of the one, universal Church.

Typically, these councils, called in moments of dispute and uncertainty, initiated a process whereby believers came to a renewed appreciation of the Church’s authentic faith. Because the general populace understood that it was their faith that was in question, feelings ran high, even in the streets and in the taverns; and most councils had an unsettled aftermath. “There has seldom been a council,” Cardinal Newman wrote in 1870, “without great confusion afterwards.”  In the judgment of historians, those councils that did not have this aftermath had no significant impact on the life of the Church. In other words, the great councils were events involving the whole Church, events in which the Church instinctively recognised the call to a new vitality. The unsettlement that followed came as it was recognised that this new vitality could only be owned through a disengagement from long established patterns of life.

Most Catholics of the mid-20th century would have found puzzling the suggestion that the Council convoked by John XXIII was an event in which they would all ultimately find themselves involved. In fact, however, as the Council unfolded, the instinct of faith (sensus fidelium) in the body of the faithful brought forth new energies, and produced a mood of enthusiasm and expectation, a sense that a profound change was about to take place. The world witnessed a surge of vitality in Catholicism for which it would be difficult to find a parallel in the experience of political societies. Four thousand journalists assembled in Rome to cover the opening of the Council.

One of the most remarkable things to be made clear by the historical studies now being undertaken is the role of John XXIII in shaping the outcome of the Council. According to Guiseppe Alberigo, in convoking Vatican II and giving a fundamental orientation to its deliberations, John XXIII ‘invented’ a new form of council.

Vatican II was unprecedented in its membership – over 3000 bishops taking part, four times the participants in any previous council, giving representation to all the great cultures of the world.  What was most remarkable, however, was the fact that this Council was called when the Church faced no evident crisis. Previous General Councils had all been assembled to deal with problems that threatened the life and unity of the Church. As the bishops were called to Vatican II, the Church faced no evident crisis. Pope John called the Council because, in the words of Alberigo, he “wanted a council that would mark a transition between two eras … that would bring the Church out of the post-tridentine period”. This decision of the pope was to give rise to an unprecedented process of change. It was a decision that gave expression to Pope John’s historical sensibilities and his personal sanctity.

John XXIII had a lifelong interest in history, as a scholar and a writer.  His particular interest was the history of Church Councils.  Alberigo has compared his outlook with that of Newman.  Like Newman, he understood that the Church lives in history, renewing itself as it “senses the rhythms of time”. His appeal to the gospel phrase, “signs of the times” – soon to be taken up by the Council – has left its mark on contemporary theology. As he was dying, he expressed his hopes for the Council in these words, “It is not the gospel that changes; it is we who are beginning to understand it better’.

Man of faith that he was, Pope John stressed the ‘pastoral’ nature of the coming Council: “the subordination of every aspect of the Church’s life to the image of the ‘Good Shepherd’”. His faith inspired him to trust in the grace of this extraordinary moment. Expecting an outcome that gave expression to the Spirit’s unfailing presence in the Church’s life, he looked forward to the Council as a ‘New Pentecost’ – well aware of the daring implications of this comparison, as suggesting a turning point in history “and the obligation of the Church to face it through a radical renewal, so that the Church would be able to present the gospel message to the world”. Against this background of historical sensitivity and a lively Christian hope, Pope John made his decision, trusting in “the instinct of faith in the body of the Church”, and in ‘the creative abilities of the assembly of bishops’. 

Though it was not widely appreciated at the time, there was a remarkable continuity of theme and emphasis in Pope John’s statements before the Council.  If this had been better appreciated, the American theologian Joseph Komonchak comments, it “might have made his opening address at the Council seem less startling and bold”.

It may be argued that it was the radical nature of the objective set for the Council by John XXIII that called for a perspective that looked beyond the passing fashions of theology – to a meeting with the Gospel itself, as the way towards a renewed Church.  If we concentrate our attention on the four Constitutions which are the core documents of Vatican II (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 1963; Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 1964; Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, 1965; Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 1965) we find that each of them finds its vital centre in the ‘mystery’ that is the very life of God’s Church – the ‘mystery’ that is the ultimate content of the Christian Gospel.

For the ‘scientific’ rationality engendered by the Enlightenment, ‘mystery’ is an opaque notion, referring to something not yet known. For the wisdom traditions of the world, on the other hand, ‘mystery’ is a very positive notion: “something unapproachable which invites entry, something unknowable that offers true understanding”. Linking this notion – that he derived from the eschatological message of Jewish apocalyptic – with his ‘gospel’ theme, Paul proclaimed the “mystery which for endless ages was kept secret but now is revealed” (Rom 16:25).

For Christian faith, the term ‘mystery’ has three levels of meaning.  Ultimately, it refers to the saving plan conceived from all eternity in the depths of the divine freedom and generosity. On another level, it refers to the Christ-event, the revelation and realisation of this plan, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And finally, it refers to the on-going actuality of the Christ-event in the Church’s sacramental life. 

Historians of Vatican II have provided us with a paradigm that brings to light the real significance of the Council. Like the great councils of the past, it is an event in the life of the Church that has just begun. It will certainly take many decades, and perhaps even centuries, for its significance in the history of the Church to become clear. The enthusiasm and expectations it aroused were an expression of the Church’s instinct of faith (sensus fidelium).  But, like previous councils, Vatican II has brought an aftermath of unsettlement and uncertainty, as believers come to terms with what the Council is offering. If other councils have dealt with particular problems faced by the Church, this council took up the task of a comprehensive renewal taking nothing less than the Gospel as the ultimate measure of the Church’s life.

These historians suggest that, in the short term, the ‘reception’ of Vatican II is following a predictable pattern. An initial period – in which enthusiastic expectations were often superficial, anticipating that institutional reform would achieve the goals set by Pope John’s Council – has been followed by a period of disillusionment and apathy, as it is recognised that these expectations are not being fulfilled. The real achievement of the Council, they suggest, lies ahead of us, as the sensus fidei comes to terms with this disappointment, and it is recognised by those who are prophetic leaders among God’s people that the real challenge of Vatican II goes far beyond institutional change, and calls for a renewal of the Church’s life, in all its aspects, through a new acceptance of the call of the Gospel.

Is this an impossible ideal? Looking forward to a ‘New Pentecost’ through the Council he convoked, Blessed John XXIII was well aware, as the historians of the Council have assured us, of the daring nature of this hope – for which the Council would constitute a turning point in the Church’s history, through an openness to energies that can only come from the Spirit, and a newfound ability to bring the Gospel message to the whole world. For those who interpret the Council in the spirit of John XXIII, the future we are suggesting is not an impossible dream, but an affirmation of our faith in the God of the Christian Gospel.

John Thornhill is a Marist theologian. This is an excerpt from his Aquinas Academy Jubilee Lecture, 2005, one of eight such lectures to be published by St Paul’s in 2006.  The title of that publication is yet to be decided.  Other authors include James Franklin – on the state of Catholic philosophy – Bernadette Tobin – on our genetic future – Esther de Waal – on “the monastic hear” – Gerard Hall SM – on the Church’s mission – Tom Ryan SM – on Aquinas’ theological method as conversation – Andrew Murray SM – on “the Church as a democracy?!” –  and Michael Whelan SM – on thriving in a system that can generate feelings of powerlessness.  For information on the forthcoming book contact: sandra@aquinas-academy.com.

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