In the evening of John XXIII’s life he bequeathed to us a new dawn: a Church of hope and renewal, a youthful Church about to embark creatively on a new phase in mission, writes John Mansford Prior SVD.
BY John Mansford Prior SVD
On the evening of October 11, 1962, John XXIII spoke from the heart to the thousands gathered in St Peter’s Square. As the moon shone above, he asked parents to return home and, “give your children a warm hug from the pope”. He spoke of the Council, which he had opened that very morning, as “a new daybreak”. He himself knew something we had yet to learn: he had cancer and had just seven months to live. In the evening of his life he bequeathed to us a new dawn: a Church of hope and renewal, a youthful Church about to embark creatively on a new phase in mission.
Lumen gentium (LG), chapter two, images the Church as a pilgrim people inspired by the Spirit, accompanied by the Word, approaching the Abba. We are no static community, nor are we primarily an institution, but rather a humble, joyful, hopeful people on the move. The Church as the pilgrim people of God renewed our relationships with other faith communities, with society, with the poor, and eventually with the earth itself.
Gaudium et spes (GS) famously opens, “The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts”.
And this, surely, is where we find the saints of yesteryear and today – among the forgotten, the discarded, the stigmatised, among the fragile and the powerless at the edge of society, whether newly-arrived migrants in nineteenth century outback Australia, or among people living with HIV-AIDS in cities today. Catholics form less than two per cent of India’s population, yet they run most of the HIV-AIDS clinics throughout that vast sub-continent, as also all over South Saharan Africa. If in former times mission entailed building up educational and health care systems, today it might well entail working outside large institutional structures. The site remains the same: among those forgotten or discarded. That’s where we encounter Christ and witness to his compassionate justice.
What, then, is new in the mission-vision of Vatican II? The real newness that dawned a new daybreak in mission is surely found in the vision of Ad gentes (AG), chapter one. Here the pilgrim people of God is placed within a vast, cosmic sweep: “Missionary activity is nothing else, and nothing less, than the manifestation of God’s plan, its epiphany and realisation in the world and in history; that by which God, through mission, clearly brings to its conclusion the history of salvation”. This is new.
First, mission does not belong to the Church. The Church does not have a mission, rather mission has a Church. We are called to participate in God’s mission. We are a sign and means of God’s mission.
Second, we do not undertake mission to bring people into the Church, rather we form a community called Church in order to undertake mission, that is, to witness to Gospel values while working towards, the rule of God on earth. At the centre is God and God’s rule or reign or kingdom of joy and hope, of justice and peace, embracing all peoples, all nations, all cultures. Yes, when people are inspired by our Gospel values to join the Church we welcome them in order that the mission of love and compassion, of justice and peace, “reach the ends of the earth”.
Third, if mission belongs to God then mission has cosmic scope. Mission began at creation when the Spirit hovered over the deep (Genesis 1:1) and will end only when the whole creation has come to new birth in new heavens and a new earth (Revelation 21). Meanwhile, as a pilgrim people (LG, 2), we witness to God’s compassion at the edge of society (GS, 1) which we believe to be, and experience at the heart of the journey of the entire universe (AG, 1).
On the twentieth anniversary of Vatican II in 1985, John Paul II said that just one word sums up everything that the Council stands for, namely “dialogue”. As a Paschal people we do not confront but accompany, we do not compete but collaborate. The Church in Asia has described this as a three-fold dialogue: with cultures, with faith communities, with the poor.
With Cultures: Multi-cultural Australia is not just the context for mission in Australia, it is revealing to us what mission entails, namely to be a Gospel people who cross borders, an inter-cultural community proving in our local communities and wider networks that peoples can learn from each other, understand “the other”, and live as sisters and brothers. Whether the cultures are religious or secular, they are the site of this conversation with our living faith. We do not condemn secular society; we draw together its key, human values with those of the Gospel: fairness, openness, democracy, human dignity, responsibilities and rights. Not a clash of cultures, but cultures in conversation.
With Faith Communities: As a pilgrim people open to the vast scope of cosmic history, we do not see other faith communities as threats or competitors, but rather as fellow pilgrims. We prove by our inter-faith commitment that reconciliation is more powerful than confrontation. Truth, for us, is a Person, “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). We do not own truth, rather truth embraces us. As pilgrims in dialogue we move towards a greater, wider, deeper, nobler truth. Together.
With the Poor: Our conversations with cultures and religions are focused on the cultures and religiosity of the poor. In this globalising world, we open our eyes to the poor both on our doorstep as also globally.
Vatican II came at the end of the modern era, immediately prior to our post-modern cyber world of instant contact where space and time need no longer separate. Today mission is at once local – face to face – and global – through networks of concern. This local-global outreach has given birth to the neologism “glocal”.
If mission is God’s, then we work as hard as we are able, but leave everything in God’s hands. We do not judge people according to the extent of their parish involvement or pious activities, but we do rejoice when individuals and families give authentic witness to Gospel values in their home, among neighbours, in cyber networks. Mission is not centred on the parish but on society and our earthly home.
In baptism everyone is called to engage in God’s mission in the world. Yet, congregations of sisters and brothers now have NGO status with the United Nations in New York and the Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Why? Because, unlike other professionals, people in vows live 24-7 and for life, at the fissures of society, where social and moral tectonic plates are shifting.
In witnessing to, and working towards, a compassionate world, a more justly compassionate society, we are sustained by our faith, by the presence of Christ’s Spirit within and among us. Faith gives us the patient joy and persevering hope to remain put. We know what we stand for; let’s stand there!
This article is the eighth in a series commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.