May 2012

To live is to change: Vatican II and the pilgrim Church

Vatican II was not just a ground-breaking achievement, but an ongoing summons to mission at the heart of the world in which we live, writes Good Samaritan Sister Sonia Wagner.

BY Sonia Wagner SGS

“To live is to change. To be perfect is to have changed often.” (John Henry Newman)

In 1962 as we prepared for the opening of Vatican Council II, there was an air of excitement and heightened expectation in the Brisbane Church. What would this ecumenical and pastoral event mean? I was in my final year of high school and we were fortunate to receive regular updates and information about the Council. I recall asking the Franciscan priest who came to speak to us about the Council: “What is the chance of unity – say, between the Anglican and Catholic churches – as a result of this Council?” The answer was swift, somewhat deflating but, of course, accurate – “Buckley’s!”

Fifty years later, I was at the Santa Teresa Mission outside Alice Springs in the Northern Territory celebrating the silver jubilee of Good Samaritan Sister, Elizabeth Wiemers, with the community at Sunday Eucharist. During those days I experienced and pondered changes in the Church and religious life – changes that I could never have imagined back in 1962.

The Church going into Vatican II was ostensibly in good health. Whereas previous councils had responded to schism or attack, the focus of this Council was to be radically different. John XXIII, a revolutionary Pope with a simple, deep spirituality and relentless optimism, ushered in a spiritual renewal – “aggiornamento” – that would throw open the doors and windows of the Church.

Called a “pastoral” Council, it was assumed that all Church doctrine and dogma was accepted. The call was directed to all the People of God to live and apply the Church’s teaching in a rapidly changing modern world. Vatican II was then, not just a ground-breaking achievement, but an ongoing summons to mission at the heart of the world in which we live.

In many ways we have moved beyond the Vatican Council. So, the task is not retrieval of a past vision or working hard to recover what has been lost. We are facing challenges and situations that the Council Fathers could never have anticipated. There are, however, resources in the documents that can help us read today’s signs and situations.

The documents of Vatican II provide us with inspiringly balanced, scriptural and Christocentric views of the Church. One powerful and appealing image of Church is that of the People of God on pilgrimage echoing the words from the Letter to the Hebrews 13:14, “We have not here a lasting city, but we seek one that is to come”.

The image shift from a militant to a pilgrim Church brings with it revolutionary connotations. Rather than joining a battle march, pilgrims set out to discover the world. They are invited to a shared journey, a shared quest. Learning takes place as they travel along an ever-changing path. The relationship with other travellers is the bond of a common past and an as-yet-to-happen future. Glory replaces triumph as a descriptor of the end point of the journey.

“The Church, to which we are all called in Christ Jesus, and in which by the grace of God we acquire holiness, will receive its perfection only in the glory of heaven, when will come the time of the renewal of all things (Acts 3:21). The Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real though imperfect” (Lumen Gentium, 48). Such an honest admission of sin, weakness and incompleteness was unprecedented. Pointing beyond itself, the Church is ever on mission, always on pilgrimage, never for its own sake and always looking forward in hope.

In the spirit of the prophet Isaiah, we are reminded:

“No need to remember past events.
No need to think about what was done before.
Look, I am doing something new,
Now it emerges; can you not see it?
… The people I have shaped for myself will broadcast my praises” (Isaiah 43:18-25).

Tradition, treasuring our heritage, seeing ourselves as part of the communion of saints, remains highly significant for the Catholic Church as pilgrim. However, that does not cancel out all change. As Monica Hellwig reminds us, “Tradition implies change in continuity with the past”.

Blessed John Henry Newman referred to as “the invisible thinker of the Second Vatican Council” has spoken eloquently of the change process and the relationship to time.

“[A great idea] in time enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and fall around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and the old principles appear in new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often (“Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine”, 40).

Vatican II echoes these thoughts of Newman, locating authentic change, not merely in external realities but rather in the minds and hearts of the People of God.

“The Tradition which comes from the Apostles makes progress in the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit: the understanding of the things and words handed down grows, through the contemplation and study of believers, who ponder these things in their heart (cf Luke 2:19; 51) and through their interior understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience. The Church, we may say, as the ages pass, tends continually towards the fullness of divine truth, till the words of God are consummated in her” (Dei Verbum, 8).

The People of God on pilgrimage make up the Body of Christ, the Church. It is significant that the Council defined People of God to include the laity alongside the clergy and religious equally. Laity before this ran the risk of being overlooked as a passive body. The Council affirms that all must share in the discernment of God’s will. Consultation and collaboration should be the right and the obligation of all the pilgrim People of God.

At the heart of the Council’s theology of the laity is a focus on our common Baptism, the sacrament that configures all believers, including the ordained, as disciples of Christ. St Augustine knew this truth when he said:

“When I am frightened by what I am for you, then I am consoled by what I am with you. For you I am the Bishop, with you I am a Christian. The first is an office, the second a grace; the first a danger, the second salvation” (St Augustine of Hippo, Sermon, 340, 1).

Moving the diversely gifted People of God to apostolic activity and bearing witness to Christ while always ‘on the way’ as a Pilgrim Church towards a heavenly kingdom are key exhortations that emerge from the Council. Much of the work of the Church should be around discovering, freeing up and empowering of gifts, among the People of God, for the world; gifts as opposed to offices, roles or something into which one is educated. A new appreciation for the diversity of gifts and ministries described by St Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 is called for.

Pope John knew well the evil that is present in this less than perfect world. Nevertheless, he was strongly convinced that we must not exaggerate that evil and give in to a gloomy, judgemental pessimism. He urged Christians to “read the signs of the times”, and while not closing our eyes naively or foolishly to injustices and suffering, to be equally prepared to identify the signs of grace that abound in our world. Vatican II urged us to live in vulnerable and open mission to the world and always to be prepared to engage generously and constructively.

The Church has the responsibility of reading the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel so that it may carry out its task (Gaudium et Spes, 4) The Gospel call of the pilgrim Church calls us away from being simply a follower or being told the right path. It leads us to be a participant, actively involved, making choices, listening, doing, reading the signs of the times and the place and reflecting and learning as we go.

As Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation reminds us, “sacred tradition, sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church… are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others…” (Dei Verbum, 10). What ultimately holds them all together is the Holy Spirit; what immediately holds them all together is the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faith that the People of God share among themselves: “The body of the faithful as a whole, anointed as they are by the Holy One (cf 1 John 2:20, 27) cannot err in matters of belief” (Lumen Gentium,12).

The Church will come close to truly taking up the challenge and invitation of being a Pilgrim Church if it fully and radically embraces at every level its reason for being, namely, a People of God, on the way, universally called, richly gifted, at the service of the world.

This article is the fourth in a series commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

Sonia Wagner

Sonia Wagner is a Sister of the Good Samaritan living in Brisbane. She has served in congregational leadership and in Catholic education and pastoral ministry in several dioceses of Australia.

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