July 2012

Vatican II: a view from the outside

The desire for unity expressed in Vatican II and strongly present in contemporary religious communities reflects a more widespread awakening within the global human community, writes Garth Read.

BY Garth Read

The year 2012 marks the fiftieth anniversary of two unrelated and significantly different events. In 1962 I was ordained in Queensland as a Minister in the Methodist Church – later to be a part of the Uniting Church in Australia. Coincidentally and unbeknown to me at the time, Pope John XXIII in Rome was inaugurating an Ecumenical Council that would become known as Vatican II.

It is an intriguing and challenging thought that there might be an interconnection between the ways in which my current understanding and practice of Christian ministry reflect some of the hopes and aspirations expressed in key documents of Vatican II.

In an attempt to explore this thought I want to recall a couple of experiences from my early years as an ordained person in the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. I will follow these with an account of several quite different experiences that are pivotal to my current understanding and practice.

A young person in my first parish came with his fiancé to discuss arrangements for their forthcoming marriage. The major difficulty was that his fiancé belonged to the Catholic Church. Her priest had made it clear that any marriage outside the Catholic Church would result in serious restrictions to her continuing practice as a Catholic. The priest was also putting pressure on the groom to become a Catholic and to give a written assurance that any children from the marriage would be brought up as Catholics.

When I went to talk to the priest about the trauma being experienced by the couple he made it quite clear that he believed that the Catholic Church was the one and only true Church of Jesus Christ and that the Pope was the earthly Head of that Church. Any dialogue of a pastoral nature about the anguish, pain and confusion being experienced by the young couple seemed impossible.

The second story from my early ministry days relates to a time when I was chaplain and religious education teacher at a Methodist and Presbyterian School. One year, I awarded the prize for the highest achievement in religious education to a year 12 student who happened to be Buddhist. The administration had difficulty with this and suggested that we could not award such a prize in a Christian school to a Buddhist student. On the evidence of the marks received for every assessable assignment, the Buddhist student did eventually receive the prize.

That was then, 1962, but what about now, 2012?

I now live on the north side of Brisbane and attend Aspley Uniting Church which has a strong commitment to developing ecumenical and interfaith relations in the local area. For example, the Aspley Classes for Seniors with an enrolment of over 200, has been running for 17 years as a joint community outreach of the Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Churches. An annual ecumenical service is held in one of the churches and members from each Church participate fully in the preparation and presentation of the liturgy.

At a more personal level the major focus of my ministry in retirement is on interfaith relations at a local level. I am the Co-ordinator of the North Brisbane Interfaith Group (NBIG) that also has its home base at Aspley Uniting Church. This is an email network of people who identify with seven different religious communities – Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh. Members of the group receive occasional newsletters, notices of interfaith activities in the area and invitations to special events and occasions in the life of the different religious communities.

Over the last 10 years, this group has held one or two major interfaith events where representatives from each of these seven communities share readings and prayers from their respective traditions. These are followed by a presentation designed to help the audience expand and deepen their knowledge and understanding of one or more faith tradition. The second part of the evening takes the form of an Interfaith Café where participants sit at small tables enjoying a range of foods and beverages and engage in informal personal chat.

In the 1960s I was surprised, concerned and unprepared for the kind of challenges reflected in those early experiences related above. I suspect that many Catholic bishops, clergy, religious and lay people had similar feelings when they became aware of the fundamental changes to Catholic policy and doctrine that were inherent in the Vatican II documents.

Now in the early years of this twenty-first century it is almost commonplace to witness people from different religious traditions, in many different countries, meeting together to enjoy one another’s company, learning more about each other’s faith and practice and identifying that which is held in common and that which makes us different from one another.

The historical significance for Catholicism and, indeed for the whole Christian community, of the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) and the Decree on Interreligious Relations (Nostra Aetate) that emerged from Vatican II should not be underestimated.

At the same time, it must be acknowledged that a vast multitude of events and experiences, both religious and secular over the last 50 years have helped to create an ever-expanding desire among many religious groups to reach out towards people who live by a religious faith and practice that is not the same as the one to which they are committed. These experiences both past and present, suggest to me that the motivation and energy for strengthening both ecumenical and interfaith relations are drawn from the same deep spiritual well.

My firm belief is that the desire for unity expressed in Vatican II and strongly present in contemporary religious communities reflects a more widespread awakening within the global human community. Globalisation in all its manifestations, good and bad, has intensified our awareness that we are one people sharing life together on this tiny planet.

The hope and vision articulated by many is that we will come to see each other more as family and neighbours than as foreigners and strangers. Any sustainable translation of this vision into reality depends on how we can formulate an understanding of a common humanity that also preserves and embraces a diversity of cultural, religious and civilisational characteristics. Our commitment to fostering ecumenical and inter-religious relations is a major Christian contribution to that global human project.

Embracing Diversity*

All people who share life on earth
gaze on the universe with awe.

Tread lightly on the earth beneath
and see what wonders are in store.

All life on earth both yours and mine;
telling us we are of a kind;

beginning and end are divine;
seeking acceptance by the mind.

Behold the human family;
diverse in colour, shape and creed.

Each one created uniquely;
to satisfy each other’s need.

Claims of superior faith and creed
can make us demonise and hate.

Suspicion of others’ words and deeds
wounds our need to communicate.

Acknowledge our shared human life;
seek the wisdom we all can share.

Celebrate our own faith and life;
respect others’ with love and care.

* A hymn written by Garth Read (unpublished) for a recent interfaith gathering at Aspley Uniting Church.

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

Garth Read

Garth Read was ordained a Methodist Minister in 1962 and subsequently served as a Minister of the Uniting Church in Australia. He spent most of those 50 years in education, both in Queensland and England. His postgraduate studies, lecturing in teacher education and the publication of curriculum material, all focused on multfaith religious education in primary and secondary schools. Since retiring in 1997 he has devoted his time and energy to furthering the interfaith movement in Queensland and beyond. He is a member of the Aspley Uniting Church and Co-ordinator of the North Brisbane Interfaith Group.

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