February 2012

Vatican II: does it still matter?

It is time for all us to reconsider the call of John XXIII for “Christian charity”, to work for unity, to engage with the people of our times, says Good Samaritan Sister Catherine McCahill.

BY Catherine McCahill SGS

“The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially 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. For theirs is a community of men and women who, united in Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, press onwards towards the kingdom of the Father and are bearers of a message of salvation intended for all people.

So begins the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. This is the Church that I love, this is the Church in which I choose to live out that commitment of love in and through Jesus who has shown us the way.

Let me begin at the beginning. Some 50 years ago (October 11, 1962), Pope John XXIII declared open the Second Vatican Council, the four sessions of which lasted more than three years and produced 16 documents. It was his intent and remained the intent of his successor, Paul VI (who assumed presidency from the second session) that this council “would be a demonstration of the vitality of the Church, a means of rebuilding Christian unity, and a catalyst for world peace”.

This council was different to the preceding 20 ecumenical councils of the Church. Firstly, the bishops were greater in number (2,600) and more diverse in culture and nationhood than ever before, coming not only from Europe but also indigenous to the Americas, Asia and the Pacific. Secondly, representation from non-Catholics and lay persons (including 23 women by the fourth session) was visibly noticeable. Thirdly, its purpose was to promote study and exposition of the teaching and doctrines of the Church “through the methods of research and… literary forms of modern thought” (Opening address of John XXIII). Dialogue and engagement with the world was essential for the authentic promotion of the Gospel message.

So for the first time we had a “pastoral” constitution (quoted above), proclaiming that the Church exists “within” and not “apart from” or “alongside” the world, requiring serious engagement of all the faithful in the promotion of the dignity, well-being and freedom of all persons. For the first time too, the Church is presented as “the People of God”, a community of laity, religious and clergy, all sharing in the “priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, no. 30, 31). For the first time in hundreds of years, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, promoted the active participation of all God’s people, requiring that it be celebrated in the language of the people and that its “signs” be “understandable”.

Numerous other determinations could be noted if we were to work our way through the various documents on divine revelation, ecumenism, non-Christian religions, religious freedom, and the Church’s missionary activity, to name but some. New emphasis was placed on the accessibility of sacred scripture, on the promotion of understanding amongst all Christians, on the “ray of truth” that is found in all religions, on requiring that the Church never participate in any form of religious coercion or prejudice any persons on the basis of their religious faith, and on promoting missionary activity that recognises and preserves the gifts of all cultures.

Reading these documents 50 years later, significant questions arise. How comprehensible are they for the postmodern person, for persons from Europe, Asia, the Pacific, or the Americas, impoverished or not, educated or not, seekers of truth or consumed with human survival for themselves or their families? In recent times in English-speaking countries, the language of the liturgy has been re-visited, and many are left wondering about the gap between the language chosen and contemporary English. I am saddened by the divisions that this is causing and the energy being consumed, whilst all the time sacramental participation is decreasing.

We are, unfortunately, all too aware of division and disharmony in this Church that 50 years ago promoted unity and freedom of conscience. We live in times when some theologians are “silenced” for their attempt to give contemporary expression to the ancient Christian truths. We are aware too, of so much critical energy, an energy that leads to anonymous reporting to Roman curia and seemingly harsh censure.

When I read the conciliar documents with lay, educated Catholics many are unimpressed. Certainly, they are not as excited as many were in the late 1960s and 1970s. Is it time for the Church to look once again at its relationship to the contemporary world? I am very aware of so many places in the world where the Church is engaged with the world but that is not the experience of many Australian Catholics. They experience a Church no longer connected with the reality of their lives, with the “joy and hope, the grief and anguish” of all humanity. It is time for all us to reconsider the call of John XXIII for “Christian charity”, to work for unity, to engage with the people of our times. We will be unable to proclaim the Good News unless we do.

Many of my peers have “given up” on the Church. I refuse to make a compact with the forces that demoralise. I still believe in the unmined treasures of the conciliar documents. I hope and pray for dialogue, for serious and committed dialogue amongst all members of the Church – the People of God – those who actively participate and those who have become disillusioned, apathetic or ostracised. I believe it will only be possible if we focus more clearly on the teaching, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Then the Church will truly serve his mission not its own; his commandment of love and compassion will take precedence.

Let us once more throw open the windows of this ancient institution so that the fresh winds of Jesus’ teachings and our contemporary world might collide and enliven us.

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

Catherine McCahill

Good Samaritan Sister Catherine McCahill is the Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She has served on the Congregation's leadership team since 2011. Catherine has been involved in education for more than 30 years, in secondary schools and, more recently, at a tertiary level in biblical studies and religious education.

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