Gaudium et Spes: ‘The Church in the Modern World’ – Was there too much joy and hope?

Vatican II, for the people of my generation, remains a matter of vivid personal recollection. Rome during the Council was the place to be. On one occasion I was asked to act as a deacon for the morning Mass that began the proceedings of the day. It was a heady moment, to read the Gospel to the assembled Council Fathers. Alas, self-congratulation was premature. My role also meant that I had to put the mitre of an elderly French Canadian missionary bishop, surely a great occasion for him: unfortunately the mitre seemed to be spring-loaded, for it leapt rocket-like off his venerable head. How he must have cursed this antipodean deacon. Anyway, I was hissed into the sidelines, and remained concealed thereafter. Too much joy and too much hope? Indeed.

The Pastoral Constitution, the Church in the Modern World, completed toward the end of the Council, launched the People of God into a new confident expansive dialogue with the contemporary world. Its first words were ‘The joy and the hope’, Gaudium et Spes; and that is how it is now referred to. Forty years have gone by since the Council opened. Today we are faced with a strange question, Was there too much ‘joy’ and too much ‘hope’, given the way the world has changed, and, for that matter, the way in which we have changed: tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis as the old adage has it – roughly, ‘times change, and we are changed along with them’.

Since that beginning of Vatican II, a generation and a half (odd designation) has been born. It has not known the Church of any other time. These younger people are often puzzled by the longer memories and the seemingly strange loyalties of their elders. They cannot imagine how an ecumenical council was a shock, what the fuss was all about, how the it was all experienced as challenge, a risk, or even a defeat…

A generation has died out, too. They were the wise ones when the council began — influential Church leaders, brilliant theologians, the numerous members of great religious orders, and the vast community of mature men and women who had put a life into bringing up their children in the Catholic tradition.

Now these have gone; gathered out of this world of questioning and seeking and partial evidence into the final mystery. Most went with hope, even greater hope than ever before. But all went without yet seeing any great dream come true… Some went disillusioned and embittered over the number, the rapidity, and the depths of the changes that were called for.

For those of us who span more than one generation, perhaps the central truth of the council is locked away in chapter seven of the Council’s document on the Church: “The Pilgrim Church, in its sacraments and institutions which belong to this present age, carries the mark of this world which will pass, and she herself takes her place among the creatures which groan and travail yet and await the revelation of the children of God”.

We keep being left with nothing but God, nothing but the grace of Christ, nothing but the surprise of what the Spirit can do. No Council ever before spoke of God, of the mystery of Christ and the gift of the Spirit as this one did. Our pilgrim path has taken many strange turns before we confronted with the central mystery of our faith. Our hopes rest in nothing else; neither in the recovery of past golden age, nor in constructing a better image in the present, nor in some perfectly planned Church of the future.

We thought we could get a free ride into the future by catching up with the `Modern World’: aggiornamento would be enough. But in the last forty years that modern world has become a `post-modern’ world of political disintegration, economic collapse, and ecological spasm. There are dreams of a new world order. But, in the absence of any larger story or gracious tradition of humanity, such dreamers are left only with the power of law…or force.

As a new millennium unfolds, the documents of Vatican II will, I am sure, be joyfully re-read by the as-yet unborn. This time with a more gently ironic faith, more accepting of the humble path of pilgrims, more alert to the Stranger that meets us around every turn.

A new question in a ‘post modern’ world

You might keep in mind a question as we discuss this issue: How has the world changed in the last forty years, in ways that the Council could not have foreseen? The world-wide web, the growing unification of Europe, the collapse of Soviet communism, the emergence of feminism, the new ecological consciousness, the innumerable wars, the rise of terrorism, the triumph of capitalism, the unchallenged hegemony of the United States, the prevalence of a consumer culture, the rapid ageing of populations, the rise of biotechnology, the scourge of AIDS, the end of Apartheid, the era of Pope John Paul II, the genocides of Cambodia and Rwanda, the unrelenting exposure of clerical scandal … – these are just some of examples: complete the list in your own way! The Church finds itself in a world that is now frequently referred to as ‘post-modern’.

Our question is worth discussing. After all, joy and hope are gifts that pervade Christian consciousness, if we are to believe the witness of Scripture and the message of the Council. You can make a sampling of the psalms, for instance, and a find a classic experience of the hope that sustained generations of believers for 2700 years, the prayers that Jesus knew by heart, the prayers that Mary prayed, the prayers of praise and lamentation that are the core of Church’s daily Liturgy of the Hours.

The salvation of the just is from the Lord;

He is their refuge in time of trouble;

The Lord helps them and rescues them;

He rescues them from the wicked, and saves them

Because they take refuge in him (Ps 37:39-40).

Why are you cast down, my soul? Why groan within me?

Hope in God; for I shall praise him again,

May saviour and my God (Ps 42: 6. 11)

Then, there is that wonderful hymn to hope in Romans 8, as Paul considers the whole of creation groaning in one great act of giving birth, with ourselves groaning within it, and indeed, the Holy Spirit groaning in us: ‘For in hope we were saved’ (Rom 8:24). And so he asks, ‘Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship or distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?’ (Rom 8: 35). Why not add, ‘or scandal, or a crisis in loyalty and leadership, or institutional collapse – or any damn thing likely to cause us further embarrassment, confusion or hopelessness’? Well, Paul at least is clear:

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels or rulers [=the demonic state of any contemporary culture], nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord “(Rom 8:37-39).

Perhaps we thought it was going to easy, or that the opening words of that great Council document were nothing more than a romantic ideal:

“The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor and afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well” (GS#1).

There is no nice way to feel grief, anguish, poverty and affliction; nor, paradoxically, no easy way to enter into the joy and hope that is promised. And yet there is a vast, all-inclusive hope:

“When we have spread on earth the fruits of our nature and our enterprise – human dignity, fraternal communion, and freedom – according to the command of the Lord and in his Spirit, we will find them once again, cleansed from stain of sin, illuminated and transfigured, when Christ presents to his Father an eternal and universal kingdom, ‘of truth and justice, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace’. Here on earth the kingdom is mysteriously present; when the Lord comes, it will enter into its perfection” (GS #39).

This invites us to pray the Our Father in a new way: ‘Hallowed by thy name; thy kingdom come’ – not some other name, let alone our own; not some other kingdom, let alone our own!

I can imagine that many of us were inclined to think that, if we loved the world, the world would love us, and recognise the Church immediately as an agent of wondrous humanity. On this matter we had been clearly warned. Small, beleaguered communities of nineteen hundred years ago recalled the Lord’s words, as he has about to be crucified: ‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you’ (John 15:18-19). This is no excuse for paranoia; but it is worth remembering, for human culture has a deep element of scapegoating within it: anyone or anything that challenges its self-serving certainties contained must be got rid of, if anyone is to live in peace. Recall the words of Friedrich Nietzsche expressing a judgment that has had a powerful effect on modern culture, especially in the literary culture of our own country. In one of his final works, before the onset of mental collapse, this most passionately ambiguous of philosophers wrote,

“The Christian conception of God – God as god of the sick, God as a spider, God as spirit – is one of the most corrupt conceptions of the divine ever attained on earth. It may even represent the low-water mark in the descending development of divine types. God degenerated into a contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! God as the declaration of war against life, against nature, against the will to live! God – the formula for every slander against ‘this world’, for every lie about the ‘beyond’! God the deification of nothingness, the will to nothingness pronounced holy.”

You might say that the Council, and all the major statements that have followed it, was addressing Nietzsche’s attack. In this reassertion of Christian humanism, no tag was more quoted than the words of St Irenaeus, ‘the glory of God is man fully alive’ – though the rest of that 3rd Century bishop-martyr’s statement was seldom added, ‘… and the life of man is the vision of God’. The human person ‘fully alive’, the ‘transcendent and integral humanism’ of which the Popes have so often spoken, was meant to counter any version of the human that struck against the dignity of the human person or constricted the totality of the values that made for human well-being. With a presentment of the impending crisis, theology soon took the path of liberation in an effort to give people, whatever the oppression they experienced, the impetus to practical hope, even if the joy is somewhat deferred.

We have in fact been struggling with the many meanings of the world in the New Testament. On the one hand, ‘God so loved the world…’ (John 3:16), and Christ is the light and saviour of the world, the giving himself for the expiation of the sins of the whole world, for the sake of a cosmic transformation. A lot of love there. On the other hand, the world, under the power of the evil one, is terminal adversary, the realm to which no follower of Christ can ever belong, and the enemy that Christ has overcome. There is in it a drama of light and darkness. The NT did not bother to make the distinctions that would be made at a much later age: the difference between God’s good creation and those elements in human culture that seek to remove God and deface the human, the sphere of idolatrous self-projections and demonic possessions that lead to self-destruction. Whatever hope might mean, whatever joy might mean, it is unwise to think that that other realm that exists in our own hearts and in the history in which the Church lives is a space of innocence and good will. We dare not idealise the situation even if we assent to the unqualified love of God for all that is, and rejoice in the fact that a great victory has been irreversibly achieved in the resurrection of the crucified: ‘Take courage; I have conquered the world’ (John 16:33).

We still have a long way to go. In fact, the ‘very courageous’ (as Sir Humphrey would say) brave, hopeful, joyous enthusiasm of the council on this point seems to have given way to something far more cautious. Part, perhaps the largest part of the problem, was that we did not realise how rapidly changing that ‘modern world’ would prove to be, especially when the boundaries between Church and world would appear to very porous. In one sense, the Church is nothing else than that part of the world that is alive to the universal gracious mystery at work in human history, as it worked and prays that the kingdom of Our Father would come. From another point of view, the Church, being a part of the world, is exposed to the kind of cultural ‘black death’ that is taking place, an analogy with the terrible toll of the Black Death in Europe of the 14th century which in some cases killed off 40 per cent of the population. What’s happening today leaves us all of us feeling a bit miserable whether we look at ourselves institutionally (marriage, family, law, politics, the world order, education, economics) or personally: how can we bear up under so many problems? We seem to feel the need to start all over again, but find ourselves unsure of what there is to build on, especially with a loss of historical sense, we live in a culture of amnesia with regard to the past, a kind of social Alzheimer’s disease leaving us all too vulnerable to manipulation in the present. All the more reason to be intent on that other kingdom and on that will that comprehends all ages and times.

In some ways, we have begun to feel the need to lighten up a bit, lest we be overwhelmed with the world’s sadness. After all the whole purpose of Jesus’ message is expressed in these words, ‘I have said these things to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete’ (John 15:11). Hope without joy would not be a hope for fulfilment, but at best an expectation that our miserable view of things will be vindicated. Joy without hope would be repressive, and an invitation to retreat from the struggle. A delicate balance, you might say – but a balance that is only kept by wanting, desiring and working for the accomplishment of God’s holy and life-giving will.

Joyful hope

One aspect of the buoyant hope and joy involved is not to take ourselves too seriously – not to be too ideological. I vividly remember feeling two sides of an unredeemed experience in the times after the council. And of these I repent. One was the imposition of a ferocious kind of political correctness. It was manifested in a harsh division of progressives and conservatives with no friendly space in between. The formula of words, the mode of dress, the latest angle, were matters of final and irreversible judgment. We all tended to think that we were so possessed the right Spirit that we administered God’s grace and executed the divine will – strangely identified with our own take on things. It is all a bit foolish now, but I at least remember arguing and posturing in the name of a renewal which was really nothing but a rather silly kind of impatient imposition and manipulation. We came dangerously close to losing our sense of humour, because we were so full of ourselves! When adoration of God’s will goes, we are left with nothing but our own little plans for making our own little names… but ‘Hallowed be thy name’!

And another thing. I think I was right on this one at least, even if I was wrong on just about everything else. Being a young theologian giving talks on council documents all over the place, I recall having a moment of truth. No one was speaking about prayer any more. The promised renewal was all about right liturgical forms, having the right theology, and so on – the patient deep ways of prayer and of attention centred on God and the Father’s will were not much spoken of, and it seemed to me, with the collapse of the older devotional forms, not much practised. I must have taken this seriously since the first book I ever wrote was on prayer (The Human Shape of Prayer). Someone must have read it, since a pirated edition appeared in India at one stage. Times were to change, of course, for now interest in prayer and the experience of God is very high; spirituality is the thing, rather than theology; indeed, rather than belonging to the Church; and that brings its own problems: is it ‘my spirituality’ or the will of the Father that is the central thing? But then there was an odd extroversion in the air: action, the right structures, the right formulae were the essential thing. Nonetheless, slowly, but very definitely, the Holy Spirit taught us that there was only one saviour of the world, and it was not I nor you, nor even Pope John, nor Karl Rahner, nor Yves Congar, nor any one of the numerous celebrities that came later. It required no great humility on my part to admit that I spent too much time in negative remarks about people and their opinions, and not time in promoting the essence and heart of the Gospel. It was all very wordy time; and even today we find it very difficult to say things simply. But there is one simple prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come’. Life to the full comes not from our own ideas or our own design of structures, but by the gift and action of God.

In the same vein, I recall how we loved the laity! Not you, but a hopeless ideal; a laity fabricated out of a clerical projection, that knew the world in a way that poor little priests and religious never could, that witnessed to the Gospel in a way that we ‘churchy’ people never could, a hitherto untapped resource that brimmed with the gifts of the Spirit. That’s true, of course; but there was an element of unreality about it all; and only years of association with lay groups brought home to us the rather obvious fact that no one had all the answers, that we needed one another more than we realised, and that each and all of us, in the end, and at every moment, is only a little branch of the one living vine. The answer is only to be found by surrendering to the Spirit, by following Christ, and praying with him, the prayer he taught us: ‘Thy kingdom come’!

Three questions

Here we are in this time, 40 years after the beginning of the Council, this time, this place, with these people. No, you can never have too much joy and too much hope if it is Christian experiences we are speaking of. I would like to end with three questions, to make our joy abound and our hope increase:

1. Isn’t it time to start loving the Church again, our mother, our realm of life in the Spirit, our access to Christ, the location of a great communion, comprising Mary and the saints, the martyrs and prophets, the dear ones who have gone before us, and the angels and archangels (it is inconceivable that God’s creative power would have exhausted itself with only our form of intelligent life)! A mean-spirited quasi-automatic attack on the Church and its nearest representatives does not make for much joy or much hope for anyone. I believe it is time to be thankful for the gift of the Church and for our place within it. There can be no critical thinking unless there is a basic thanking, manifested in a love that speaks the truth, intent on the kingdom of God and the will of our Father. We are members of one another, not enemies; or if perceived as enemies, forgiveness is all the more necessary: ‘thy will be done – forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’.

2. Isn’t it time to awaken to the joy of Christ’s gift; not later, but now. History has been and will be full of surprises: in the meantime, there is the greatest surprise of all – God’s limitless love for us, now, and in every living moment. The now of our lives, this God-willed, God-given moment, is filled with unstinting grace; we live in each instant from an incalculable gift. Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – because each moment is a moment in the saving will that guides the universe.

3. Isn’t it time to practice hope and express it in the prayer of one’s last breath. We live longer, but not necessarily better. And even if we live long, it is still too short a span to waste our lives on nonsense, and give ourselves to anything less than God’s will and God’s reign. What then is the hope we are living? How would we say our last prayer in one concentrated last moment? How do the words of the ‘Our Father’ spring into new life? Reflect on that, recall it often, and you come close to knowing what hope is about: surrender to God, to the gift of life to the full, for everyone, despite all failure, evil and confusion? God’s will will be done. Why not make that our most intense and vital intention?

So, let’s start again. Sadder and wiser it might be, and certainly older, with the experience of recent decades, yet, with the joy and hope of the great Council to nourish us, still joyful, still hopeful, still ready to collaborate with that life-giving, reconciling, all-loving will that moves through every atom of the universe. It is time to put the wholeness, the wholesomeness, ie. the ‘holic’, back into Cat-holic. It’s time to be open to unimaginable reach of that will that has been working these 15 billion years to bring us to this moment, to introduce us to Christ and to one another, to receive this now as an instant in the great outpouring of the Spirit renewing the whole earth – the reality that the Council so joyously and hopefully celebrated.

(Tony Kelly is a Redemptorist priest and currently Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University.)