Looking Forward with Confidence

Francesco Canalini

With great timely initiative, at the beginning of the new year, the Holy Father John Paul II has given the universal Church the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, signed during the concluding celebration of the Great Jubilee 2000, on the feast of the Epiphany. The freshness, the optimism, the vision that come forth from the Papal Letter have been welcomed with appreciation almost everywhere; a sign of that in Australia is the prominent attention given to it by way of the favourable comments that appeared in many diocesan newspapers.

The strong pastoral impulse intended by the Pope is inspired by the Second Vatican Council, “the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century”. “With the passing of the years, the Council documents have lost nothing of their value or brilliance” (n.57). In the mind of the Supreme Pontiff, in fact, the celebration of the Great Jubilee 2000 was linked with the examination of the Church, thirty-five years after the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, to see “how far she had renewed herself, in order to be able to take up her evangelizing mission with fresh enthusiasm” (n.2). Recalling the words of Jesus to St. Peter: “Duc in altum” (Lk. 5:6 – “Go forth into the deep”) the Holy Father applies them to the actual moment of the life of the Church, inviting her “to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm and to look forward to the future with confidence” (n. 1).

Inspired by this basic thought, I would like to share a couple of reflections with you this morning, focusing in particular on references to the Second Vatican Council. I am led to that also by a personal reminiscence of forty years ago. A group of us, deacons of the Roman Seminary, previous to our priestly ordination, was received by Pope John XXIII, who as Cardinal and Patriarch of Venice, used to come to our Seminary during his visits to Rome. The Blessed Pontiff told us: “You are the priests of the Council. You have been formed in the school of the past with sound foundation, you are open to the new times that are coming”.

I want to recall the start of the Council, rereading the opening speech of the Pope on October 11, 1962. John XXIII had, for sure, a new approach to world realities, inspired, firstly, by a sense of history (‘In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, …can see nothing but prevarication and ruin… They behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life’), and, secondly, by a deep sense of confidence in God (‘In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfilment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs’).

In the face of the “marvellous progress of the discoveries of human genius”, the Church makes its voice heard and admonishes men so that “they may raise their eyes to God”. And the Church, while always opposing errors, considers that she “meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching … raising the torch of religious truth”.

This positive approach to modern world realities could be possible – in the mind of the Pontiff – only if the sacred deposit of the Christian doctrine is guarded and taught efficaciously (“In order, however, that this doctrine may influence the numerous fields of human activity, with reference to individuals, to families, and to social life, it is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers”). And speaking about the task of the Council, John XXIII is adamant: “to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion, which throughout twenty centuries, notwithstanding difficulties and contrasts, has become the common patrimony of men. It is a patrimony not well received by all, but always a rich treasure available to men of good will”.

To make even clearer his position, with the exclusion of any possible misunderstanding, the Pope emphasises that the task of the Council is not “a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine … For this a Council was not necessary… but … a renewed, serene and tranquil adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness… The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another”. This papal affirmation was popularly translated into the image of bathing a baby: “Let us renew the dirty water, but not throw away the baby”.

Paul VI, in ordering the continuation of the work of the Council, articulated further these same concepts, which remained the guiding stars for the elaboration of the documents. With the passing of the years, the first concept, of a positive approach to modern world realities, became the leit-motiv of many comments and developments. Not the same consideration was always given to the second one, which was so strong and definitive in the mind of John XXIII.

Why? Factors from different sources were responsible; some coming from secular society, others from within the Church herself.

After the Second World War, the Church remained the credible entity that opposed Nazism and Fascism. When the time of reconstruction arrived, the secular forces realised the need to unite their energies with the Church, modernity and faith together, in order to achieve the restoration of society. In this atmosphere, the Second Vatican Council was convoked.

Once the post-war reconstruction ended, followed by an improved economic situation, and the Vatican Council was closed, the secular forces wanted to separate themselves from the Church and assert their own autonomous power, breaking apart from tradition and institution. The events that occurred in 1968 in the western world society were emblematic: they aimed at a new modern man, with full confidence in reason, in search of all its spaces of freedom, beyond what had been received from the past. This wind of generalised polarisation did not spare some spheres of the Church that, for different reasons, were interested in bringing about certain significant changes in the institution of the Church.

Pope Paul VI realised that this trend was a going astray from the aim of the Council and was harmful for the life of the Church. Taking the occasion of the 19th century of the martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul (which with great probability took place in the year 67), the Holy Father proclaimed the “Year of Faith”, which he concluded with a solemn Profession of Faith during the celebration of 30th June 1968 in St. Peter’s Square. With extraordinary passion and interior strength so typical of Paul VI, the Pontiff reaffirmed the same Creed in a marvellous and well-known hymn to Christ in Manila, on 29 November 1970.

A new tension reappeared between modernism and institution, progress and tradition, freedom and truth. The analytic method, proceeding from daily experiences, became gradually more credible than the teaching method from principles of truth. Catholic “novatores” with a different attitude to life than the Magisterium elaborated and applied the theory of remaining inside the Church in order to bring about changes from within.

Some influential people organised a Congress, in 1978 in the United States, to promote the theme: Toward Vatican III, with the indication that Vatican II had to be considered as a point of departure for other shores. With time, these different approaches prolonged their effect on the mentality of the world community, including some Catholics.

In spite of these understandable post-conciliar differences and contrasts, the global vision of the recent past asks for an expression of deep gratitude to the Lord for so vivid, purifying and challenging years in the life of the resilient Church. Christianity, since its origins, has experienced a sound tension between past and future, old and new, tradition and progress.

Those forms of Christian life that achieve keeping together both poles of the tension are authentic. Other forms, that put such an emphasis on one pole, thus losing the balance, walk along an erroneous path.

There is no need to fear tradition, but not even progress, the newness that God continuously creates in each period of history. Newness, if it comes from God, brings always with it a going beyond of what already exists. Tradition, if it is authentic, receives and gives a solid base to new advances (cfr. Mt. 13: 52).

To keep the balance, anyway, implies always a certain dimension of the cross. It was true for priests and faithful who were asked to adapt themselves to the new directives coming out from the Second Vatican Council. It is true for priests and faithful today, as in any other period, when they are asked to be attuned to the directives of the Magisterium. But it is just there that you see Divine Providence in action and the possibility for the Church to leave behind some faded leaves of its tree and open up, facing new challenges, towards a new springtime.

This awareness and “sensus” of history allow us to live the present with enthusiasm, in particular after the wonderful experiences savoured during the past Jubilee Year in all dioceses and in the centre of catholicity.

The mindfulness of being sent by Christ (“As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” – Jn. 20:2 1); the awareness that Jesus Christ is the “good news” of salvation made known to people yesterday today and for ever; the experience of the transforming encounter with the Lord; all this spurs us to evangelisation, to teach what we have come to know, but also – like the Samaritan woman with her fellow-citizens – enabling others to encounter Jesus personally: “come and see” (Jn. 4:29~42). As the core of her mission, the Church has the joyful duty to lead all people to encounter the living Christ: it means to accept the love by which he loves us first, to choose him, to adhere freely to his person and his plan, which consists in proclaiming and in bringing about the Kingdom of God (cf. Ecelesia in America, 1999, n. 68).

The particular challenge of evangelisation in our times is that God is not denied, but is always less known; the interest of people is somewhere else. In the last decades, in fact, the advancement of technology has favoured the formation of a post-modern culture that is fragmentary, transient and strongly sensational. Consequently, the respect for tradition, for authority, is diminished in the younger generations, which experience a kind of social relations marked by superficiality and provisionality. Even confronted with religious commitments they feel rather uncertain.

In these circumstances, the Church cannot evangelise the world by trying to imitate its way of doing, but rather by presenting a dramatic alternative to the secularised vision. The example of Mother Teresa of Calcutta comes to mind. Her personality of authentic faith captured the attention of so many people who were in search of something that was more spiritually enriching than what the contemporary culture could offer them.

It is no surprise, then, that the Holy Father, inviting us to start again afresh from Christ at the beginning of the new Millennium, points to holiness as the first task. In the contemporary world the Church can exercise her influence, realise her mission through holiness. She is called to embrace the cross of Christ, entrusting herself to the power of His resurrection. If the Church firmly adheres to the paschal mystery, she can courageously challenge the vanity of consumeristic culture, counter-attack the culture of non-belief. Thanks to her constant union with Christ, she can offer that communion with God that alone can satisfy the profound aspirations of the human heart.

“I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt.28: 20). Trusting in this promise of the Lord, the Church can look forward to meeting with confidence the challenges of today’s world and those that will come in the future.

I have read recently an aphorism: pessimists are right; but optimists succeed. Our optimism, in spite of all the problems we meet in everyday life and gloomy perspectives sometimes presented, is rooted in that promise of the Lord, who also assured us: “In the world you will have trouble, but be brave: I have conquered the world” (Jn. 16:33).

During the preparatory phase of the Second Vatican Council, John XXIII asked the then Monsignor Pericle Felici, in charge of the preparation, how things were going. “Very well” – Mons. Felici answered – “the inputs are coming from all over the world, everything is organised by themes, and officials are working on the elaboration of the preparatory documents”. “If everything is going so smoothly, it is not good news”, observed John XXIII. “If there are no difficulties, it means that it is not something valuable”.

This is a good encouragement for all who dedicate themselves to continue in the faithful application of the Second Vatican Council, the documents of which “have lost nothing of their value or brilliance”.

(Archbishop Francesco Canalini is the Apostolic Nuncio. This paper was presented at the Australian Bishops Conference in May 2001)