The Journey from Here

Michael Whelan

On October 11, 2002, Catalyst for Renewal held a dinner to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. What follows is the text from the presentation by Michael Whelan.

In his speech at the Opening Session of the Second Vatican Council on this day in 1962, Pope John XXIII chided the “prophets of doom”, people who “behave as if they had learned nothing from history…. and as if in the time of the preceding ecumenical Councils everything represented a complete triumph for Christian ideas and for Christian life and for rightful religious liberty”.

Pope John clearly envisaged a Council like no other in the history of the Church. In an exhortation – Sacrae laudes – he had referred to the Church “crossing the line into a new age”. The Church could not simply go on, business as usual. Archbishop Capovilla – John’s secretary in Venice and Rome – recalls the words of Pope John to him on the eve of the announcement of the Council in January 1959:

“The world is starving for peace. If the Church responds to its Founder and rediscovers its authentic identity, the world will gain. I have never had any doubts against faith. But one thing causes me consternation. Christ has been there on the cross with his arms outstretched for two thousand years. Where have we got to in proclaiming the Good News? How can we present his authentic doctrine to our contemporaries?”

Aggiornamento (ie “updating”) was needed. And a new attitude was also needed: “Nowadays”, the Pope said in that same Opening Speech,

“The Spouse of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations … (We must, therefore) earnestly and fearlessly … dedicate ourselves to the work our age demands of us”.

Thus the first “pastoral” Ecumenical Council in the history of the Church came into being – a new style of Council for a new time. The Council documents – both in content and style – reflect this pastoral intent, this new mood. Words and concepts such as “people of God”, “pilgrim Church”, “the universal call to holiness”, “collegiality”, “co-responsibility” and “communion”, became common currency. The privilege and responsibility of all the baptised was beginning to re-emerge as the primary determinant of the Church and the way it would function in the coming generations.

If you are looking for dogmatic definitions or the resolution of issues, it would be disconcerting to read the documents of the Council. Those documents, like the Council itself, are an invitation to explore new and more fruitful ways of being Church.

The Second Vatican Council marked the end of a certain way of being Church – an imperial form that had emerged in the fourth and fifth centuries. This form of Church had been consolidated through subsequent centuries by such events as the Gregorian Reform of the 11th century, the Council of Trent of the 16th century and the Counter Reformation that was set in train there, and the First Vatican Council of the 19th century and the definition of papal infallibility that emerged there.

The Catholic Church entering the middle of the 20th century was more of a sanctuary from the world than a sign in it. John XXIII – and many others – saw that this situation could not continue. What they did not see – and perhaps could not have seen – was that the Catholic population and particularly the bishops and clergy were utterly unprepared for what was about to happen.

John XXIII died on June 3, 1963 – a matter of a few months after the Council had begun. The Council Fathers – for the most part – had welcomed Pope John’s invitation to seek out a new way of being Church. The clearest manifestation of this – and a sign of things to come – was their wholesale rejection of the schemas presented by the preparatory commissions as not corresponding with the spirit of aggiornamento requested by Pope John. Would the next Pope have the courage to continue the journey?

Cardinal Montini, Archbishop of Milan, was elected as John’s successor on June 21 – eighteen days after John’s death. He took the name of Pope Paul VI. In a speech broadcast to the whole world on the following day, Saturday June 22, 1963, he gave an unhesitating and unambiguous “Yes” to the Council. He went on to say that his entire pontificate would be devoted to the Council. The Second Session of the Council opened three months later on September 29, 1963.

Just before the Third Session of the Council opened on September 14, 1964, Paul VI published his first encyclical – Ecclesiam suam. In this encyclical the Pope formally introduced the word “colloquium” – meaning “conversation” or “dialogue” – into the Church’s vocabulary, and with it one of the critical mechanisms for moving forward towards a whole new way of being Church.

Paul VI was pointing to a Church that finds its very existence in and through the “colloquium salutis” – “the conversation of salvation” (ie God’s conversation of liberating love). In this encyclical we read:

“We need to keep ever present this ineffable, yet real relationship of the dialogue, which God the Father, through Christ in the Holy Spirit, has offered to us and established with us, if we are to understand the relationship which we, i.e., the Church, should strive to establish and to foster with the human race” (71).

The Church was beginning to rediscover its raison d’être – to be a sign of the liberating love of God in and for the world – and thus the journey from an imperial model of Church towards a Gospel model of Church was beginning to take shape.

The practical implications of Pope Paul’s dialogical vision are considerable. In Ecclesiam suam we hear him say, for example:

“The Church should enter into dialogue with the world in which it exists and labours” (65);

“The dialogue ought to characterise our Apostolic Office (ie the papacy)” (67);

“The child is invited to it; the mystic finds a full outlet in it” (70);

“This type of relationship indicates a proposal of courteous esteem, of understanding and of goodness on the part of the one who inaugurates the dialogue; it excludes the a priori condemnation, the offensive and time-worn polemic and emptiness of useless conversation” (79);

“The dialectic of this exercise of thought and of patience will make us discover elements of truth also in the opinions of others, …. The dialogue will make us wise; it will make us teachers” (83);

“And before speaking, it is necessary to listen, not only to a person’s voice, but to the person’s heart. People must first be understood – and, where they merit it, agreed with” (87).

The ongoing “colloquium”, says Pope Paul VI, must by fostered in four “circles of dialogue” – with the whole of humanity, with those of other religious traditions; with those Christians who are not Catholics and with other Catholics. Of the last “circle” he says: “It is our ardent desire that this conversation with our own children should be full of faith, of charity, of good works, should be intimate and familiar” (113).

One of the most immediate, practical and significant challenges we face, if we are to move forward according to this vision of John XXIII, the Council and Pope Paul VI, is that of facilitating discontinuity amidst continuity and maintaining continuity amidst discontinuity. This will require a new kind of thinking – the kind of thinking that John Henry Newman seems to be implying in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine when he writes:

“(An idea’s) vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary, and is employed in efforts after freedom which become more vigorous and hopeful as its years increase. Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities, nor of its scope. At first no one knows what it is, or what it is worth. It remains perhaps for a time quiescent; it tries, as it were, its limbs, and proves the ground under it, and feels its way. From time to time it makes essays which fail, and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out in one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise in and around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under 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” (cf Chapter 1, Section 7).

We could put the challenge of this kind of thinking in the form of different questions, such as:

How can we develop a consciousness that is at once imbued with and utterly faithful to the tradition, yet open to new possibilities for the expression of the Gospel today?

How do we admit that we have been wrong without losing faith in the teaching role of the Church or eroding our conviction that God is with us until the end of days?

This is neither the time nor the place to attempt a thorough treatment of this most complex and difficult issue. However, I raise it here because I believe there is a deep-seated fear, in the minds of many – implicitly or explicitly, consciously or unconsciously – that the discontinuity is sabotaging or will sabotage the continuity. As a result of this fear the continuity we are stuck with is not serving us well. Or, to put it more bluntly, our inability to incorporate into our thinking and deal well with the fact that we are able to make mistakes is imprisoning us.

That said, there are some very significant signs of hope in this regard. Consider the quantum leap that we have found it possible to make with respect to our relations with other Christian Churches. Implicit in that is an admission that we did get it badly wrong – at least in some respects. Of course, it goes without saying that the journey towards greater understanding of and more cooperation with our brothers and sisters of other Christian faiths has barely begun.

Consider further, the enormous changes we have made in the liturgy, despite the 16th century proclamation by Pius V that the Tridentine Missal was to remain the norm forever. Again, the journey has barely begun.

I believe there are also substantial signs in the writings of John Paul II that suggest he is not as fearful as some members of the Curia about opening up new possibilities and moving beyond old ways of thinking and acting. See, for example, his December 1990 encyclical, Redemptoris missio, (eg paragraph 28 where he speaks of the universality of the Holy Spirit), his May 1995 encyclical, Ut unum sint (eg paragraph 95 where he calls for a reform of the papacy), and his January 2001 ecclesial pronouncement, Novo millennio ineunte (eg paragraph 44 where he urges the development of different structures to safeguard communion).

The International Theological Commission’s March 2000 “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past” is also a promising sign.

However, much more change is needed. And the biggest change of all will be a change of consciousness, a new way of thinking about ourselves – especially our vocation to be the earthen vessels that carry the great treasure of God’s liberating love for the world (cf 2Corinthians 4:7). And we find an interesting ally in an unlikely place.

In the September 2, 2000, issue of The Tablet, the emeritus professor of history at the University of Nottingham, Robert Markus, reviewed Garry Will’s book, Papal Sins: Structures of Deceit. In that review, Markus quoted a statement of Pope Pelagius II from the end of the 6th century:

“Dear brethren, do you think that when Peter was reversing his position, one should have replied: We refuse to hear what you are saying because you previously taught the opposite? In the matter (now under discussion) one position was held while truth was being sought, and a different position was adopted after truth had been found: why should a change of position be thought a crime by this See which is humbly venerated by all in the person of its founder? For what is reprehensible is not changing one’s mind, but being fickle in one’s views. Now if the mind remains unwavering in seeking to know what is right, why should you object when it abandons its ignorance and reformulates its views?”

Markus goes on to note that, significant as the point of view expressed here is, even more significant is the fact that the words were actually penned for Pelagius by a certain deacon who was to succeed him within a few years as Pope Gregory the Great.

For some people, the issue of change suggested above might present absolutely no anguish at all. I suggest that might indicate they have no grasp of the depths and significance, the complexity and subtlety of what is at stake. And I am thinking of such issues as the role of the papacy – raised by the Pope himself – new forms of ministry, especially ordained priesthood, attitudes and teachings pertaining to sexuality, marriage laws, the centrality of freedom and the primacy of conscience, and regulations concerning participation in the Eucharist.

It would be dangerously naïve to think these issues could be dealt with by doing simply this or simply that. It would be equally naïve to think that these issues do not call for urgent and radical attention.

Pope John XXIII issued the challenge, the Second Vatican Council took it up, and Pope Paul VI carried it forward. Pope Paul VI also gave us a wise and practical description of how we might proceed – through good conversation anchored in and manifesting God’s conversation with the world. The privilege and the responsibility are ours to continue the journey.

By way of conclusion, let me suggest three ultimate principles and three practical rules we might bear in mind if we are to thrive in and contribute creatively to the Church of the coming years.

The three principles are:

firstly, the world belongs to God – it is in good hands;

secondly, the Church belongs to God – it is in good hands;

thirdly, we belong to God – we are in good hands.

The three rules are:

firstly, listen with the ears of your heart that you might discern what you must do;

secondly, give yourself intelligently and generously to what you must do;

thirdly, be utterly detached from the outcome!

(Michael Whelan PhD is a Marist priest and is Director of Aquinas Academy in Sydney, a founding Member of Catalyst for Renewal and Editor of The Mix.)