Bob Birchall

2 Frank Brennan, SJ, AO The Church in the modern world – to what extent have we engaged?

The Church in the modern world. To what extent have we as church engaged with ourselves as the modern world, and to what extent have we transformed the church as people of the modern world?


A. The help which the Church strives to give to Human Activity through Christians (Gaudium et Spes #43)

This split between the faith, which many profess, and their daily lives, deserve to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.

The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbour and even God, and jeopardises his eternal salvation.

Laymen should also know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city; from priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment.

Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the layman take on his own distinctive role.

Now the Church by her presence alone and by all the gifts which she contains, is an unspent fountain of those virtues which the modern world needs the most.

In the present age, too, it does not escape the Church how great a distance lies between the message she offers and the human failings of those to whom the Gospel is entrusted. Whatever be the judgement of history on these defects, we ought to be conscious of them, and struggle against them energetically, lest they inflict harm on spread of the Gospel.

B. The help which the Church receives from the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes #44)

The Church herself knows how richly she has profited by the history and development of humanity.

Her purpose has been to adapt the Gospel to the grasp of all as well as to the needs of the learned, insofar as such was appropriate. Indeed this accommodated preaching of the revealed word ought to remain the law of all evangelization.

The Church requires the special help of those who live in the world, are versed in different institutions and specialties, and grasp their innermost significance in the eyes of both believers and unbelievers.

Since the Church has a visible and social structure as a sign of her unity in Christ, she can and ought to be enriched by the development of human social life.

Whoever promotes the human community at the family level, culturally, in its economic, social and political dimensions, both nationally and internationally, such a one, according to God’s design, is contributing greatly to the Church.

The Church admits that she has greatly profited and still profits from the antagonism of those who oppose or who persecute her.

C. Paul Keating in the Manning Clark Lecture, 3 March 2002:

“We are at risk of becoming, as Manning once said, subjects in the kingdom of nothingness. Subjects of a post-Christian, post-Enlightenment world where there is no inspiration, no higher endeavour, little compassion and no belief beyond narrow self-interest. Like members of a gated community we pretend, in our comfortable urban solace, that all is well including all around us.

Manning used to say that Australian public life broke into two groups: the enlargers, and the punishers and straighteners. As the incarcerated asylum-seekers at Woomera can attest, this government is well and truly into the punishing and straitening game.

To keep the best notions of Australia bubbling within itself, to keep us from that gated refuge of nothingness, the more we remain members of the great project of humanity the better off we will be, and the happier we will be. The more we resist arbitrary and parochial distinctions between peoples, the more our security in this great part of the world will be guaranteed and the more our participation in it will be rewarded.

Ours is an age of distraction. The background to our lives is the white noise of inconsequential television programs, pompous pundits, shrill talkback callers, ten-second news grabs, and the cult of celebrity. In this environment, the need for contemplation and some introspection becomes compelling; a time to stop and think; to make our way, guided by a moral compass, a bearing that divines our best instincts.”

D. Patterns of Economic and Cultural Solidarity. Fr Timothy Radcliffe, O.P (Oceania Synod).

“Oceania largely consists of water, which is for Christians a symbol of life and death. Baptism and destruction. The seas have brought slavery, militarisation and the global market. Today the waters in which these islands must thrive or die is essentially that of ideas. The biggest export of the United States is “culture”. How can the islanders become citizens of this new sea, while retaining their identity and culture? What is required first of all is a new wisdom which is large enough to have a space for their way of seeing things, through song and gift, and yet give space for the skills of modernity.

The new wisdom must ultimately be created by the people themselves, in the light of the Gospel. We must support their ability to move beyond passivity to create what Augustine calls new song for a new humanity. This is the wisdom that we need for a new millennium. But this will remain merely a theory if it is not embodied in new economic relationships. This may seem too large a challenge, but if Christians do not dare to face it then who will? The first step for the Synod is the development of patterns of economic and cultural solidarity in the region, which give a voice to the island peoples. Von Balthasar talked of the need for “islands of humanity”. Let us hope that Oceania may offer such to humanity.”

Safeguarding Role and Dignity of Women. Mrs Margaret Taylor, Papua New Guinea (Oceania Synod)

“The church in Papua New Guinea in particular is cautious in its deliberations on social and economic issues. It is cautious on its position on transparency and accountability of elected leadership. It is cautious in its approach and stance on the issues pertaining to women, in particular, violence against women. The Church is anxious about the emergence of fundamentalist Churches that entice the young and energetic in Catholic communities. It is a Church that must be anxious about its indigenous clergy and its future. The millennium gives the Church the chance to change its norms from a missionary Church to an autochthonous church, independent in spirit and its pastoral work, a Church that is Melanesian.

There are three key issues:

First is the voice of the Church. The Conference of Bishops must become pro-active. The voice of the Church must be heard on issues of corruption, social and economic injustice.

Secondly, women and the Church. The Church must stand with women, speak out against violence, support women’s health and education, and help women maintain our dignity both in secular and spiritual life. Assist women to become partners in building the Church and in development. The Church must be cautious in its adoption of culture. Culture can disenfranchise women. The Church stands for liberation of those afraid and disenfranchised.

Thirdly, our indigenous clergy need greater support and love. The indigenisation of the Church in the 21st century means our clergy taking a greater responsibility in pastoral and intellectual work and in the management of the Church. We in Papua New Guinea need to ask some tough questions.

Is pastoral work the only avenue for service? Is there a more purposeful role for women religious, for women laity, for laity as a whole?

Is there room for the intellectual side of the Melanesian Church?

What mechanisms are there to be a responsive Church?

All that said, it has, as in the past and more recently, always been the case that when all seems lost, through natural disasters, delivery of services to our sick and education for our children, the Church has provided both spiritual and physical assistance. The Church has been constant.”

Pope John Paul II Address to Representatives of World Religions gathered in Assisi, 24 January 2002:

“To pray is not to escape from history and the problems which it presents. On the contrary, it is to choose to face reality not on our own, but with the strength that comes from on high, the strength of truth and love which have their ultimate source in God. Faced with the treachery of evil, religious people can count on God, who absolutely wills what is good. They can pray to him to have the courage to face even the greatest difficulties with a sense of personal responsibility, never yielding to fatalism or impulsive reactions.”


We need to start with a correct assessment of ourselves. As a group, we are middle class, middle aged, from the mainstream culture in a very first world society. The presenters are still very much male, and the overwhelming percentage of participants are women.

In Gaudium et Spes we move from a view of self, church and the world which separates all three (especially if one is a layperson) to a model of three concentric circles in which one finds oneself, in the church, which is then in the world.

We have moved from a dualistic defensive apologetic of the church versus the world to a more intrinsic theology in which we see the world as being already implicitly graced. This permits new possibilities for inter-religious dialogue and novel spiritualities.

The corollary of finding good news in the world has been expecting to find bad news in the Church. The test is not the authority of the statement but the authenticity of the action. The modern question is not “What is the authority of the speaker?” but “What is the commitment of the listener?”

This conference is entitled “Unfinished Business” – a term first coined in this country by Aborigines. We have even more to learn from them as we endure this difficult time of marginalisation to the mainstream culture and from the State.


At the time of Vatican II, there was a more positive view of the world. Now in Australia and New Zealand there is a more negative view – secular and humanist. Gaudium et Spes speaks about the church as a healing sacrament. How do we now work with the world as healing people? Pre-Vatican II we did not much think about our social responsibility. Now we have a responsibility to be a pilgrim church sharing our gifts. We need to stop and reflect where we might go from here.

Our church leaders get very upset about stem cell research but do not seem to be at all upset about the incarceration of children.

Priests are being too defensive about the present issues of sexual abuse. Are we as a church ready to receive help from the modern world? Are we still arrogant, thinking that we have all the answers? We need to look more to the signs of the times, the signs of God in the world.

All governments are now trying to be more inclusive of women. Women should be included more in all the pastoral aspects of the Church.

Many of us were brought up to be docile and obedient, expecting a strict separation of church and state, and expecting the government to be all caring. Now we are more questioning, hoping for more involvement by church in the activities of state, knowing that government has no intention of providing all the needs of civil society.

As church, are we to be an elite or an all-inclusive group? Our weekly Eucharist should give us the greatest sense of church but we do not have the sense of being the People of God with mission to the world.


Church as Hierarchy

In the Vatican II documents, the Church comes across as hierarchical. Point B4 on the handout (Church enriched by the development of human social life) ought to get us back to a simpler Church, to what Jesus did. Point F on prayer is the answer to this simpler Church. Church has become more complicated since Vatican II, not simpler. As Church, we have let ourselves be seduced by capitalism and materialism.

All organisations need structure. The ordained need to lead, and lead well, but we need to lead too, and participate.

Re. women and the Church – there has been an Australian inquiry on this issue. We’ve come a long way. Modern world has alerted Church to this issue.

Australians have the gift of being serious without being formal. The wider Church does not appreciate this. But this Australian style allows things to happen that couldn’t in a rigid hierarchy.

Church and Social Justice

People are transforming the world. There is hope. People are doing good things.

Frustration at the lack of response of parishioners on social justice issues. Not enough just to pray, we’ve got to do something. Early on, Catholics needed social justice to survive. Now they’ve become middle class and complacent.

The way the children overboard issue is brushed aside in society indicates a moral decline. We as church share responsibility for that. In terms of social justice, in our parishes there is a lack of commitment, lack of awareness, people think they are just spectators.

Biggest problem in getting social justice issues before the parish is an unwilling parish priest.

Point A2 – We need to be doers in the temporal realm.

In the pre-election period, people seemed to feel powerless, not willing or able to engage. Leaves us with a social and moral vacuum in society.

Feel powerless in terms of communication and media – who can we trust on these issues?

Voice of the Church in public matters, matters of injustice, needs to be heard. But aware that sometimes Church authority can be seen as a negative voice, and the media complicates issues by choosing what to report.

How to get information to people? One way, the Internet. Caritas or a parish example.

Who is Church? What is Church?

When we gather as church, we are middle class women, privileged women, not representative, nor ethnically diverse, nor dealing with vulnerable women in our community.

Point B5 on the human community and human family – what do we do to promote this community? Do we judge our fellow humans in discriminatory ways? If we can’t see Church in young people, or people with kids, take the time to find out what they think and where they are at, if we judge them instead, we are not contributing to the Church. Church is in the people we meet – we are the Church. Remember that Jesus didn’t only preach at the temple.

Point B3 on the handout suggests that Catholics need to hunt out and listen to other experiences. It is wrong to divide the world into the secular and the sacred. We need to find reasonableness and knowledge from other traditions too.

Right to be concerned about young people’s lack of participation in church. But only 14% of Catholics attend Mass. What are we doing about the other 86%? People engage when a part of Catholic school community, then move off into blue yonder.

Remember to let our faith shine in our hearts. Prayer is not a means to escape history, but gives us strength. Love is the greatest thing we’ve got.

(Father Frank Brennan SJ, AO is a priest and lawyer. He is Adjunct Fellow at the Australian National University in the Research School of Social Sciences, Honorary Visiting Fellow in Law at the University of New South Wales, and the Associate Director of Uniya, the Jesuit Social Justice Centre in Sydney)

Posted by Bob Birchall in Archives, Vatican II

19 Fr Trevor Trotter – The overseas mission of the Australian Church

Overseas mission of the Australian Church: In the changed world and Church since Vatican II what relationships can we as Australians and Church have with our neighbours in Asia/Pacific region?

Looking back and Looking forward

This conference gives us the opportunity to look back over the last forty years since the start of Vatican II. We can see how we were, what has happened to us in the meantime and where we are now. I intend in this paper to look at what has happened to people like me – Australian missionaries.

Thinking back to 1962 I have an image of the young missionary priest, newly ordained and about to set off to Asia. He is dressed in sharp clericals. In his luggage he has copies of the Latin texts he learned his theology from including his Code of Canon Law. He sees himself going off to Asia to baptise people and to offer the sacraments to them as an assured path to save their souls. In this he is like any other young missionary priest from around the globe. He has other baggage that he is probably not aware of, the White Australia policy. In Asia he will discover just how this demeans his country in Asian eyes. Of course, he does not know about colour television, faxes, computers or text messaging. He is a long way away from where we are now.

How did we get from that sort of Church and country to where we are now? Obviously there is a long story to tell here but I would like address two areas. The first concerns some of the major transitions in the theological thinking of the church and the second concerns some of the changes in missiological thinking arising from cultural shifts in the last forty years.

I will use a somewhat autobiographical approach to order some of this material. I invite you to look back yourselves on the changes in your own understanding of what it means to be a member of the Church in Australia.

One of the major transitions or conversions for me is summed up in that oft-repeated quotation from the Synod of Bishops of 1971. “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel”. I was a bit slow. It took me another couple of years to understand what the Bishops were saying. You may be able to recall your own journey to this understanding of the Gospel of Jesus.


To be able to make that statement one has to move a long way from our young missionary in 1962. I want to mention four key insights, as key events on the journey. Firstly a major insight has to be that salvation is not just about saving souls. We realise that we are talking about saving the whole person. So salvation is not just about heaven, the after-life, but it is also about this life. At this distance it seems such a strange idea that Jesus’ death was about saving souls only. When we talk about the resurrection we are talking about the resurrection of the body! Naturally that means we are talking about the resurrection of the whole material universe, which St. Paul was already addressing on Romans chapter 8. God created the whole universe out of love. It seems strange that that would be the end of God’s care for the world. Biblical texts about “a new heaven and a new earth” start to take on some relevance when our minds are able to make the shift.

Personally, I think this basic intellectual conversion is a major challenge to our regular churchgoers in Australia. A few years ago the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference made a statement, in the form of a video, on Evangelisation with the help of Catholic Mission. The video, “FACES”, had stories of three people. It is a good video. Its purpose, it seems to me, is to help people make the transition from seeing God and religion only in the church building to seeing God at work in and through the events of their lives. In a recent survey of why Australian Christians do not go to Sunday worship one of the main reasons was that they did not see it as connected to the rest of their lives. An understanding of mission that separates salvation from the reality of people’s everyday life does not make any sense and people are right to reject it.


Secondly another new development for which we need to thank the liberation theologians is that we are not just talking about individuals we are talking about structures. Whereas our 1962 missionary was prepared to deal with the souls of individuals in the confessional or maybe in some sort of pastoral counselling he was not prepared to diagnose the structural causes of the poverty he saw all around him. The struggle for justice is a constitutive dimension of preaching the gospel according to the bishops. That there is plenty of injustice in the world is so evident. As our Australian missionary came into contact with the poor of Latin America, the Pacific, Asia or Africa he could not but be moved. He had probably been blind to the poor of Australia but when he came back home he certainly looked at “the lucky country” through different eyes. As he worked with so many others who were committed to helping the poor he too moved from the different understandings of the importance of giving aid, to the need for development, to being in solidarity with those demanding liberation. He moved from giving the fish, to helping the people to fish for themselves to asking why can’t they sell the fish, why are fish stocks being depleted by foreign boats and why are they dying of poisoning? As our missionary looked at his friends in his parish who depended on fishing for a livelihood he came to realise that the answers were and are structural. The politically and economically powerful rule the world. It is the structures that they control which are responsible for the suffering of these fishing families.

Grace and Sin

The third insight was that when we talk about grace and sin we are not just talking about God’s gift in terms of what happens to individuals we are also talking about God’s desire for the transformation of society. Our missionary starts to change his language from sins, as acts of individuals, to structural sin as a power at work oppressing millions of people. Now the prayers of the Eucharist are starting to have all sorts of resonances. “Deliver us from evil” has many meanings for him. When he gathers with friends for Eucharist so often the text being used is Luke 4. In Luke there is no doubt of God’s preferential option for the poor. God loves the rich as well but Luke says the only way that the rich can be saved is by responding to God’s loving call to be converted and to share God’s concern and love for the poor. By this time the brain of our young missionary is getting overloaded. This sort of conversion experience takes time to absorb but he is starting to get help in all sorts of areas.

Church and Kingdom

If our missionary has been keeping up his reading of studies in the Bible he is excited about what liberation theologians are saying about Exodus. God’s gift to the Jews is political liberation from Egypt. Grace has a very concrete shape. Then in the New Testament there is an understanding developing that the historical Jesus preached the Kingdom. So the fourth insight of our missionary is that church is not the main focus of the mission of Jesus and therefore his mission but the Kingdom of God is. The relationship between Church and Kingdom continues to be clarified with the help of quite a few Papal documents. He now understands that the Church is not an end in itself but is at the service of the Kingdom. It is God’s Kingdom and God is bringing it about. In more recent years he will be talking about the missio Dei as the central organising image of his understanding of Church and his own role.

Cultural shifts and their impact

A lot of the change in our understanding of ourselves as missionaries has occurred because of changes in cultural and political realities. Again I would like to make five points under this heading. Briefly they are the feminist movement, the coming to independence of former colonies, inculturation, interfaith dialogue and ecology.

The feminist movement has to be one of the biggest changes in our culture over the last forty years. The church response has been very slow and there is still a long way to go. The Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus project has been a significant marker in our Australian church’s engagement with this reality. Today it is a vital question for our missionary identity which it certainly was not for our missionary of 1962. However he may have had an inkling of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris of the following year which spoke of the emergence of women as one of the major signs of God’s working in our world. Coming out of an Australian seminary he probably did not know what the Pope was talking about.

Another of those signs of the times that the Pope referred to was the struggle for nationhood. Country after country fought for independence from their colonisers and then struggled to become stable communities where the freedom of all was respected. On the ecclesiastical front, new bishops were usually local bishops. Gradually it was not the foreign missionary groups who were making the decisions in the third world but it was the local bishop. The local church became the principal agent of mission on the ground. Foreign missionaries started to talk of themselves as “guests”. Not all were happy to let the local church take control. It was difficult to let go. This movement into the post-colonial period together with an abhorrence of encouraging dependence changed forever the relationship between nations and between local churches.

A major ecclesiological demand that is related to this whole issue is that of “inculturation”. Missionaries who have worked in other cultures have been privileged by an experience of a different way of living the Gospel. They have come to appreciate a different face of Christ, of God. As they experienced the liturgies, the prayers and commitments of people in the local churches where they were working they came to understand more of the variety of God’s gifts and invitations. However it is also obvious that all cultures need to be continually transformed by the gospel. Inculturation of the gospel is a never-ending process. How well do we inculturate the Gospel of Jesus in the Australian culture? In seeking authenticity in our own lives are we also continuing to call our church to authenticity in living as a true Australian?

Not only did our Australian missionary learn about the struggle for justice and the value of other cultures he or she also learnt about the value of other religions. Whether it was among the Hindus in India, the Buddhists in Japan or the Muslims in Pakistan over and over again our missionary discovers holy people. In 1962 he probably thought of them as ‘pagan’. He probably saw them theologically as being in the dark. The light of the Gospel was what he had and he had to bring it to them. However, with Vatican II saying. “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions” (Nostra Aetate par 2.) and his own experience of people he started to realise his theology was way off the mark. When it was stated that people can be saved through their own religion some of his confreres wondered what they were doing trying to introduce people to Jesus anyway. Today he is quite delighted by his inter-faith dialogue efforts. He gets to meet some very interesting people.

This year the Social Justice statement of the Australian Bishops is a video on Ecology. It makes great use of a phrase of the Pope, “ecological conversion”. Our 1962 missionary could not have possibly foreseen this event. I doubt that many Catholics in Australia today would understand this language. Yet it is a marvellous sign of our developing understanding of where God is calling us today and where God is being manifested. People’s concern for the environment and reverence for its beauty are truly manifestations of God’s Spirit.

Looking Forward

This is my brief summary of an amazing period of change and progress in the thinking of the mission of the Church over the last forty years. I hope you can also look back and marvel at the development that has occurred in your own life. With some sense of satisfaction we can now look forward with hope and expectation for what the future will bring.

It seems to me that the question now facing us is what will this Christian community in Australia do vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Or as stated in the flyer “what relationships can we, as Australians and Church, have with our neighbours in the Asia/Pacific region?” Given all the development of thought and changes in our self-image as church and as Australians what are we doing to face our future? I think we have the questions but the answers are slow in coming, but let me speak to three points.

End of an era

It is clear that the modern missionary era is now over. That great movement of Christian missionaries out of Europe, the United States and Australia and New Zealand, which basically followed the colonial powers thrust into the rest of the world is now finished. All of us know that there are not the numbers of priest, brothers and sisters leaving Australia for the rest of their lives on mission work as there used to be. There are not the number of priests and religious as there used to be within Australia. People generally are not finding the Church the place to be. What we don’t know is why? Why are our churches empty? It amazes me that such a simple question cannot be answered by everyone in the church, let alone by its leaders.

Church as sacrament

While we don’t have much understanding of the shifts in our Western culture we do have a theology of church that has very interesting implications. Vatican II said that the church is the sacrament of the unity of human kind (ref. L.G. 1). The Church in Australia, as a sacrament, should be making visible the works of God in our land. We know that the missio Dei is operative in the hearts and minds of all Australians. God’s Spirit is everywhere. That God’s mission is to bring about the Kingdom is obvious. Our task as church, as sacrament of God’s mission, is to point to where God is, to denounce what is opposed to the Kingdom and to celebrate its presence. We need to do this in every aspect of the nation’s life.

If we are looking at the overseas dimension of the Australian church’s life we need to look at the overseas dimension of the nation’s life. Where is God in our international relations, our military connections, and the relationships with our trading partners? The Church should be able to answer these questions. What about our cultural exchanges, our educational sector where so many students are from overseas? The Pope speaks of the new sites of mission. He uses the word areopagi. He is calling us to look to the new arenas of God’s mission, which are not the usual places where up to now we have normally found the church.

The next question is who will speak of God in these places? Who will promote God’s Kingdom in these areas of national life? Who will be the missionaries, in other words? Those Christians who work in these areas are the ones who will promote the Kingdom there. The members of our Universities, the staff of the Departments of the Federal Government etc. These are the new missionaries. Maybe the theologically literate should be helping them to discern and to name the Spirit of God in their midst.

Partnerships with local churches

In practice, I believe one way forward is for us to build partnerships with other local churches in the Asia/Pacific. What do we need partnerships for? We need partnerships to work for the transformation of the world, to reconcile the human family, to prepare the way for the Kingdom of God. No one nation can unilaterally achieve these goals of human desire. It is only by human beings working together that this can come about.

Global connections

Another way to look at the need for partnerships between local churches is to look at the job to be done. Many of the problems of our world cross national borders. Global warming, refugees, the trafficking in women, etc are all global problems. Globalisation calls for “global solidarity” as the Pope calls it. Local churches need to be in solidarity. We in Australia must connect with our brothers and sisters in the churches of Asia and the Pacific to address the issues that affect us all.

Who will preach to us?

One of the most striking comments I heard recently is that “we are an arrogant church in an arrogant nation”. This is a view held by some of our neighbours. It is a challenge to us today. As I looked back over the last forty years of change in missionary thinking I was startled to realise that so much of this change came from the oppressed. Where did we learn most about the struggle for justice and the Gospel? Gustavo Gutierrez and liberation theology are the quick answer. Where did we learn most about inter-faith dialogue? Surely we must thank the Indians for much of that. If the colonised peoples had not fought for justice would we be talking about the mutuality of local churches? If women had not shared stories of their oppression would we have a Commission for Catholic Women in the Australian church? I don’t think so.

It seems a fundamental law that we are alerted to our sinfulness by those we victimise. The call of Jesus is “Repent, and believe in the Gospel”. For the Australian church to grow we need to listen to the victims. The painful experience of listening to the voices of the sexually abused is a call into a deeper life. For the future the Australian nation and the Australian church need to listen to those we dominate in the Asia/Pacific region and be prepared to learn from them what God asks of us. We cannot live without them.


At the end of this paper I am delighted to reflect on the journey of the last forty years. Vatican II may belong to a by-gone era for the younger portion of our church but for many of us it was a life-orienting event. We spent the better part of our lives trying to understand what had been said and then trying to pursue its vision in a changing world.

As I look forward it is hard to see how the Church in Australia will fulfil her role of being the sacrament of the unity of humankind. Until we as church, sit down, listen and participate in the various conversations in Australia about how do we live as human beings in this part of the world we will not have any answers. If however, we believe that God is pursuing the mission of the Kingdom we can have faith that we will find our place and be able to make our contribution, whoever we are and wherever we are, to that future of love, peace and freedom.

(Father Trevor Trotter is a Columban priest, who served in the Philippines, then taught at the Columban Mission Institute and the Catholic Theological Union in Sydney. Currently he is the Director of the Columban Mission in Australia and New Zealand.)

Posted by Bob Birchall in Archives, Vatican II

18 John Thornhill, SM – Vatican II challenged the Church to leave its tidy ‘world apart’

Vatican II challenged the Church to leave its tidy ‘world apart’ of recent centuries and to share in the ongoing struggles of human history.


The two key documents of Vatican II were Lumen Gentium (which replaced the juridical ecclesiology of recent centuries with an ecclesiology inspired by Christian faith’s earliest vision of the Church as a mystery of solidarity in the Saviour’s Paschal Mystery), and Gaudium et Spes (which called the Church to leave the ‘world apart’ in which it has lived in the modern period, to share in the hopes and struggles of humanity’s journey into the future).

Both of these documents were revolutionary, and it is not surprising that the principal internal tensions within Catholicism today relate to issues which are central to these constitutions: the issue of collegial pastoral responsibility, which is a corollary of the solidarity in the mystery of Christ taught by Lumen Gentium, and the issue of the Church’s collaborative relationship with the cultures of the human family initiated by Gaudium et Spes.

With regard to the second issue, it has become clear that there is a profound difference of opinion between John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, his principal aide. Understanding this difference helps us to appreciate what is at stake if the Church is to follow the lead of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.


Bishop Wojtyla collaborated with Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac in the preparation and promotion of the text that was to become Gaudium et Spes. They both acknowledged the remarkable nature of his contribution (c/f. Geo Weigel, Witness to Hope: The biography of Pope John Paul II, 1999 – page references below are to this work). In his diary, Congar noted Wojtyla’s ‘magnetic power’ and ‘prophetic strength’, and his arguing for a dialogue with contemporaries (p.168); in correspondence with de Lubac, Wojtyla told him that he was preparing a text on ‘the metaphysical sense and mystery of the PERSON’, because he believed that the ‘evil of our times’ was ‘a kind of degradation … pulverisation of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person’ (p.174 – This text was published in English as The Acting Person; the pope‘s position was developed in his weekly addresses, published as The Theology of the Body).

The great Paul VI identified with the position championed by Wojtyla at the council: ‘… evangelise human culture and cultures, in the sense of Gaudium et Spes, taking the person as starting point, and always coming back to relationships… the building up of the Kingdom must borrow elements of human culture and cultures … the Gospel can permeate all cultures without becoming subject to any one of them … cultures have to be regenerated by an encounter with the Gospel …’ (Evangelii nuntiandi n.20).

There are few people who have had the dramatic and tragic events of the 20th century become part of their personal experience as Karol Wojtyla has (‘I have participated in the great experience of my contemporaries – humiliation at the hands of evil’, Weigel, p.87). It is in this experience that the Christian humanism, which has consistently inspired his leadership, had its origins. Forming deep and lasting friendships, he helped his people to salvage their human dignity and inner freedom by reconnecting with their Polish heritage, as they bore the frustrations of life under a Marxist regime. It was an approach which effectively countered the influence of the regime without direct confrontation – and it led ultimately to one of the most important themes of his pontificate: the Church should influence the course of history, not by participating in the world’s political processes, but by the evangelisation of cultures (‘not by being a competitor or partner in the game of politics’, to liberated Poland, 1991).

Wojtyla’s coherent intellectual program that is echoed in Gaudium et Spes

As an academic and popular university lecturer, the future pope worked out a coherent Christian humanism. Some representative texts will help us to appreciate the vision he set out to share.

Optimism concerning human nature – ‘God does not despair of man’ so ‘neither may we despair of man’ (p.598, to Poles reflecting on the experience of World War II). Openness to the role of conscience – ‘While I talked to him for hours, I never heard him say, “I’d advise you to…” … he would always say, “You have to decide”’ (p.105, words of a mature acquaintance); ‘The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures and she honours the sanctuary of conscience’ (Redemptoris missio, compare Gaudium et Spes, n.16 and Weigel p.636). On the dignity of the person – ‘Re-acquire depth, the depth which is really the essence of the human person’ (p.547);

‘The giving of one’s self to others was a key norm in his personalist ethic: “The Law of the Gift” – Responsible self-giving, not self-assertion, is the road to human fulfilment’ (p.136 – c/f. Gaudium et Spes n.24; ‘Wojtyla suggested that we avoid “using” each other only when two genuine freedoms meet each other without reducing them to objects by manipulating them’ (p.141 – in the context of his wide experience with young students and married couples finding their way in their sexual life). On history and society – ‘The Church is convinced there is only one history – a history filled with God’s presence and redemptive promise: a promise providing the answer to the fears which haunt humanity’ (Weigel p.290, summarising the essential theme of Redemptor hominis, a theme which Wojtyla had championed in the debates of Vatican II); The world has to learn that difference, far from being a threat, is enriching, for ‘different cultures are but different ways of facing the question of the meaning of human existence’. And at the heart of every culture is a distinctive approach to ‘the greatest of all mysteries: the mystery of God’ (p.775, addressing the UN in 1995); Christian faith led Karol Wojtyla to stress the link between the strivings of the world’s cultures and the mystery of the Incarnation. Long before the debates of the council he was convinced of the fundamental importance of what the council was to declare; ‘only in the mystery of the incarnate Word is the mystery of our common humanity revealed to us’ (Gaudium et Spes n.22). This truth was to become a frequent refrain in his papal teaching.

It is clear that when the pope speaks of a new evangelisation, an evangelisation that is carried out through a dialogue with the world’s cultures, he is not resorting to a catchphrase, but proposing a pastoral approach that is profound and coherent. As one writer has put it, genuine religion, because it ‘orients human beings into the divine mystery which transcends all cultural achievements and grounds all truth, goodness and holiness’, opens the way to a dialogue which takes up the ultimate concerns of our common humanity (Matthew Lamb).


A recent biography of Joseph Ratzinger helps us to understand the ambiguous attitude he adopted after Vatican II – at which he had made an important contribution as a theological adviser (John L. Allen: Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s enforcer, 2000). This study suggests that he left the council unsettled. Lumen Gentium made him hopeful for a renewed Church; but Gaudium et Spes left him concerned that its openness to the broader world and its cultures would be detrimental to the Church’s welfare. Student unrest in the period immediately following the council only served to confirm this judgment. This reaction is associated with Ratzinger’s choice of Augustine as his principal theological guide. Augustine’s theological vision was an immense and complex work of genius. In it his stress upon the importance of God’s grace in the plan of salvation set up a dichotomy: human nature as either graced or fallen. This point of view sees no positive place for human nature, independently of grace, in the plan of God. Later Christian theology, following Aquinas, was to adopt a more adequate paradigm, acknowledging the positive potential of ‘nature’, between ‘graced humanity’ and ‘fallen humanity’.

The divergence of views between John Paul II (a follower of Aquinas) and Joseph Ratzinger (a follower of Augustine) is therefore profound. It has led the cardinal to ‘openly and publicly’ criticise the pope’s initiatives promoting inter-faith dialogue.

For the reasons we have given, the pope is ultimately optimistic about the prospects of a dialogue between Christian faith and the world’s cultural traditions. Joseph Ratzinger judges that such a dialogue can only run the danger of contaminating the doctrinal ‘givens’ of Christian revelation.

“.. CONSCIENCE is the most secret core and sanctuary of a person. There the person is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his or her depths … In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of the human family in the search for truth … Conscience frequently errs, from invincible ignorance, without losing its dignity…”

(Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, n.16)

CULTURE is the expression of two abilities which have made HUMAN HISTORY what it is … the ability to transcend oneself and make the universe, oneself, and one’s fellows into objects of contemplation, and a “drive” to try to “make sense” out of human experience and find some “principle” in the whole human situation.

(Australian anthropologist, W.E.H.Stanner)

The vitality of a society is bound up with its RELIGION … the cohesive force that unites a society and a culture … A society, which has lost its religion, becomes sooner or later a society that has lost its culture.

* * *

RELIGION is the key of history. We cannot understand the inner form of a society unless we understand its religion. We cannot understand its cultural achievements unless we understand the religious beliefs behind them. In all ages the first creative works of a culture are due to religious inspiration and dedicated to a religious end. The temples of the gods are the most enduring works of man. Religion stands at the threshold of all the great literatures of the world. Philosophy is its offspring and is a child that constantly returns to its parent.

(Historian, Christopher Dawson)

(Father John Thornhill SM is a Marist Father and well-known theologian. He is a writer and speaker, frequently addressing Australian audiences on the vision of Vatican II.)

Posted by Bob Birchall in Archives, Vatican II
17 Bishop Geoffrey Robinson – Conscience – doing the right thing and taking responsibility for it

17 Bishop Geoffrey Robinson – Conscience – doing the right thing and taking responsibility for it

Conscience – Doing the right thing and taking responsibility for it.


In the opinion of many scholars, the most radical changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council concerned religious liberty. For some 1500 years the Catholic Church had held that truth alone had rights, while error had no rights, that the Catholic Church alone contained the complete truth, so it alone had rights that other groups did not have.

The Council marked a radical departure from these teachings, for it said that it is people who have rights, not truth or error, and that people retain their rights even when they are in error. On this basis it defended the right of all people to religious liberty.

The Council tried to say that these statements were merely a development of past ideas, but it is impossible to accept this notion. A French bishop, Marcel Lefebvre, left the Catholic Church after the Council and took a significant number of people with him. The teaching on religious liberty was one of his major reasons for leaving, for in one moment the Council reversed some fifteen hundred years of history.


Despite this radical change, to a moral theologian the Second Vatican Council can be a disappointment, for it contains many ambiguities and even contradictions on the subject of conscience. At times it appears to say that people should follow their consciences, at other times it appears to say that conscience must always follow the teaching authority of the church.

Compare two quotations from the same document, Gaudium et Spes. The first speaks of the nature of conscience.

“Deep within their conscience men and women discover a law which they have not laid upon themselves, but which they must obey. Its voice, ever calling them to love, and to do what is right and avoid what is wrong, tells them inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For people have within their hearts a law inscribed by God. Their dignity lies in observing this law, and by it they will be judged. The conscience is the individual’s most secret core and sanctuary. There each person is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his or her depths.”

The second quotation applies conscience to the question of birth control.

“In the end, it is the married couple themselves who make this judgement before God. In their way of acting, however, Christian couples should be aware that they cannot proceed solely according to their own ideas, but must always be ruled by a conscience that seeks to follow the divine law, and they must be docile to the teaching authority of the Church, which authentically interprets the divine law in the light of the Gospel.”

It is important to realise that this ambiguity on the subject of conscience exists within the Council itself. It would be wrong to quote either side as being the authentic and consistent teaching of the Council. It must be admitted that the Council was reflecting a very long history of division on this point and that it was unable to resolve the tension.

Since the Council this ambivalence continues to exist and has, indeed, been sharpened. On the one hand, the encyclical Veritatis Splendor says,

“The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience”.

On the other hand, there has been a constant insistence that people must conform their thinking to the teaching of the church. The two critical issues have been contraception and the ordination of women. Separately or together they have frequently been the litmus test of orthodoxy and loyalty.

Is there a way forward? In answering this question, it is important to understand that there was much development of ideas over the four years of the Council and one must trace this development in order to understand where the Council was heading. Often we cannot draw certain conclusions as to what it would have said if it had had more time, but we can see directions. There is one trend in particular that I believe is of the greatest importance to the issue of conscience.

Doing Right Things and Taking Responsibility

It concerns the statement that doing right things and taking responsibility for our actions are both essential to morality.

“Human dignity therefore requires us to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in ourselves or by mere external constraint. We gain such dignity when … we press forward towards our goal by freely choosing what is good….”

“By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness.”

“The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person.”

Performing right actions and avoiding wrong ones is an essential part of moral growth.

In the midst of a powerful history of communal or tribal hatreds, a certain person makes a genuine conscience decision before God alone that he should take part in the massacre of his perceived enemies and does so. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, I would be compelled to say that his very dignity lies in following his conscience, even when he is wrong. Despite this, I would have to add that his decision has hurt him. He has become a murderer, and for the rest of his life, whenever he looks in a mirror, that it what he will see. To make serious progress as a human being, he would need to recognise that his decision in conscience was wrong, and he would need to do all he could to repair the damage he had caused.

For growth as moral persons, however, more is required than simply performing right actions. It is also required that we take personal responsibility for our choice of actions.

As children grow, it is important that they learn right habits, but it is also important that they gradually learn to take responsibility for their own actions. If they learn wrong habits from their parents, or if they rebel against their parents and adopt wrong habits themselves, they will encounter problems. But if they do not learn to take responsibility for their own actions, obedience to parents will gradually become an obstacle rather than a help to their true growth as persons. If this is true in all aspects of their life, it is true also of their moral life.

There are persons who, because of fear or laziness, do not want to take personal responsibility for moral choices. They want either the Bible or church authority or a charismatic leader or popular opinion or a peer group to take the responsibility for them, so that all that will be left to them is to follow this authority. This cannot be called “the very dignity” of these persons, for they have not taken personal responsibility for their decisions and will not grow as they should. Mere obedience, to either religious authority or popular opinion, is not “the very dignity” of a person.

Thus it is important that we take personal responsibility for our decisions and it is also important that we get them right. We will not grow unless we take personal responsibility for our actions. But, even if we do take personal responsibility, we will still not grow if our decisions are wrong ones, that is, if they harm other people or our own true good. For growth both of these elements are essential.

Assisting Conscience

If we apply this idea, it must follow that the task of church authority in the moral field is that of assisting consciences.

There is a twin danger in this idea. For individual persons the danger is that of speaking of conscience when they have not done the work necessary to justify the use of this word, when they do no more than go along with the crowd or decide what they would like to do and call that “conscience”. This is a constant danger for every single person and much that is called “conscience” does not deserve that name.

The danger for church authority, on the other hand, is to think, “We have a responsibility and an authority to teach in the name of Jesus Christ. Therefore, if people had formed their consciences correctly, they would agree with us. If they don’t agree with us, they can’t have formed their consciences properly and must be in bad faith.”

There is a constant tug-of-war between these two forces. The solution is surely to be found in a constant dialogue between two parties who both want the best possible outcome for the individual. Let us look at some of the elements of this dialogue.

Individual and Community

As need arises, I am in dialogue with a mechanic concerning my car, a doctor concerning my health, an insurance company concerning my insurance needs, and so on. It does not make sense to call myself a member of a church community and not be in dialogue with that community on moral matters. Within this community conscience can never be an autonomous moral sense.

It is not possible for individuals to form their consciences on all matters entirely on their own. People can form their consciences only by humbly joining with many others in the search for truth. One of the very first requirements of a true conscience is humility.

The Force of Arguments

In fact and in practice, the effectiveness of any document setting out moral teaching will always depend first and foremost on the power of the arguments contained in the document. The authority of the writer will never be able to make up for a lack of power in the arguments. A document containing powerful and persuasive arguments written by a person with little authority will always be more convincing than a document lacking persuasive arguments written by a person with great authority. If the arguments in a document fail to convince even people of good will, no amount of authority will make up for this.

Furthermore, if people are convinced by the arguments put forward, they will make a decision based on personal conviction and will be ready to take responsibility for the decision. If they are quite unconvinced by the arguments presented and do something only because of the authority of the person who wrote the document, they will not take the same degree of responsibility for the decision and will not grow in the same way.

The Importance of Authority

Despite what has just been said, authority does matter. If I am sick, I want the opinion of a qualified doctor rather than the opinion of someone ignorant of medicine. Sometimes I might want a second medical opinion or a referral to a specialist, but it is undeniable that in most matters authority does count.

I must, of course, decide whether I will accept the word of the doctor. There will be many factors involved in this decision, and one of them will usually be whether the doctor takes the time to explain to me exactly what is wrong and what needs to be done. In other words, I will have most faith in those authorities who do not rely on authority alone, but who attempt to lead me as far as possible along the road of making my own informed decision.

The Power of Collective Wisdom

In assessing a moral authority, one of the criteria will usually be whether the opinion expressed represents the collective wisdom of the whole community or only the private wisdom of an individual or group, no matter who that individual or group may be. As a matter of fact rather than theory, the documents of the Second Vatican Council carry a greater weight with Catholic people than documents written by a pope alone.

Infallible Advice?

It is a contradiction in terms to speak of infallible advice to conscience. If a statement is presented as infallibly true, it is no longer advice.

Over the centuries popes have sometimes made infallible statements on dogmatic matters, that is, on what people should or should not believe, but no pope of the past ever attempted to make an infallible statement on a moral matter, that is, on what people should or should not do.

The reason that concerns us here is that an infallible moral statement would subvert the role of conscience. Moral statements can be more or less certain and they can be made with more or less authority. But if they are to respect the essential role of conscience in moral growth, they must stop short of infallibility.

A Positive Role for Church Authority

The world of today often seems to present to people, on the one hand, a dogmatic and authoritarian church and, on the other hand, the total freedom of the individual, and then ask: Which of these two do you prefer? To this I must reply: Why should we choose either of these extremes? Can not a greater truth be found in the middle? I see four roles for the church.

Educating to the Use of Conscience

The first is to assist people to educate themselves in the fields of conscience and moral principles.

In relation to conscience, the church should help people to understand what is and what is not conscience, how it works, how one forms a conscience properly, and the dangers to be aware of in the difficult and subtle world of moral decision making.

In relation to moral principles, the church must not present a long series of statements beginning with “Thou shalt not…” for a negative morality cannot be an adequate basis for a person’s life. It must be a positive morality, consisting of positive principles, eg. “How can I best witness to truth and justice in this situation?” “How can I best help to bring peace and understanding between these persons in conflict?” “What can I do in this situation that will best help both others and myself to grow towards perfect love?”

Since such principles require a profound sense of realism and honesty, the church should then seek to give to people the best spiritual-moral insights it can from the Scriptures, the great saints and the whole Christian tradition. The better people are educated in the field of moral principles, the better they will be able to make moral decisions and the more they will grow.

Guidance in Moral Matters

The second role I see for the Christian church is to present its position on many issues that commonly arise in the lives of people. In doing so, the church must not rely simply on the moral authority of its leaders. Rather, it should always present the arguments in favour of its position as fully and as fairly as it can, that is, it should rely above all on the force of its arguments.

Indeed, I believe that in all such statements the church should first present as fully and as fairly as it can the case against its own position. If it does this, it will truly be assisting people to make mature decisions in conscience before God alone. There is one obvious condition.

“Your exposition of your opponent’s beliefs should be so accurate, so true to his beliefs, that he will gladly sign his name at the bottom of your exposition as a witness to its accuracy.”

If the Christian church acquired a reputation for putting the arguments against its own views as powerfully, clearly and honestly as they can be put, its credibility would soar dramatically. If people were able to say, “You will never see the arguments in favour of this action put more clearly than they are in the document of the Christian church”, they might really start listening to the moral arguments the church gives against that action.

Protecting the Community

The third role is a more negative one, but necessary. A community must protect its members against the decisions of individuals that harm other people, even when they are made in conscience. Just as the state will imprison a person who commits murder, so a church community must dismiss from a teaching post a person who displays racial hatred to some students. Because harm is being caused to people, neither the state nor the church will accept conscience as a defence. There are serious difficulties and dangers in this field, but it cannot be ignored.

Encouraging People

The fourth role I see for the church is the important one of giving constant encouragement to people to believe in God’s love and God’s assistance, to have the courage to face the challenges that confront them, and to make all the conscience decisions they need to make. The church should encourage people not to seek an easy way out, but to grow through challenges towards all they are capable of being. It can encourage them to have faith that they can grow to heights they have not dreamed of.

As children grow up, their parents must finally stand back and allow them to make their own mistakes and learn from these mistakes. If the children abuse their freedom, the parents can only hope that the day will come when they see that their actions are not contributing to their growth, health or happiness, and will want to change. It is important that, through all of this process, however long it takes, the parents keep their relationship with their children, so that the children will know they are there and will turn to them when they feel the need. A church should act in the same way.

(Bishop Geoffrey Robinson is auxiliary bishop of Sydney.

Posted by Bob Birchall in Archives, Slider, Vatican II

16 Carmel Pilcher, RSJ – Eucharist: Vatican II’s challenge

Eucharist: Vatican II’s challenge to restore the prophetic character to our celebrations, challenging us to unity and care for the poor.


Arguably the greatest impact of the Second Vatican Council has been the change brought about in the celebration of Sunday Eucharist. Even the very language we now use in relation to worship indicates a different approach to the central activity of Catholic life. Before the Council, Catholics ‘heard the Mass’, while Father ‘said Mass’, the clergy ‘administered the sacraments’ and we ‘received them’. We described the Mass in terms of Private, Dialogue, Sung, Solemn or High. Now we tend to speak about the Eucharist in terms of celebration, as the activity of all of us. We are more inclined to speak of the bishop or priest who leads this celebration as presider or chief celebrant of our Eucharist.

Anyone who is old enough to have ‘heard Mass’ in the 50’s would have memories of churches that differ considerably in appearance from those today. The central focus of the church was the altar and tabernacle, above which usually hung a large crucifix and perhaps a painting depicting an artist’s image of the heavenly realm. The sanctuary was sometimes guarded by angels, and included statues of Our Lady and other saints. The high altar was adorned with candles and flowers on lace cloths. During Mass the priest and altar boy faced the altar against the wall, and was separated from those of us in the pews by communion rails. As a child I was caught up by the mystery of the experience. I enjoyed the sound of Latin, the smell of beeswax and incense, and the chance to pray quietly to Jesus in the tabernacle. Sometimes I tried to follow the prayers of the priest with the aid of my missal. On other occasions I would see how many rosaries I could say or I’d lose myself in books of prayers. I especially loved the chance, as I grew older, to don a blue cloak and a netting veil and to join the other Children of Mary. On one Sunday each month my family had to wait around chatting to friends while I joined the others in the sodality to recite the Office of the Virgin Mary immediately after Mass.

By the 70’s I was a young religious teaching in a primary school and preparing school and class Masses. There were books available to help us prepare. These usually contained suggestions for Masses focused upon themes. In contrast to my own school days where we went to Mass on special feast days and were rewarded for good conduct, the children who lived two decades later experienced Eucharist in a very different way. They were encouraged not only to prepare the prayers and songs, to decorate the space: whether class room or church, but also to take an active part in the celebration. It was usually possible, with a class of thirty, to find some activity for each to do, whether as reader, prayer leader, or the one who played the triangle or tambourine. I also occasionally accompanied the youth of the parish to weekend camps. The highlight of these gathering was the celebration of Eucharist, often late at night in a very informal setting, sitting upon the floor around campfire and candlelight. These celebrations were often spontaneous and included lots of singing accompanied by guitars. Liturgical celebrations were usually flavoured with contemporary songs; offertory procession may include footballs and school books in addition to bread and wine, and altar and presider were sometimes vested with colourful images created by young budding artists. We celebrated Mass in homes and classrooms or outdoors as well as in churches. We often decorated our liturgical spaces with children’s’ artwork or even streamers and balloons. In the heady time following Vatican II there seemed no end to the possibility of adaptation and experimentation.


At the beginning of the twenty-first century we have yet a different story to tell about Eucharistic practice. From my experience of celebrating Eucharist in many parishes, it appears that we now take for granted that the faithful will be involvement in liturgical ministries. But how do Catholics in the pew understand their role as participants in the Eucharist? To revisit our experiences of Eucharist does remind us of the vast shifts in liturgical practice since 1963. But many describe the current climate of worship in the Catholic church as something of a liturgical battlefield. We hear cries from some that the Council compromised the Roman tradition and now it is time to restore orthodox Catholic liturgy. Others believe we should not continue to dwell upon the past but move forward with ever continuing innovation and creativity. Some have opposed the reform all along. Still another group of people born around or after the Council advocate a return to a past practice that they can only imagine because it is beyond their lived experience. The critical question that demands our consideration, I believe, is what did the Council mean when it called the assembly to full participation in liturgy. To do this we must revisit the writings of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council.


The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, was the first document ratified by the Council Fathers in December 1963. However, the reform of the Roman liturgy was begun many decades before. Pius X in 1903, Pius XI, and then in 1947 Pius XII who wrote the Encyclical Mediator Dei: all contributed significantly. History records that liturgical reform was discussed, debated and progressed by scholars all over the world for many decades before the historic convocation of John XXIII. It is important to stress however, that the seeds of the liturgical reform were not sown in universities and monasteries, but rather amongst the grass roots laity in parishes. The forums and liturgical weeks that ensued were motivated by and centred upon pastoral problems and concerns. (See Botte: 1988, Bugnini: 1990).


The reform of the liturgy is tied closely to ecclesiology, and so we need to examine what the Council had to say about the church. Pius XII in his encyclical Mediator Dei reflected upon church as Mystical Body of Christ. This image was echoed by Lumen Gentium, ‘The Constitution on the Church’ (hereafter LG): “By communicating his Spirit, Christ made us his brothers and sisters, called together from all nations, to be mystically his own Body.” (LG 7). The many biblical images of church named in the document serve to remind the faithful of the richness of Church in the tradition. The Council Fathers grappled with an expanded notion of church and finally agreed to rearrange the final schema of this document, so that the chapter on the People of God (chapter II) preceded that of the hierarchical structure and episcopate (chapter III). This radical understanding of church had the effect of changing the notion of the laity from being passive recipients to active members. No longer did the church refer only to hierarchy: pope, bishops, priests, and perhaps nuns, but the Fathers reinstated the biblical understanding of church as people of God. It was no longer simply the priests and nuns who were called to live according to ‘the perfect state’, but all Christians were called to holiness as the baptised, and called to engage in the public work of liturgy.


The Constitution on the Liturgy makes it clear that the liturgy is an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. Christ is the only priest who offered the sacrifice once and for all. That same Christ, the one priest, calls the people of God to assemble as church. Both Lumen Gentium and Sacrosanctum Concilium restored the idea of liturgical assembly or ecclesia to its rightful place. The Constitution on the Liturgy stated that it is by virtue of baptism that the faithful are to participate in Christian worship. “All who are made children of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of his Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s Supper”. (SC 10) Prior to the Council Catholics had been instructed in their obligation to attend or hear Mass as silent witnesses at most. Now Catholics were to understand themselves no longer as spectators but as significant participants who, through the gift of baptism are called to gather to celebrate Eucharist on the Lord’s day.


The Body of Christ, the head and members, perform liturgical celebrations. The Holy People of God continue to participate in the action of redemption when they assemble as Church for the Eucharistic memorial. It is in the celebration of the holy sacrifice that the assembly both manifests the ‘mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true church’. (SC 2) The Council Fathers reminded us that Christ is truly present in his church and especially in its liturgical celebrations. Christ is therefore present in the action of the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of the minister and under the Eucharistic elements, but also in his Word, and in the assembly who prays and sings. (SC 7) It is clear from the documents that liturgy is the work of Christ celebrated by the holy people of God, who are so designated through baptism.

The Church is a holy people of God made one in Christ through baptism and the Church is a priestly people, consecrated as a ‘spiritual house and holy priesthood.’ (1 Pet 2: 4-10)

“The Church earnestly desires that all the faithful be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations called for by the very nature of liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’ (1 Pet 2:9) is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. In this reform and promotion of the liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else. ” (SC 14)


For this principle to be realised certain practices had to change. For example, to fully participate the assembly must be able to pray using a language that could be understood. While Latin has remained the official language of the Roman Rite, the Council restored the ability for the assembly to pray in the vernacular: the contemporary language of the culture. (SC 36)


With full participation of baptised Christians in worship came the re-appropriation of liturgical ministries that serve the assembly. The prominence of the Word as presence of Christ brought with it the task of proclamation for the deacon and the baptised. The Council wished to promote “warm and living love for Scriptures” amongst the faithful. (SC 24) The Council expressly encouraged opening up the treasures of the Scriptures for our people and this became our lectionary. (SC 51) The richness of this expansion of the lectionary and the emphasis upon biblical preaching called the homilist to careful and prayerful preparation so that the word of God truly nourished the assembly. The baptised were also called to lead the assembly in song, and as frequent communion became the norm, to assist the ordained with the distribution of the consecrated bread and the cup. Above all, the reform intended that the assembly would be the primary minister of the liturgy. Through their participation in the holy work of God Christ is present. This holy work of God is manifest in the action of assembling, of listening, of celebrating the Eucharist, as well as through the ministries of service to the assembly.


In the period immediately following the Council, the notion of participation was taken seriously by many Catholics. People were invited to proclaim the Word in the assembly. This was accompanied by a much greater familiarity with the Scriptures, whether in schools, through bible study groups or Lenten programs. Other ministries were initiated. The role of commentator became essential in an environment where direction was needed as changes occurred. One major change in practice was the introduction of frequent communion. This led to a situation where priests needed assistance in the distribution of Communion. In 1971 Paul VI responded to this pastoral concern by issuing the Instruction Immensae Caritatis, that enabled the faithful to be deputed to assist the priest with the distribution of Communion. At about this time the minor orders were revised and lectors and acolytes were instituted without necessarily leading to ordination. No dioceses in Australia chose to institute readers but some dioceses installed acolytes. Pastoral reasons determined these decisions. Both ministries were reserved only to men, and were deemed by many bishops to be exclusive. Some parishes continued with choirs but many did not. Artists became banner makers and attended to the environment of the church. People also took an active role in the preparation of liturgy and so liturgy committees emerged in parishes. But was this really full participation?


Often this explosion of ministries was interpreted by the faithful as “full, conscious and active participation”. Parishes boasted (and some still do) of the large numbers of ministers of Word or Communion. When some priests discovered the value of acolytes they encouraged this ministry to the extent that one could be forgiven for assuming that there is an ‘order of acolytes’. At a recent funeral of an acolyte the other acolytes in the parish turned out in force, vested for the occasion, sat together between the altar and the assembly; and ceremoniously placed an alb on the coffin of their dead brother. Language such as the presiding acolyte or chief acolyte, and the physical proximity to the ordained in the celebration – even to sitting on an identical chair – have led to confusion as to the purpose of this ministry. While ministries appeared to be created overnight, the music ministry experienced a great upheaval. A prolific amount of music was written in a popular genre, much of which has not stood the test of time. The various styles of music also led to sharp distinctions between young people and adults, so that in many parishes it was common to have a youth or rock Mass as a regular feature of parish worship. One sometimes wondered whether the assembly was attracted to church by worship or simply a free concert. Even today there is a tendency, especially with Masses where there are many children to find ‘jobs’ for them to do. But is this the liturgical participation of the assembly that the Fathers intended?


The Second Vatican Council led us back to a fuller understanding of the public work of liturgy. The activity of the Church includes worship and also proclamation and works of charity. “To believers the Church must ever preach faith and penance, prepare them for the sacraments, teach them to observe all that Christ has commanded, and invite them to all the works of charity, worship, and the apostolate.” (SC 9). While we tend to understand liturgy synonymously with worship, the early tradition had a broader understanding, as the Catholic Catechism reminds us:

“In the New Testament the word ‘liturgy’ refers not only to the celebration of divine worship but also to the proclamation of the Gospel and to active charity. In all of these situations it is a question of the service of God and neighbour. In a liturgical celebration the Church is servant in the image of her Lord, the one ‘Leitourgos’; she shares in Christ’s priesthood (worship)’ which is both prophetic (proclamation) and kingly (service of charity).” (CCC 1070)


Active participation as the right and responsibility of the baptised as ministers of Word and servers of the table has deep implications. The work of Sunday liturgy begins as Christians leave home on the Lord’s day to assemble as God’s people, as Christ bearers to each other. Consequently, as the members of the church gather at the building that bears the same name, they greet the Christ present in each other. The many members gather together as one body and this very act of gathering witnesses Christ’s presence no longer as individual, but as ecclesia, the one body of Christ. The Constitution speaks of the Church as the “sacrament of unity”, the holy people united with its bishop. (SC 26) To be truly the sacrament of Christ, the assembly must be one in fact. Unity must be more than in appearance only. As Matthew states: “if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering.” (Matt 5:23-24). One must leave one’s gift at the altar and first be reconciled before approaching the sacrifice. Reconciliation with one’s neighbour is an essential prerequisite for prophetic or authentic worship.


But what is the gift that Christians bring to Eucharist? Christians offer the gift of their own self-sacrifice. The early Christians brought to the Sunday celebration food and drink, bread and wine. The finest of these gifts was chosen for the Eucharistic table and the remainder was collected by deacons and later shared at the tables of the poor. It is not appropriate to approach the banquet table empty-handed. Christians’ mindfulness of others must include almsgiving. We learn from Matthew that unity in the community requires more than harmonious relationships alone. Christians also bring gifts to the altar. These gifts are shared with those who depend upon the generosity of the community – including church leaders and the poor. This sacrifice is usually money in today’s celebrations, and accompanies the bread and wine that is presented at the altar of memorial.


Christ is present through the person who is proclaiming and the faith response of the community who hear. Those who serve at table minister Christ to the Body of Christ gathered in unity around the table. But these action cannot be separated from daily life. The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Church’s life. (SC 10). Christians bring to Eucharist “the joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted.” (Gaudium et Spes: The Constitution of the Church in the Modern World 1) The church’s worship belongs to the whole world:

“For since Christ died for all, and since all human beings are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all human beings the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, alone, in the paschal mystery.” (GS 22)

It is only when the community gathers in love that it is able to recognise and so to name before God the grief and anguish, the joys and hopes of all of creation in the prayer of the faithful, the priestly prayer of the assembly. (General Instruction of the Roman Missal 45). This is because the assembly recognises the collective cry of Christ in the poor and oppressed.


What is symbolised in the action of the Eucharistic memorial must flow into Christian life. In the action of liturgy Christ is present. All Christians are to present themselves as living sacrifices and always witness to Christ in their lives. (LG 10, 11) As Christians gather as assembly, as the chosen of Christ they are the sacrament of the Body that has no distinctions, not sexual, socio-economic, cultural or physical. While each is a unique human being with a particular history, at the assembling all become members of one Body in Christ. It is one Body united with its head, Christ, who listens, praises, blesses, remembers, takes and shares. In faith and with the action of the Holy Spirit Christ becomes most significantly present in the celebration of Eucharist. The holy priesthood of believers proclaims the great prayer of praise and thanksgiving to the God of all creation who is ever faithful and bounteous. Christians recognise the presence of Christ in the action of eating and drinking where they unite fully to Christ and each other. Strengthened and nourished by the food of the Word and the food of Eucharist, Christians leave the table for mission.


Personal devotions hold a very significant place in our tradition, but these must always be experienced in harmony and accord with sacred liturgy. The Mass is by its very nature communal:

“Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations belonging to the whole Church. Therefore liturgical services involve the whole Body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it; but they also concern the individual members of the Church in different ways, according to their different orders, offices, and actual participation.” (SC 26).

While Sacrosanctum Concilium highly endorsed popular devotions, it is clear that there is no place for private devotion or individual piety in the celebration of Eucharist. One feeds and nourishes the other but there is a clear distinction between these different forms of prayer, and the document clearly states that “the liturgy, by its very nature far surpasses any of them.” (SC 13) “Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy”: a recently translated document from the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (December 2001) endorsed this principle. “The faithful should be made conscious of the preeminence of the Liturgy over any other possible form of legitimate Christian prayer. While sacramental actions are necessary to life in Christ, the various forms of popular piety are properly optional.” (11.) Christian witness calls for action on behalf of others. It is virtuous to gaze upon the face of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and yet this very mystical experience must challenge us to recognise the presence of the Body of Christ manifest in others. It is essentially truthful Christian Eucharistic witness to recognise that same Christ in the poor and oppressed and to serve Christ through them in a tangible way. Christian liturgy must involve an option for the poor, because to fully participate means to be open to conversion, to the service of Christ in word and action. To the extent that Christians enter more fully and actively into participation of Eucharist will they also witness through ethical responsibility to society and the preservation of creation.

The Church’s worship is never reduced to a set of texts and rubrics recorded in books but is always the living prayer of Christians. As the Constitution states:

“Pastors of souls must, therefore, realise that, when the liturgy is celebrated, their obligation goes further than simply ensuring that the laws governing valid and lawful celebrations are observed. They must also ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it.” (SC 11).

Have we in our age become so preoccupied with getting the liturgy right that we have forgotten the fact that the liturgy is the means of our salvation? Christians gather on Sunday to celebrate the paschal mystery to give meaning to life and to become strengthened to live according to God’s reign. Perhaps the liturgy will more truly reflect Christ’s intention if we make the effort to enter fully into the mystery both at Mass and in our daily lives.


The mission of Christ’s Church is to bring about the reign of God. As Christ liberated all of creation through his passion and death so Christians go out to continue this work of redemption by lives of prophetic witness. The suffering Christ is remembered at the altar of sacrifice and so Christ is also recognised in the suffering of the poor and dispossessed be they refugees or prisoners of substance or abuse. As Christians experienced the unity and communion of Eucharist so Christians live as one people, offering both respect and dignity to all of God’s creation and especially to other human beings. It is only when the assembly fully participates in Eucharist that it can also fully participate in the mission of the Church. This I believe is the prophetic challenge of the Council when it stated that full conscious and active participation is the aspect of the liturgical reform to be promoted “before all else”.


That the liturgical reform has been embraced by Christians all over the world is not disputed. While mistakes have been made along the way, we can but rejoice in the signs that are evident. The frequency of communion and a deeper understanding and love of the Scriptures are but two of these signs. No one can dispute that the laity have an ownership of the liturgy is a way that has not been experienced in many centuries. Some forty years later Catholics continue to study and implement the liturgical reform with a wisdom that grows as we delve deeper into the documents and those produced since the Council. I believe that as long as we are only prepared to equate liturgy with worship, and in particular the period of time we spend at Sunday Eucharist, we have yet to endorse and implement fully the liturgical reform.

It is to be hoped that in this age of the reform the words

of Paul VI can still be ours:

“The new rites and new prayer forms introduced into the liturgy have added to the splendour of the age-old and beautiful sacred patrimony of the Church and we observe with joy a new flowering in divine worship everywhere because of a more lively participation of the faithful.” (1968)


As Christians have realised their baptismal call this has led to an explosion of ministries, both directly connected to worship and those that serve the internal needs of the church. This has sometimes proved challenging for the ordained, especially when the Council did not provide a clear theology of orders. Two issues emerge:

A perceived clericalization of the laity where some Catholics adopt a clerical model of ministry rather than an outward focus upon mission.

A greater tendency now more than ever since the Council to promote a church where all authority rests with its clerical members.

The evolution of the liturgical reform alongside a new understanding of local church brought great excitement and challenge as episcopal conferences set about implementing the reform, including the revision of liturgical texts. Our current experience is of a centralised dominance of the Roman Curia where local churches are rendered almost powerless. An example of this is the recent refusal by the Office of Worship and Doctrine to accept the Australian Bishops’ English Translation of the Roman Missal.

If liturgy is the work of a people in a certain place and time, then a challenge remains for those of us in countries like Australia, where our nation is a rich composite of people from many cultures. There seems little evidence that we honour the diversity of our assembly in current Eucharistic practice. There is also a question about the suitability of bringing in ‘visiting priests’ to preside over an assembly where they have no pastoral leadership.

There is a tendency within our leadership today to urge the faithful to practice private devotions. In fact some would believe that Catholics find their identity in traditional devotions such as prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and the rosary, rather than in the full, conscious and active participation in the Sunday Eucharist and sacraments. This becomes a confusing distortion, especially for young Catholics, and creates an artificial divorce between liturgy and life. Personal devotion does not necessarily call one to responsibility for others. The magnified importance of popular devotions rather than the primacy of liturgical prayer also leads to conflict regarding the principals of church architecture.

A continued preoccupation with the rubrics of liturgy has led to misunderstanding of the true spirit of the liturgical reform. Some people seem preoccupied with the need to ‘get the liturgy right’. This has resulted in liturgical practice that is highly formal and exact but inhibiting of true participation. It also focuses upon the law rather than the spirit of liturgy. An example of this distortion is the practice of deacons who do not complement their liturgical functions with their social and ethical responsibilities as co-workers with the bishop. On the other extreme a lack of understanding of liturgical principles has led to impoverished celebrations where certain innovations and accretions threaten to distort the very essence of Roman liturgical tradition. This is somewhat ironic when we remember that the Council Fathers endeavoured to simplify a cluttered celebration.


(Carmel Pilcher RSJ is a Josephite Sister. She has an MA in Religious Education and has submitted a PhD thesis in December 2001 entitled “The Prophetic Character of the Eucharist”. Currently, she is Director of Liturgy in the Archdiocese of Sydney and a consultant to the National Liturgical Commission.)

Posted by Bob Birchall in Archives, Vatican II

15 Dr Timothy O’Hearn – Catholic education

Catholic Education -the business is never finished as it continually seeks to interpret the message of Christ to each generation in culturally diverse societies.

It didn’t all start with the Vatican Council, nor did it finish with it. The Vatican Council’s views on Catholic Education appear in its 1965 Declaration on Christian Education. The Declaration identifies twelve principles that relate to seven areas, indicating that post-conciliar commissions would need to elaborate the principles. The areas are:The universal right to an education (I)

  • Christian education (2, 4, 7)
  • Parents (3, 6, 8)
  • Schools (4, 5, 8, 9)
  • Catholic Universities (10)
  • Theological education (II)
  • Cooperation (12)

In line with the theme of this conference -the unfinished business of the Council – this paper will argue that the Church’s business of Catholic education is unfinished and always likely to remain so. The paper will focus on three of the areas mentioned above: Parents, Catholic schools, and university education, drawing its examples from the years 1965 to 2002, and it will home in on the changes that have taken place during those years and note some challenges ahead.

In presenting this paper I will apply one of the core principles of Catalyst for Renewal, namely, conversation; thus I will pause at strategic points to engage you in conversation about the issues raised in relation to each of the topics of the paper.


First, let us consider what the Council and subsequent documents from the Congregation for Catholic Education have written about the role of parents. The Declaration states that parents “must be recognised as the primary and principal educators” (3) and have “the primary and inalienable duty to educate their children” (6). It is the family that is the primary faith educator, thus explaining the exhortation to the teachers in Catholic schools to be “partners with parents” (8). The Declaration also maintains that the Church too owns the children and thus has the duty of educating them (3).

The theme of the primary rights of parents is maintained in the later documents: The Catholic School (1977), The Catholic School on the Threshold of the New Millennium (1997), and The Church in Oceania (2001). The most recent statement of Pope John Paul II reads:

“Parents are the first educators of their children in human values and the Christian faith; and they have the fundamental right to choose the education suitable for their children. Schools assist parents in exercising this right by helping students to develop as they should. In some situations, the Catholic school is the only contact parents have with the community of the Church.” (33)

Surveys indicate that parents are happy with the values education taught and expressed in Catholic schools and are also satisfied with the religious education programs. Individual schools and more recently parishes have attempted to achieve the involvement of parents in the religious education programs though sacramental programs. There has been less success with Catholic parents who have chosen to send their children to public or Christian schools and there has been mixed success with parents of children in secondary schools. Schools have attempted to implement the partnership exhortations through Parents and Friends Associations, school boards, and at diocesan level through parent representative councils. It has to be said that these latter organisations have had minimal impact on the religious education programs offered by the schools, and that there have been very few jointly developed parent-school religious education programs.

The paper will take up some of these matters later, but for now, let us consider some of the issues that are relevant to the role of parents in the religious education of their children.

What do parents do – or what are parents able to do – to fulfil their obligation of being the “primary and principal educators of their children “?

If’ you agree with the Church that religious education is optimally carried out in an ecclesial community, and that the Catholic school is the “only contact parents have with the community of the Church”, what is the way ahead for Catholic schools in providing this community and education in faith?

The Declaration says that we need to be aware of and respond to “the signs of the times”. What are the “signs” and how are parents, schools and the Church to respond to them?

Catholic schools

Second, let us consider Catholic schooling. The focus will be The Declaration on Christian Education (1965), The Catholic School (1977), The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium (1997), and The Church in Oceania (2001). There are a number of consistent ideas that the Church makes through these documents, and the following are some of the more significant of them:

The Catholic school exists for the holistic education of the human person

Holistic education of necessity involves the integration of culture and faith and the personal integration of faith and life

Catholic education has to be based firmly on the teachings of Christ

Catholic education properly exists within a believing community

It would be difficult for any Catholic to disagree with any of these propositions, even if in practice there might be quite significant differences about how they would be implemented. There are developments, nonetheless, from the Declaration to The Millennium and The Church in Oceania documents and these need to be elaborated.

The sociological make up of the Catholic school has changed significantly since 1965. Prior to the early 1960s Catholic schools were staffed predominantly by Religious with a few, usually unqualified, lay staff. The schools of 2002 are staffed predominantly by highly qualified lay staff. The number of interfaith marriages was significantly lower in the 1960s than now. The number of divorced/remarried parents is higher now than in the mid 1960s, as is the number of single parent families. In the mid 1970s approximately 2% of students in Catholic schools were not baptised Catholics; in 2000 the figure was closer to 17%, and the percentage is much higher in individual schools. The size of the individual schools has increased greatly with the education offices emphasising bigger rather than small schools for financial reasons. The figures vary, but the growth has been 20% in some states, higher in others. The demography of the Catholic school has changed profoundly, thus making it difficult for the school to develop and maintain an ecclesial community.

There is a greater awareness in the more recent documents of the mixed cohort in Catholic schools. Many Catholic schools, if not most, are multi-ethnic and multi- religious, and there are increasing numbers of “indifferent and non-practising” students and families in the schools (Millennium, 6), mirroring the society in which the schools exist. Herein lies one of the major changes in the schools in this country since the Declaration Document was released. Catholic schools are to be communities of faith, and, as Pope John Paul has acknowledged, if they are “the only contact parents have with the community of the Church” (Oceania, 33), then the school has an ongoing and challenging future as it is simultaneously school and parish. Much more is expected of it than in the 1960s, and one suspects much more will be demanded of it in the future.

Whilst governments have provided financial support to the schools through the Catholic Education Commissions, the struggle to attain equity of funding remains a constant factor in the very survival of the system. It is a system that caters for increasing numbers of those who would use the schools for social or educational advantage rather than, as the Pope acknowledges, for religious purposes. Research indicates that when there is harmony between parental and school aims, there is greater effectiveness of the school; when the two have different and somewhat competing expectations, there is diminished effectiveness.

Given the expectations placed on them, Catholic schools are extraordinarily successful places of Christian formation. Schools have been asked to undertake an educative role that now embraces the prime catechetical function that was once the domain of the family. They must do this in a situation where they have mixed faith classes and parental clientele. They also must provide a faith community in concert with the parish, albeit sometimes in a parish that might well resent the financial resources spent on education where there might be a perception of nil return if Catholic schools are seen as sending children to mass on Sundays.

And what of the Church’s exhortation that “a distinguishing feature of Catholic education is that it is open to all, especially the poor and weakest in society” (Oceania, 33)? Try as they might, it is an extraordinarily difficult task for Catholic schools to bring this to practice. The Catholic school response is, and has always been, to make allowances through scholarships, delayed payment options, and non-payment in difficult times, for parents unable to afford the fees. Many parents are, nonetheless, often reluctant to apply for their child’s enrolment in a school that requires uniforms and costs much more than the local high school. Again, a matter of perception; for some, the Catholic school is failing to be “open” to these families, for others, the door is perhaps ajar rather than fully open.

Let us reconsider the principal traits of Catholic schools mentioned above: they offer a holistic education based on the teachings of Christ and they are in the business of assisting individuals integrate culture and faith and their faith with life. I applaud the Catholic schools, the agencies of the Catholic Education Offices, as they implement the various diocesan-approved guidelines. These guidelines were years in gestation and now rebalance the religious education programs that lost their way somewhat in the years immediately after the Council. I was teaching religion in those far off years and know how difficult it was to implement the spirit of the Council. I believe that the current guidelines have captured the content and the spirit of the Church of the new millennium. The religion is being taught, and the school communities are doing their level best to reach the faith of the students.

The matter of holistic education meant, for the Council, that Christian values and virtues were to be ever present in the teaching and practices of the schools. The integration of the faith with the lives of the students is becoming more and more difficult as culture becomes increasingly agnostic, if not atheistic. Culture does not support Christian values and is seen by some to be directly opposed to such values. Schools are being asked to counter such values and to attempt to be witnesses to the life of Christ. The combined forces of parents, parish and teaching staff are obliged to offer a set of values opposed to corporate Australia, to media and sporting “one day wonders”. All this, and the Internet that offers the young a world almost out of parental control.

It is too easy to brag that the schools are losing or that there isn’t anything to worry about. The world facing the young is significantly different from that faced in 1965. As the rate of change increases rather than decreases it is clear that the business of education is becoming extraordinarily challenging. So much is now beyond the control of parents and schools. The Internet, film and other media offer the young a culture that will be difficult to synthesise with faith. Difficult but not impossible. It is clear that all involved in Catholic education have to understand the world of the young, realise the good and not forever criticise it just because it is different from that which we grew up in. There is no going back to our childhood nor is it effective to present the young with “in my time ..” as if there never was a better time to be alive. The young have to be presented with the gospel of Christ for now not then. Christ, the values he presented, are as relevant now, even when faced with serious moral issues that were not part of our growing up.

The focus must remain Christ and his teaching. Too much emphasis on the Church rather than on Christ has not been helpful. The young report that they have little time for an institutional church of whatever denomination. What do they have trust in?

Consider authentic leadership, offered by those who personify the critical synthesis of culture, faith, and life. The ideal of the Catholic school is such a product; if the students experience such synthesis in those who are the leaders, namely their parents, teachers and priests, then the task of Catholic education is made so much easier.

There is much more to the Church’s self-understanding of Catholic schools than this brief presentation allows. One could focus those Catholics not in Catholic schools or the appropriation of language once thought to belong exclusively to Catholic education such as “pastoral care”, “retreats”, “values education”, “mission” and others. These latter terms were once considered the hallmarks of a Catholic school; nowadays all schools consider them as part of their lexicon too.

Let us pause here and engage each other in conversation about Catholic schools. Consider, for example, the following:

What is the unfinished business of Catholic schooling?

The Church documents see the role of Catholic schooling as part of the Church’s mission of evangelisation. What do you consider evangelisation to be and how do you see Catholic schools fulfilling this role?

What are the positive features of modern culture that Catholic schools ought be engaging with in order to assist young people to integrate their lives and their faith?

Catholic schools have an ecclesial, societal and educative role and must hold these in balance. What do you see as its role and responsibility in each of these categories?

Catholic universities

Third, let us consider Catholic higher education. In Australia there are two Catholic universities. One is publicly funded, Australian Catholic University; the other is a private university, the University of Notre Dame Australia.

There had been attempts to establish a Catholic university in Australia by Cardinal Moran in the 1880s and by Cardinal Gilroy in the 1950s. Moran had wanted an ecclesiastical university; Gilroy wanted a university to cap off the Church’s primary and secondary education system. In Melbourne Mannix had spoken of the folly of a Catholic university, arguing that Catholics should attend the secular universities and seek to influence those universities from within. When the Church notified the Australian community that it was going to establish Australian Catholic University a number of Catholic scholars and commentators expressed their opposition to the venture, arguing that a Catholic university was a contradiction in terms, and also that the laity had not been consulted and that the move was yet another example of hierarchical high-handedness.

The fundamental text on Catholic universities is Pope John Paul’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which elaborated the principle enunciated in the 1965 Declaration (10) and later gained a small comment in The Church in Oceania (33). The Pope has made it clear that a Catholic university is not an option for the Church and that the “entire ecclesial Community is invited to give its support to Catholic Institutions of higher education and to assist them in their process of development and renewal” (11).

The Catholic university is to be engaged in the love of knowledge and the impartial search for truth through its teaching and research (Ex Corde: 1, 4; Oceania: 33). As with Catholic schools, Catholic universities are charged with the task of being a Christian community and providing service to the wider community. The universities are also to ensure that theology is “allowed to shed its light upon all fields of enquiry” (Oceania, 33).

Catholic universities are engaged in the implementation of these principles in an increasingly challenging Australian university context. Some of the issues facing the Catholic University are:

  • Maintaining the focus of a Catholic university on the student’s spiritual development and growth;
  • Integrating a Catholic ethos and reason as a never-ending dimension of the intellectual life of the Catholic university;
  • Having the Catholic community embrace the Catholic universities as “theirs”; and
  • Achieving a community experience that is Catholic.

None of these issues is insurmountable; they each remain part of the “unfinished business” of the title of this paper.

Consider the following aspects of the Church’s involvement in Catholic universities.

What specific service does a Catholic university provide to the Church and the wider society?

Ex Corde says that “a Catholic university must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society” (32). Should a Catholic university have the same obligation to say uncomfortable truths to the Catholic Church?


This short paper has kept within the limits of the original Declaration on Christian Education (1967) and subsequent documents of the Pope and the Congregation for Catholic Education. It has consciously avoided the many commentaries that have been written within the 1965 -2001 years in an attempt to focus attention on what the official Church thinks about Catholic education. There are many other aspects of the topic that could be developed and perhaps they are the agenda for further papers.

The theme of this conference is the “unfinished business” of the Vatican Council; the theme of this paper relates that to the Declaration on Christian Education and to education more generally. There are three questions that I would like to finish with.

First, what do you see as the specific role of Catholics – as distinct from any other group in society – in relation to education?

Second, the Church urges us to be aware of “the signs of the times”. What do you see as the signs of the times and what do you see as the appropriate educational response to such signs?

Third, it remains for participants and readers to identify the business of the Council that has been achieved and that which remains unfinished. This is the final point of discussion of our topic “Catholic Education -the business is never finished as it continually seeks to interpret the message of Christ to each generation in culturally diverse societies”.

Relevant Church Documents

1965 Vatican 11 Declaration on Christian Education

1970 Italian Episcopal Conference The Renewal of the Education of the Faith

Australian Bishops Supplement

1971 Sacred Congregation for the Clergy General Catechetical Directory

1976 Synod Preparation Document Catechetics in Our Time

1977 Congregation for Catholic Education The Catholic School

Australian Bishops Conference We Preach Jesus Christ as Lord1982 Congregation for Catholic Education

Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith

1988 Congregation for Catholic Education The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School

1990 Pope John Paul 11 On Catholic Universities

Congregation for Catholic Education

The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium

2001 Pope John Paul 11 The Church in Oceania


  •  What do parents do – or what are parents able to do – to fulfil their obligation of being the “primary and principal educators of their children “?
  • If’ you agree with the Church that religious education is optimally carried out in an ecclesial community, and that the Catholic school is the “only contact parents have with the community of the Church”, what is the way ahead for Catholic schools in providing this community and education in faith?
  • The Declaration says that we need to be aware of and respond to “the signs of the times. What are the “signs” and how are parents, schools and the Church to respond to them?
  • What is the unfinished business of Catholic schooling?
  • The Church documents see the role of Catholic schooling as part of the Church’s mission of evangelisation. What do you consider evangelisation to be and how do you see Catholic schools fulfilling this role?
  • What are the positive features of modern culture that Catholic schools ought to be engaging with in order to assist young people to integrate their lives and their faith?
  • Catholic schools have an ecclesial, societal and educative role and must hold these in balance. What do you see as its role and responsibility in each of these categories?
  • What specific service does a Catholic university provide to the Church and the wider society?
  • Ex Corde says that “a Catholic university must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society” (32). Should a Catholic university have the same obligation to say uncomfortable truths to the Catholic Church?
  • What do you see as the specific role of Catholics – as distinct from any other group in society – in relation to education?
  • The Church urges us to be aware of “the signs of the times”. What do you see as the signs of the times and what do you see as the appropriate educational response to such signs?
  • What is the business of the Council that has been achieved and what remains unfinished?

(Dr Timothy O’Hearn is Associate Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Assistant for Special Projects at Australian Catholic University.)

Posted by Bob Birchall in Archives, Vatican II

Papers From The National Forum – Vatican II: Unfinished Business (July 2002)


The ‘National Forum – Vatican II: Unfinished Business’ was a conference held at St Joseph’s College, Sydney on July 12th, 13th and 14th, 2002 to mark the 40th anniversary of the commencement of the Second Vatican Council in 1963. Its aim was to review the changes that had taken place in the Catholic Church since that time and to examine where the vision articulated in the Council documents had so far not been accomplished.

The Conference was co-sponsored by the Aquinas Academy and Catalyst for Renewal Incorporated. The Aquinas Academy is a work of the Marist Fathers, offering courses on a variety of topics including spirituality, biblical studies, church history and religious education. Catalyst for Renewal is a group of mainly lay persons whose mission is to establish forums for conversation within the Catholic Church, in order to encourage open exchanges about contemporary issues while recognising the diversity of expression of faith in Australia. The official journal of Catalyst for Renewal is ‘The MIX’.

These pages contain transcripts of nineteen of the papers presented at the National Forum, a record of the Panel Discussion and the Homily given by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson at the Conference Eucharist. In addition there is a selection of articles published in ‘The MIX’ from mid 2001 to 2003 on the topic of the Second Vatican Council and its effects.


Focus Group Presentations

1 Claire Barbeau

The challenge of harnessing Vatican II

2 Frank Brennan, SJ, AO

The Church in the modern world – to what extent have we engaged?

3 Virginia Bourke, RSJ

Dei Verbum and Catholicism’s ancient genius

4 Jim Carty, SM

The social teachings of Vatican II

5. Michael Casey OCSO

Deconstruction into reality

6 Michael Costigan

Vatican II as I remember it

7 Mary Cresp, RSJ

Religious life and its evolution since Vatican II

8 Geraldine Doogue

The Church in public life

9 Bruce Duncan, CSsR

Has the Catholic critique of Capitalism stalled?

10 Patricia Egan, RSJ

Participation and co-responsibility in the local church

11 Robert Fitzgerald, AM

Leadership in our Church – a shared responsibility of service

12 Geraldine Hawkes

Women’s participation in the Church

13 Bishop Peter Ingham

Ecumenical and interfaith relations

14 Tony Kelly, CSsR

The Church in the modern world – was there too much joy and hope?

15 Dr Timothy O’Hearn

Catholic education

16 Carmel Pilcher, RSJ

Eucharist: Vatican II’s challenge

17 Bishop Geoffrey Robinson

Conscience – doing the right thing and taking responsibility for it

18 John Thornhill, SM

Vatican II challenged the Church to leave its tidy ‘world apart’

19 Fr Trevor Trotter

The overseas mission of the Australian Church

Panel Discussion

Vatican II: Unfinished Business – Panel Discussion

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson

Robert Fitzgerald, AM

Michael Whelan, SM


Homily at the Eucharist

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson

The MIX Essays

22 Archbishop Francesco Canalini

Looking Forward with Confidence

23 Bishop Geoffrey Robinson

Pope John XXIII and Vatican II

24 Bishop John Heaps

Vatican II – Unfinished Business

25 Edmund Campion

Vatican II – Historical Reflections

26 Francis Moloney

Vatican II – The Word in the Church Tradition

27 Michael Costigan

Vatican II – Memories and Reflections

28 Sandie Cornish

True and False Prophets

29 Bishop Geoffrey Robinson

The Unfinished Business of Vatican II

30 Cardinal Edward Clancy

Some Thoughts on Church Dialogue

31 Bishop Michael; Malone

Vatican II – Seen but not Heard

32 Michael Whelan SM

Vatican II – The Journey from Here

33 Max Vodola

Vatican II – The Politics of ‘Aggiornamento’

Posted by Bob Birchall in Archives, Vatican II