Father John O'Connor looks back on the half century since the Second Vatican Council.
Fifty years ago today, on October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church.
This meeting was a remarkable gathering of 3000 bishops, theologians, representatives from other religions, and lay people from every part of the world. In their gathering they sought to refocus the church on the reality of God present in the world in Jesus Christ. This prime reason for the existence of the church is all too often lost as the institution struggles with human fears and passionately seeks to communicate the hope and life offered by God.
The wise and elderly Pope John, remembered as a gentle and good pastor, knew that an introspective and fearful church is a weak and ineffective vehicle of hope. In his opening address to the gathering, Pope John disagreed with "prophets of gloom who are always forecasting disaster", and focused the church once again on the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the church and in the world.
A number of fearful and vocal bishops at this first session of the council sought to limit the effect that democratic conciliar debate might have on "their" institution. Gradually, in these early days of council dialogue, voices of hope overwhelmed the fearful few, giving birth to renewed vision communicating new hope for the church into the future.
Among these harbingers of hope was a young priest, Joseph Ratzinger. Today, as Pope Benedict XVI, his voice remains one of true "radical conservatism", seeking to conserve the essence of truth and beauty, and to live deeply rooted in the person of Jesus Christ.
When we lose sight of the reality of the love of God, we soon collapse into capitalism, rationalism and consumerism and other superficial "isms". The reflective person soon acknowledges that these provide nothing more that momentary distraction from the deeper healthy desires of the human heart.
This was the situation faced by the first followers of Jesus. John the Baptist directed Simon Peter and Andrew to Jesus. They spent time with Jesus and in these moments they encountered all they had ever sought. In this chance meeting they had discovered the meaning and purpose of all human existence.
This encounter is offered to every person today.
The sixteen documents of the Vatican Council return us to this moment of personal encounter with Jesus who is the reality of God alive among us.
Too often, in our well- intentioned desperation we think that repackaging the church as "inclusive" and "politically-correct" will deliver us the happiness we seek.
It is significant that Vatican II did not seek to change the substance of the church's worship and doctrine. If these treasures were to sustain the complex lives of contemporary people, they must not be discarded, but rather communicated anew as attractive, robust and life-giving realities, enabling all people of goodwill to more easily encounter God.
Pope John understood that the church is a living body - an organism rather than an organisation. In an organisation, members might democratically decide policies and priorities. In contrast, an organism has a life that is received from outside of itself. The organism finds purpose and happiness when living in harmony with the one who gifts this life.
In four two-month sessions over the next four years, the council produced sixteen documents. These include teaching on the life of God and divine revelation, the purpose and mission of the church, and religious freedom.
These documents compromise nothing of depth and beauty of two thousand years of Christian teaching. Instead, they return the focus of the Catholic Church to the person of Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church has not always been an effective communicator of the life of God. Too often, weak, vulnerable and sinful teachers and ministers have blurred the gospel news of hope with their own agendas and failures.
It is remarkable testimony to those who have been most affected by these failures, that while they may have little or no contact with the church today, their personal relationship with Jesus Christ is strong.
When I first studied theology thirty years ago, our class challenged a wise teacher, suggesting that the church was ready for a third Vatican Council. He suggested that we had hardly begun to understand or implement the depth and power of the wisdom of Vatican II.
Fifty years is just a moment's span in the lifetime of the church. Pendulum swings and rigid theological and political extremes are both characteristic of growth and an inevitable stage in the life of an organism growing into greater maturity.
Earlier this week, Pope Benedict proclaimed an 11th century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, to be a Doctor of the Church. This wise and holy woman is now numbered among 30 of the greatest teachers in the Catholic tradition. She is one of the true faith-filled radical conservatives who understood the purpose of the Second Vatican Council one thousand years before it was called.
She wrote that "the Holy Spirit is life that gives life, moving all things. It is the root in every creature, and purifies all things, wiping away sins, anointing wounds. It is a radiant life, worthy of praise. Awakening and enlivening all things".
Fr John O'Connor is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch, and serves as parish priest of the parishes of the Hurunui District and Chatham Islands.
- © Fairfax NZ News
What sort of lawn mower do you use?Related story: Push lawn mower 'only ethical option'