The ‘spirit’ of Vatican II


There is a certain advantage to being an older Catholic these days. Personal memory of the Second Vatican Council belongs only to the Social Security set.
As the Church begins celebrating the 50th anniversary of that council there is talk of a “spirit” that came with it. This is not simply a pious nod to a point of Christian doctrine, the third person of the divine trinity, the Holy Spirit. When people who experienced the time of Vatican II speak of its spirit, they mean first of all a sense of excitement over the possibility of new and better things; a feeling of both freedom and imminent birth that had intoxicating qualities.
It might be compared to what the first warm spring day does for us after a long winter.
Not that the Church coming into the council was a wintry place. Far from it. In fact, Catholicism in the decades prior to Vatican II included all of the energies that burst out in that event. They were quiet, sometimes suppressed energies pressing toward ecumenism, toward renewal of liturgy, toward a collegial governance, toward religious liberty, toward a release of gifts from the laity. What the council produced was what it found already seeded in Catholic soil.
The ground was ready and only needed nurturing toward a good harvest.
Pope John XXIII was lead farmer in that project. He came to the papacy from a pastoral background as Vatican representative in delicate diplomatic posts to Turkey, Bulgaria and France in the difficult years surrounding World War II. He hadn’t been cloistered in the Roman Curia. He had seen and worked with people reaching deep to survive and then rebuild their lives after manmade devastation unprecedented in history. He was able to trust that those energies pressing for release in the Church were signs of God’s continual invitation to expanding life.
His speech at the council’s opening 50 years ago was a tone-setter for the assembled bishops of the world. He passed on to them his confidence that a spirit of openness — really, a spirit of faith — was what the world most needed from the Church’s “fathers” as they began their work.
The whole world “expects a step forward,” he said. Those words came in a passage of his address focused on the purpose of the council: to express Church teaching so that people of today “may raise their eyes to God, the source of all wisdom and beauty.” That won’t be done, he told the bishops by simply repeating what was taught, and the way it was taught, in the past. Too much had happened in recent years, too much had changed.
Then John expressed, in clear, simple terms, a distinction that threw a fresh light on the way forward. “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing,” he said, “and the way in which it is presented is another.” To bishops, so conscious of their duty to guard a “deposit” of faith, this endorsement of a dual responsibility, a complementary responsibility, was liberating.
The pope continued: “It is the latter (the way the faith is presented) that must be taken into great consideration, with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.”
The truth itself doesn’t change, he noted, and violations of truth will always rise up and be opposed as they are recognized. In the past the Church has used condemnation to protect its truth, sometimes “with the greatest severity.” But this is a new day, John declared:
“Nowadays … the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.”
All of this was, and is, a part of that “spirit” which older people might speak of regarding the Second Vatican Council. And in our faith it is a connection with that Holy Spirit which is the life of God among us.
Frank Wessling

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