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Fr Billy Swan

Today, 11th October, the Church celebrates the feast of St John XXIII who was the pope who convoked the Second Vatican Council that opened on this day sixty years ago. In his inaugural speech that opened the Council - ‘Gaudet Mater Ecclesia…Rejoice Mother Church’, Papa Roncalli mapped out the way in which the Church intended to “bring herself up to date where required” in order that “the sacred deposit of Christian faith should be guarded and taught more efficaciously”. In that landmark speech, the Pope stated that “the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers, but at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forums of life introduced into the modern world, which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate”.

With these words, the pope confirmed the convictions and theological approach of some of the greatest names in twentieth-century Catholic thought: Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou, Yves Congar, Hans Urs Von Balthasar and Karl Rahner to name but a few. Years before the Council, these thinkers insisted on the need for theology to speak to the present situation and that the conditions for doing so faithfully, lay in a recovery of key elements of the Church’s tradition. They clearly saw that the first step in the movement later to be known as aggiornamento had to take up the method of ressourcement or a rediscovery of the riches of the whole of the Church’s two thousand year tradition. For the ressourcement scholars, theology involved a return to the sources of Christian faith, for the purpose of drawing out the meaning and significance of these sources for the critical questions of our time.

We have just completed the National Synodal process that culminated in the National synthesis document forwarded to Rome earlier this year. The document weighed heavily on peoples’ experience of the Church both positive and negative. This was and continues to be a vital part of the synodal process – that of listening attentively to one another on how the Gospel and Church impacts on our daily lives. Yet, experience alone is insufficient for the risk is that we reduce the mystery of the Church down to our own experience which we know is limited. The question: ‘What is our collective vocation as Church?’ is just as important as ‘What is your experience of Church?’ Our collective sense of vocation and mission as Church must inform any reforms that take place in the future.

All the more reason then to return to the vision of the man whose feast we celebrate today and whose speech delivered on this day sixty years ago, remains a sure compass to navigate the pathway forward.

With that in mind, we need to keep a fine balance between the two foundational principles of Pope St John that pervade the conciliar documents – aggiornamento and ressourcement. On one hand the Spirit guides the Church forward to update herself when necessary and to proclaim the Gospel effectively to the modern world. On the other hand, she does so by drawing from the living springs of Scripture, Tradition, the wisdom, the Fathers and saints of our two thousand year tradition. Let’s take a closer look at each of these principles with the hindsight of sixty years.

First, aggiornamento which roughly translated from the Italian means updating – bringing the teaching of the Church up to date to speak more effectively to the reality of people’s lives today. With his inaugural speech, Pope John XXIII imagined a Church that was less defensive, less closed in on itself and not afraid to dialogue with the modern world on the great questions of our time. He famously used the image of opening the windows to let fresh air into the Church so that she might be renewed in her faith, spiritual life and missionary outreach to the world. It is important for us to remember how change was in the air in Europe and in the world at the time. The Church was expanding to every continent and so was becoming a truly universal Church. Hence the reason to update her teachings to take account of the changing world in the early 1960’s.

The same is true today. Issues that did not feature at the Second Vatican Council are live issues today that the Church cannot ignore. We think of climate change and the people who are suffering from drought and dire poverty because of it. Other issues that came up in the National Synthesis document have come to the fore in recent decades, particularly for the Western Church. These include the place of gay people in the Church, adult faith formation, shared leadership in the face of declining numbers of clergy and the role of women to name but a few. Again, these were not key issues in the mid 1960’s. They are now. Therefore, as the Church lives her life in the world, there are elements of the surrounding culture that the Church assimilates into herself and embraces provided that these elements are consistent with the Gospel. Here in broad terms is a brief summary of aggiornamento.

But then the question arises – does the world convert the Church or does the Church convert the world? Must the Church affirm all elements of the culture in which she finds herself? The answer of course is ‘No’. For to do so would betray her deepest identity to be a sign, ‘Lumen Gentium…a Light to the Nations', a community of faith and the sacrament of Christ’s salvation for the world. It is here that that Church’s process of aggiornamento must be balanced by her fidelity to the sources of Scripture and Tradition. It is here that the process of ressourcement must anchor the Church in her deepest vocation to be the receptacle of Christ’s presence and power in the world.

This what Pope John meant that in facing the challenge to pursue the new avenues opened to the Catholic Apostolate, “the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers”. The Church is called to bring Christ’s Gospel out from herself with courage and conviction and model a new way of living to the world. She is called to be a prophetic community whose deepest vocation is not to fit in but to stand out.

Pope John’s famous image of the open windows allowing fresh air into the Church presupposes that these windows are supported by walls. Here, the image of walls does not signify any form of elitism or exclusivity but highlights the distinctive vocation of the Church to be ‘a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a people set apart’ (1 Pet. 2:9). This distinctiveness of what it means to be Church today is to model a value system and way of life that is often in prophetic contrast to the values of our increasingly secular culture. It shows forth to the world how a people gathered in communion with Christ and with one another stands athwart to division, hatred, delusion and all that threatens humanity from destruction.

This prophetic vocation of the Church is particularly important today. Many would argue that after Vatican II, so much fresh air came into the Church that she lost something of her distinctiveness where her colours were blurred and her prophetic edge blunted. Today, the Church is being renewed by people who understand our collective vocation as a resistance movement that offers the world, not a combative faith but a revolutionary faith. Based on the Gospel, it is our conviction that the Church offers a broader, richer and more coherent vision of life than the many alternative narratives on offer today that are confusing, spiritually poor and morally bankrupt. Regarding specific issues of social justice, life issues, marriage, family, sexuality, care for the environment and others, this is not a time for the Church to be timid or retreat into private and hidden spheres. It is not a time for the Church to lose its identity by dissolving itself in the surrounding culture. She knows that accomodationism is simply a quicker route to obliteration. In the words of Pope Francis, she needs to ‘go forth’ and to ‘put out into the deep’, engaging courageously with modern culture in the market square. The Church does this knowing that she is the ‘ekk-lesia’ – the people called out of the world to be a sign and instrument of God’s saving work.

On this significant milestone of the 60th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, It is important to remind ourselves how the documents of the Council remain a sure compass as the Church makes her way forward in history. We have listened to each other in the synodal process and shared our experience of Church. Yet in going forward, it is essential that we keep before us who we are meant to be as Church, that is, our collective vocation in the world. In this daunting task, the Church of today takes its cue from the saint whose feast day we celebrate today and from the Council he opened sixty years ago. In facing the challenges of aggiornamento, we apply the principle of ressourcement – drawing out creative solutions to the problems of today from the wellspring of the Church’s living Tradition of faith. By doing so, the Church is like a wise person who “brings out from their storeroom things both old and new” (Matt. 13:52).


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