Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Changes and Change: Know Your Church After Vatican II

My last posting illustrates, through the experience of one parish community, why for so many of us the hopes we found in the Second Vatican Council have not been fulfilled.  Don’t misunderstand me, more good has come from our attempts to implement the Council than failure, but in many places, too many places, the dream has faded and we need to ask if a people once disappointed can reasonably be asked to get up their hopes once again. 
I remember a professor of mine saying—almost forty years ago—that the major challenge facing the Church was the ongoing education and formation of its clergy.  Many priests bought into the “changes” of Vatican II without understanding the fundamental shift-of-ground the Church was experiencing.  This is why I have more respect for many who opposed the Council than for those who have accepted the changes in their course.  Those who have implemented the Council have too often gone along with the flow, while those who have opposed the Council, such as the Lefebvrists, the sede-vacantists, or the various schismatic groups, have understood the fundamental shift the Church has made at Vatican II.  They may have rejected it, but at least they have understood the depth of the change.  They have opposed it precisely because they have understood it, while many of us who “agree” with the Council do so only because we really don’t get it.  In other words we have seen the trees (liturgical changes, the occasional Thanksgiving Eve Lord’s Prayer with the Presbyterians, nuns in pants suits) but we haven’t recognized the very different forest we find ourselves in in the Church after the Council. 
In the first place the Church has a radically new vision of itself.  No one articulated this better than Cardinal Avery Dulles in his book Models of the Church where he proposes moving the emphasis from the Institutional model of Church to the Kerygmatic, Servant, Sacramental, and Communio models.  This shift in models has moved the Church from a pyramid of power to a community of believers with different gifts in the mission of bringing the Gospel to the world.  (I realize this is a gross over-simplification of Dulles’ contribution but the best I can do in one paragraph.  If you want the nuances—and you should—go read the book!)
Moreover, not only has the Council given us new ways to see ourselves as Church, but it has redefined our relationship to the world beyond the Church—whether as regards non-Christian religions and how and to what degree they reflect Truth or the contemporary secular society and the challenge we have to put ourselves as witnesses to the Gospel by service to all in the secular city.  No longer is the Church claiming a superiority over the world, but is anxious to present itself as a solution to the world’s problems and at service to its needs. 
The Council has also redefined our relationship to those we used to call “heretics” and now recognize as our separated brothers and sisters.  That by baptism they have a hold on the Church and are included in its fellowship—albeit to an imperfect degree (the imperfection of union being bi-lateral)—is a remarkable shift from having seen them as rebels and heretics. 
The sovereignty of human conscience and the dignity of the human person demanding the right be guaranteed for the individual to worship according to his or her conscience was another remarkable breakthrough.  This respects the mystery of grace as it unfolds uniquely in each human life and does not lay claim for the Catholic Church to arbitrate the conscience of believers or non-believers.  It dis-empowers us from political coercion to impose our moral schemata but at the same time it offers us the opportunity to call one another to the conversion of heart that is the earmark of genuine discipleship.   
Basically, at the core, we have a Church that seeks to accompany the human family on its pilgrim journey through this world towards God’s Kingdom instead of, to use a rather graphic image, forcibly herding all humankind along a cattle-like squeeze chute to the slaughter-house of its own institutional meat-packing plant.  In other words, we have a Church that sees itself as lighting the path of Salvation with the Gospel of Christ for all to see rather than a Church that is guards the door of the Kingdom lest any enter without the proper credentials. 
This is very threatening for those who have understood the medieval axiom extra ecclesiam nulla salus as meaning that one needs institutional membership in the Catholic Church in order to be saved.  These are those who have a theology of exclusivity that deny that God ardently desires the salvation of all and are anxious to draw lines between the “elect” (themselves and people like themselves) and the “lost souls” (those who are different from themselves).  In this post-conciliar understanding, the Church is still God’s fellowship to support one another along the path of salvation, and it is still a visible sign (sacrament) of the Kingdom, but this is a radically different understanding of Church.  It is far less institutional, far less easy to define.  It is obviously more inclusive than just those in formal communion with the Bishop of Rome.  In some ways it is closer to Calvin’s “invisible Church” of those destined for salvation more than the traditional Catholic “visible Church” of those in formal communion with the hierarchy.  Calvin would, of course, be very unhappy with such wide inclusivity as we are talking about, but the point is the same: the Church can’t take the place of God in deciding who is saved and who is not saved.  It may have the powers of the keys, but God has not resigned the sovereignty that gives him and him alone the judgment. 
But more important, perhaps, than who constitutes the Church is the question of what is our mission as Church.  Previous to Vatican II we saw our mission as giving perfect worship to God and this meant carrying out the divine cult and gathering the peoples of this earth into that perfect worship.  Worship meant of course the Liturgy, and perfect worship meant rubrical splendor rather than worship in Spirit and in Truth.  Today we still see the Liturgy as the source and summit of our Christian life, but we also link it to a much more dynamic sense of mission.  We see the worship of God manifesting itself not in pomp and panoply but in the conversion of hearts that makes us embrace the mysteries of the Kingdom that we celebrate.  Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI , and now Pope Francis have all called us to a “new evangelization” of bringing the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to shine out in our world.  But what does that mean?
This is perhaps the tragedy of disappointment.  The burnout of so many clergy and the disappointed dreams of so many laity have left far too many too tired and too exhausted to pick up the banner of the new evangelization.  We need that second wind, that second Pentecost, to energize one another for work at hand.  Never before has humankind so needed the Gospel witness.  With wars in a dozen countries, famine in scores of countries, seventy percent of God’s children living without basic necessities of health, shelter, food, or education –the world needs the Gospel.  The world desperately needs the Gospel.  There is no hope for the world other than the Gospel of Christ.  Pope Francis calls for a redistribution of the world’s resources so that each of God’s children can have the share of this world’s opportunities that God the Father of us all wants for his children but how can that call be a reality unless the Gospel is preached so hearts can change.  How many sitting in our pews Sunday after Sunday, or even day after day, refuse to hear that Gospel call much less become its messengers?
We do need to go back and build both a stronger theological and a stronger spiritual foundation for ourselves as Church so that we can embrace the mission at hand.  There is no going back to the Church before the Council.  It was, or what some want to revive of it was, a ghettoized, belly-button staring, narcissistic coven of people who forgot the call to put themselves at the humble service of the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters and it is too late to give in to that sort of self-indulgence with brocade robes and kissing the ring-bedecked gloved hands of our spiritual betters.  It is time to get out into the streets of Jerusalem and lift the cross from the shoulders of Christ and ease his suffering.  Pardon me for preaching today, but let us pray for one another that the Lord will open our eyes to the mission and enflame our hearts to embrace it. 

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