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Seán D. SammonOctober 15, 2012

From 1962 to 1965 the eyes of the world focused on the city of Rome and the revolution in understanding and practice taking place as an age-old institution struggled to find its place in the modern world. The occasion was the Second Vatican Council, and almost two decades later, in April 1979, the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner sought to measure its impact.

Speaking in Cambridge, Mass., Rahner argued that Vatican II was the Catholic Church’s first official assembly as a world church. The council, he said, initiated a shift that has occurred only once before: when the church transitioned from the world of Jewish Christianity to take its place in the larger Mediterranean world. Rahner noted that there are three epochs in the life of the church. The first and shortest period of church history was that of Jewish Christianity, a time during which the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was proclaimed in Israel and to its people. The church’s second great epoch was initiated by the Council of Jerusalem when they eliminated circumcision for Gentile Christians, thereby giving birth to a Christianity that began to grow in the soil of Greco-Roman civilization. Consider for a moment the many other endings that also took place when converts were no longer required to practice circumcision: the Jewish Sabbath was abolished, new canonical writings were accepted, the church’s center moved from Jerusalem to Rome and modifications were made in moral doctrine. These developments represent a decisive break with the past, a new beginning for Christianity with Paul at the forefront of change. 

During the years that fall between the birth of what might be referred to as Gentile Christianity and the present, an evolution took place. Christianity became increasingly identified with European culture. The movements that gave rise to these changes were significantly less decisive than the break between Jewish and Gentile Christianity. While Paul and the early church made the entire world the focus of the their attention, this universality has been difficult to discern for much of the church’s history. For nearly 2,000 years the church has appeared to be tightly bound to European civilization and exported as such by its colonial missionaries. The evangelizing church was reluctant to offer anything other than a religion embedded in the European languages, cultures and civilizations that it considered superior.

A Different Type of Council

Rahner argued that the council initiated by Pope John XXIII was fundamentally different in makeup than any that had occurred before, and surely different than Vatican I where the Asian and African episcopate was made up of missionary bishops of European and North American origin.

At Vatican II, however, these same regions were represented, in the main, by delegates indigenous to Africa and Asia. And they did not come to Rome as uncertain visitors. At Vatican II, we witnessed a gathering of the world’s bishops not as an advisory body for the pope, but rather with him serving as the final teaching and decision-making body in the Catholic Church. For the first time in history, a worldwide council with a truly worldwide episcopate came into existence; one of the oldest globalized institutions in the world was finally taking on a face that matched its complexity and diversity.

Vatican II was a seismic event. When the dust had settled we were left standing in a different place. The council presented us with the possibility of a church that would act through the influence exercised by all its components. Admittedly, the thought of moving from a Western European form of Christianity to a world church raises theoretical problems that are anything but clear. For example, Rahner wondered whether the marital morality of the Masais in East Africa would continue to simply reproduce the ethics of Western Christianity? Should the dream of a truly world church become a reality, there would no doubt be challenges to face, not the least of which would be maintaining unity in the midst of diversity.

Which brings us to the present. Where are we as a church today, a half-century after the council members set out to address the task that John XIII had put before them? More importantly, what type of leadership is needed right now and during the years just ahead to help us realize more fully the hopes and dreams that were at the heart of the efforts of those who gathered in Rome 50 years ago?

Demographic changes indicate that the church that existed at the dawn of the last century has been transformed in its makeup. The ties that for centuries bound Christianity to European civilization have weakened considerably during the past 100 years. John L. Allen, Jr., points out that at the beginning of the 20th century the cultural and ethnic profile of the Roman Catholic Church was not significantly different from what it had been about the time of the Council of Trent. Approximately 200 million of the world’s 266 million Catholics lived in Europe and North America; the remaining 66 million, about 25 percent, were scattered across the rest of the planet.

By the end of the 20th century only 300 million of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics were European and North American, approximately 33 percent. The overwhelming majority, 750 million people, lived in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Baring some unexpected development, by the year 2023, only one Catholic in five will be non-Hispanic Caucasian. This shift in a century is the most rapid and sweeping demographic transformation ever to occur in the long history of the Roman Catholic Church.

Unfortunately, these changes are not yet evident in the leadership of the church. During the conclave of 2005, for example, Italian cardinals cast 19 votes, equivalent to the total number from Africa and Asia combined. But there are just 55 million Catholics in Italy while Africa and Asia are home to more than four times that number. The recent appointment of cardinals on the part of Pope Benedict XVI also appears to favor the northern hemisphere over those areas where the Catholic Church is growing.

Not only must the governance of the Roman Catholic Church change if it is to reflect more accurately the character of its membership, so too must the type of leadership needed to govern a truly international and multicultural organization. To move from the world of European Christianity to a truly world church will require not only a careful reading of the signs of these times, but also a confrontation with issues such as racism and an assimilation that plays one culture against another. Required, too, will be the awareness that change has occurred and that further change needs to occur on three levels: that of the church universal, that of the local churches and among individual believers.

Leadership that Transforms

More specifically, the Catholic Church in the United States today faces a crisis in leadership. Clearly old understandings about the nature and purpose of authority are failing to meet the reality of present day life. The results are polarization, alienation and a general distrust of authority in the church.

In a number of ways the American dilemma provides a microcosm of what can be expected as we work to transform our church to a truly world church. Three areas in particular need a fresh approach and honest discussion if the present logjam is to be broken: the role of women in the church, including what steps can be taken to ensure the presence of women in significant positions of leadership within the ecclesial community; our need to develop a contemporary understanding about the meaning and purpose of human sexuality; the challenge of developing strategies to address the wide range of moral issues that we face at this time in our history (e.g., growing shortages of food and water).

There are also basic skills expected of anyone who wishes to be an effective religious leader today: talent as an administrator, a habit of efficiency, the capacity to conceptualize and think analytically. As admirable as these abilities might be, however, there are other more important ones needed in anyone who might be judged capable of bringing about the transformation required in the Catholic Church today.

Truly effective religious leaders must first and foremost be men and women in love with God, deeply rooted in the values of the gospel they are called to proclaim. How else can they speak convincingly about the spiritual meaning of events in the world that surrounds them?

Equally important is an ability to dialogue with many diverse groups and to be at home with differences of opinion. Such leaders are committed to building unity in the midst of significant diversity. They are marked by a strong desire to make things better, and an equally strong desire to implement the changes that are necessary if the church and its people are to move forward, regardless of the resistance they encounter.

Skilled in human relationships and sensitive to the feelings of others, these men and women are transparent in their interactions, open and thoughtful in their manner of listening, mutually respectful in their exchanges with others. They transform by means of persuasion and lead with a moral authority. They have little need to continually remind others of their standing in the church. 

Today, more than ever, we need church leaders who have a clear sense about what is happening among the People of God and in the world at large, individuals with the ability to empower believers, inspiring them to put aside self-interest in favor of a much larger vision. 

The 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II is a time for giving thanks and taking stock. The presence of the Holy Spirit was apparent in a powerful way during the council itself; our belief in the ongoing manifestation of this same Spirit as we move into the future remains the source of our hope today.

The time has come to decide on the work that remains to be done, and to seek out and support the type of leadership that can help us achieve the dream that was in the minds and hearts of those who wrote the conciliar documents. They set us on an ambitious course of action. And though those charged with the challenge of helping lead the church from a western European form of Christianity to a truly world body might easily feel overwhelmed by the task, they need to remember that there is a community of believers ready to help and eager to be of assistance. Let us pray that guided by grace and moved ahead by the Spirit of God we may become midwives of the world church for which so many of us long.

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11 years 9 months ago
Shalom Father Sean ~  Thank you for giving me a big boost of hope today.  As my husband nears his diaconate ordination, the Spirit-led leadership that you describe resonates with my deepest desires for the same.  Thank you for reminding me to pray, pray, pray for continued Aggiornamento
Lisa Weber
11 years 9 months ago
Excellent article!  I hope to see some of these changes in my lifetime.
11 years 9 months ago
Edward Starkey
11 years 9 months ago
We are much indebted to Brother Sammon for reminding us of the three categories in Rahner's model of church history (Jewish Christianity, Euro Chistianity, World Christianity) and the need for new styles of leadership in the American church. In the movement of Chrisitianity from its Aramaic and Hebrew roots, of which we have not a single document, to its Greek second stage, in which language all our holy scriptures were written, it eems there can be discerned one of two possible purposes: either Greek (and Latin) would be the definitive thelogical language (and thought) of all time or the transition would be a sign that Christianity could be translated into ANY language. I believe many thinkers including recent popes have opted for the fomer, but that the second possibility is more valid. It is not outside the realm of possibility, for example, that Chinese could become the dominant carrier of Christianity of the Third or Fourth Millenium. Or to say that Christianity as expressed in an Amerindian or African language is just as important as Christianity expressed in Greek.

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