An Ongoing Renewal: How the council is still shaping the church
Creating a New, Evolving Consciousness
By Dolores R. Leckey
Early in my 20-year tenure at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I was privileged to hear stories from bishops who had attended the last two sessions of the Second Vatican Council. They spoke of how being present and participating in the council opened them, and others, to change—something they had never anticipated. I heard stories of well-known prelates who went to Rome with a specific mindset, only to undergo a change in mind and heart during the deliberations.
The dynamic of the council illustrates an argument made by the Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan: that the Holy Spirit can move one from a classicist consciousness (which holds, for example, that the church is unchanging) to a historical consciousness, where one ponders questions like “What time is it?” The bishops who spoke with me about these matters referred to them as “miracles,” so fixed had they and other bishops been in the classicist mode.
The changes that rippled through the church pertained not only to the church’s outward signs, however, like the way sacraments were celebrated or the way parishes and dioceses were to be organized. More importantly they pertained to its thinking. The way the church understood its own role in the world changed.
A major shift of consciousness coursed through the people of God, through not only bishops, but also priests, vowed religious and laity—single and married, men and women. The people of God began to understand themselves—in terms of their freedom, their charisms, their competencies, their irreplaceable roles in the church—in new and creative ways. They experienced themselves as authentic bearers of the Gospel and saw the church as circular in form rather than as a pyramid, with the hierarchy at the top.
The theology of baptism undergirded this expanded consciousness, and with it came a desire to know. Religious congregations wanted to know the intentions of their founders, and consequently they engaged in serious, ongoing research and renewal. Laypeople wanted to know the church’s theological tradition and also the “new theology” flowing from the council. Inspired to explore what forms their now recognized “vocation” might take, the laypeople pursued advanced theological study in ever larger numbers. Women (religious and lay) studied and labored side by side, forming new alliances of “sisterhood.” The “universal call to holiness,” set forth in the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” served as a lever for the expansion of Catholic consciousness. Lay ecclesial ministry, after a long and painful labor, was also born out of that graced ferment and is now growing new cells in the mystical body.
Relationships with other Christian churches have also grown deep and wide. Dialogues of all kinds continue, especially dialogues of life. It is no longer considered strange, for example, to marry outside one’s religious denomination, and at wedding ceremonies a minister and a priest often preside jointly. Dialogues of life extend into the interfaith world as well. Recently I attended a Catholic-Muslim wedding. Three days before the interreligious ceremony and celebration there was a “sacramental ceremony” in the bride’s Catholic church with only the Catholic family in attendance. The next night the bride’s mother hosted a dinner for the imam who was to preside at the large interfaith ceremony (with a Catholic priest) the following day.
All of this joyful accommodation brought to mind the marriage ceremony of my husband’s parents (I heard this story many times)—his Protestant father from Belfast and his Catholic mother from the Republic of Ireland—in the back room of the rectory. Rather than a celebratory morning, there was a mood of mourning on the part of the priest. An atmosphere of suppressed anger emanated from the bride and groom, anger that lasted throughout the marriage. This searing experience separated my mother-in-law from the church for decades.
After consciousness shifts, there is no going back to the restricted classicist form. One cannot pretend not to know God experientially. New horizons become visible, and the future is one of discovery and hope. Anything is possible because of the realization that we are “members of the household of God built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone” (Eph 2:19-20)—all of us, not just a few.
Dolores R. Leckey is senior fellow emerita of Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C.
Putting Justice on the Agenda
By Gerald O’Collins
During nearly 2,000 years of Christianity, 20 general councils of the church met, from Nicaea I (in 325) down to Vatican I (1869-70). The creeds and decrees they promulgated quoted and echoed numerous passages from the Bible. But the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) became the first council to cite Gn 1:26-27 and develop its theme that all human beings are “created in the image and likeness of God.” Through the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” Vatican II made that scriptural text the basis for its teaching on human dignity and rights.
The constitution spelled out at length the universal rights and duties that flow from the dignity of having been created in the divine image. The document also vigorously recommended a “dialogue of action” that would engage Catholics with others, both Christians and non-Christians, in working together for social justice, peacemaking and the service of those in desperate need.
Believers and nonbelievers alike will always fall short in practicing their commitment to the common good. Yet we should give our undying admiration to the many laypersons, religious, priests and bishops for what they have done and continue to do in defending human rights, promoting a just political order and maintaining programs for millions of refugees, displaced and homeless persons, indigenous minorities and others who lack opportunities for employment, basic health care or proper education.
To be sure, the history of Catholicism has a long, proud record of providing health care and education, especially where none had been available. Mary Aikenhead, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, Catherine McAuley, St. Mary of the Cross (Mother Mary MacKillop), Nano Nagle, Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice and countless other women and men founded and staffed schools and hospitals around the world. St. Peter Claver devoted 40 years to caring for the African slaves who were brought ashore, often more dead than alive, on the docks of Cartagena. St. Joseph de Veuster gave his life for the lepers of Molokai. The tradition goes back to the origins of the church, when the word liturgy referred both to Christian worship and to the obligation of responding to the material needs of others. This double usage of the term suggests the essential bond between community worship and social service.
In the run-up to Vatican II, Dorothy Day, her associates and other Christians expressed this bond by committing themselves to the poor and to working for peace and justice. She knew that promoting peace and justice forms an integral part of the preaching of the good news that is Jesus Christ himself.
Along with the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” Blessed John XXIII, who called and opened the council, put the cause of justice and peace firmly on the church’s agenda as an integral part of the good news to be preached and practiced. In the aftermath of Vatican II, church-based human rights offices were opened in numerous countries. And during the “dirty wars” in Central America, many men and women who worked for justice and peace commissions and defended human rights in other ways were martyred for it. Their names remain an inspiration and a call to action: Oscar Romero, Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, Ignacio Ellacuría and his companions and others.
Around the world, Catholics have drawn inspiration from Pope John and his council to engage in a mission of service to those who suffer and are oppressed. As a Jesuit, I am immensely proud of what the Jesuit Refugee Service stands for and has done. As a Catholic, I am proud to live at a time when bishops in Africa, Central America, the Philippines and South America have been killed for opposing violence and standing up for peace and justice.
In the first and tenth “Tracts for the Times,” issued in 1833, Blessed John Henry Newman proposed suffering and even death as essential features of the witness to which bishops are called: “We could not wish them a more blessed termination of their course than the spoiling of their goods and martyrdom.”
Vatican II encouraged Catholics everywhere to share a new consciousness. Working for justice and peace belongs squarely to the life and mission of the church. There can be no going back on that teaching.
Gerald O'Collins, S.J., the author or co-author of 60 books, recently published A Midlife Journey (Connor Court).
Growing in Christian Unity
By Catherine E. Clifford
The Second Vatican Council did more to change the relationship between the Catholic Church and other Christian churches than any other single event since the Protestant Reformation 450 years earlier, or perhaps even since the tragic schism of 1054 that divided the churches of East and West. It transformed the way Catholics view other Christians and set a new course for the reconciliation of the churches.
It is significant that Pope John XXIII chose to announce the convocation of the Second Vatican Council on Jan. 25, 1959, at the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The council was to have two principal aims: first, a much-needed aggiornamento or updating of the life and teaching of the church so that it might proclaim the Gospel more effectively to contemporary men and women; and second, the re-establishment of unity among the Christian churches. Pope John understood these two goals to be closely related. While the first objective is widely accepted today, the second is too often forgotten.
The Catholic Church remained outside the organized ecumenical movement in the early 20th century and promoted unity through the return of individuals to the Catholic fold. Like Pope Pius XII before him, Pope John recognized the ecumenical movement as a fruit of the Spirit that fostered renewal of ecclesial life. In his vision for the council, renewal and reform were two of the ways of deepening fidelity to the Gospel tradition. By becoming more attuned to the common source of their life in the Gospel, the divided churches would be drawn closer together in Christ.
This represented a marked shift. Since the late Middle Ages, Catholic theology and teaching had envisaged a stark separation between the natural and supernatural orders and tended to portray everything outside the Catholic Church as devoid of God’s redemptive grace. Theologians in the mid-20th century, like the Jesuits Henri de Lubac and Karl Rahner, however, pointed toward a more ancient theological tradition. Centered on the incarnate Word of God, this tradition provided a basis for understanding both the distinction and the proper relationship between the natural and supernatural. Theologians helped to recover a more positive sense of God’s creative and redemptive presence in and through all of human history. Drawing on Augustine’s thought, Yves Congar, O.P., maintained that the sacrament of baptism and many other elements of the church were effectively mediating God’s saving grace in other Christian communities. The presence of these gifts confirmed that the one church of Christ was present and active in them all.
Receiving these ancient insights anew, Vatican II positively affirmed the active presence of the Spirit in the life of other Christian communions and recognized in them effective means of grace. Emphasizing an already existing, albeit imperfect communion among the churches, the council acknowledged the many gifts Catholics share with other Christians: confession of faith in Christ and in a Trinitarian God, common Scriptures, the patrimony of the witness of the early church, sacramental celebrations, witness and service of the Gospel in the world. Since Vatican II, significant consensus has been discovered through official dialogue on a wide range of doctrinal matters once thought to be church-dividing, including historic agreements on Christology with Oriental Orthodox Churches and on the doctrine of justification by faith with churches of the Lutheran World Federation.
The council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” and “Decree on Ecumenism” reflect an important recovery of understanding of the essential nature of the church as communion. Through baptism and faith all Christians are united in Christ. Communion in Christ grounds the ecclesial communion they share in varying degrees. Vatican II calls for collective conversion to Christ and the continual reform of the church. Dialogue, carried out in a spirit of humility and patient self-examination, is the preferred course of action toward reform and unity.
Other Christian communions—some represented by official observers at the council—also have undertaken important reforms of liturgical expression, ministries and governing structures. While full, visible unity may still seem a distant goal today, Vatican II has been the catalyst for an extensive renewal of the inner life of each church. This has created a new set of relationships among the churches and helped us grow in unity. The council continues to be a transforming force for all of Christianity.
Listen to a conversation with Catherine E. Clifford.
Catherine E. Clifford is a professor and vice dean in the faculty of theology at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario.
A New Voice at the Pulpit
By Greg Kandra
A date most Catholics do not know may be one of the most important anniversaries on the church calendar: June 18, 1967. That was the day Pope Paul VI, following the recommendations of the Second Vatican Council, issued “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem,” which laid out “General Norms for Restoring the Permanent Diaconate in the Latin Church.” That document and what followed it had a seismic impact. Nearly 50 years later the earth continues to move.
There are some 31,000 permanent deacons worldwide, over 17,000 of them in the United States. They are increasingly a part of the Catholic landscape, in ways that are vibrant, vocal and visible. Deacons run religious education programs and food pantries; supervise adult Christian initiation teams and bereavement groups; facilitate Pre-Cana classes and annulments. They make regular appearances in the pulpit; some parishes have “deacon weekends,” where they preach at all the Masses. In many dioceses, they have assumed leadership responsibilities that once belonged exclusively to priests. More and more, when families flip through photo albums of weddings and baptisms, the vested figure smiling in the background, offering a blessing and a toothy grin, is not the parish priest. It is the deacon.
The deacon has also become a presence in the life of the universal church. Three points spring to mind.
The diaconate has broadened our idea of what it means to belong to the clergy. Some of us can remember when the most familiar member of the clergy was the parish priest. He was usually a “lifer” who entered the seminary fresh from college (or a prep seminary), was ordained in his mid-20s and never knew any other kind of life. The restoration of the diaconate opened up membership in the clergy to men who were older, married and had families, jobs and careers. This significant move challenged the church to change its perception of what it means to be ordained. It does not necessarily mean being celibate; a life dedicated to holiness could come from anywhere. A résumé in the world suddenly became an asset. The church came to embrace the idea that life experience could inform and enhance ministry.
For most deacons that includes experience as a husband and father, which has brought into the Roman church the clergyman’s wife and family. The wife’s role, in particular, is critical. Many wives work closely with their husbands in ministry, helping prepare couples for marriage, assisting at baptisms and/or serving as a prayerful support when the nights get long, the classes become grueling and the parish council meeting turns into a shouting match. (More than a few deacons will tell you that when it comes to homilies, their wives are also their most trustworthy critics.)
The diaconate has put a new voice in the pulpit. When deacons arrived on the scene, many in the pews began to hear preaching that connected with their lives in unexpected ways. They heard a father talk about the challenges of raising teenagers; they heard a husband preach about the sacrament of marriage; they heard a worker talk about the pressures of paying off a mortgage or dealing with a difficult boss. This different kind of homiletics can mirror the people in the pews.
The diaconate has given a new dimension to the sacrament of holy orders. It has brought the laity closer to the clergy and vice versa. The deacon bridges two worlds. To his bishop and pastor he can be a set of eyes and ears; to the faithful he can be a prayerful advocate and sympathetic voice. He lives down the block, has a child in the parish school and will often be the first person parishioners approach if they have a problem, a question, a worry or a doubt.
As the Code of Canon Law (Canon 1009, No. 3) makes clear: “Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the people of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity.”The deacon’s faculty—and his defining charism—is one of service.
It is a service we are still coming to understand, for the restored diaconate is a work in progress. But its impact is unmistakable. The diaconate, a flourishing fruit of the council, has strengthened the church’s presence in the modern world and left the church and the world enriched.
Deacon Greg Kandra of the Diocese of Brooklyn is the executive editor of ONE magazine, published by Catholic Near East Welfare Association. He also writes the blog “The Deacon’s Bench.”