Homily for the 50th Anniversary
OF THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL
Homily for Mass at St. Patrick’s, Church Hill
11th October 2012
Bishop Geoffrey Robinson
Fifty years ago today, in opening the First Session of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII famously rejected “the prophets of doom, who always speak of negative facts, almost as though the end of the world were nigh.”
This statement was a decisive turning away from a long period of much defensiveness and negativity within the Church. It began in France in the late 1700s when an uninspiring Church was seen as tied to an unpopular regime. The writers of the Enlightenment attacked this Church, and the French Revolution that followed sought to remove both the monarchy and the Church that was seen to buttress it. Then Napoleon kidnapped the pope and held him in prison for two years.
These events so shook authorities in Rome that they responded in a manner that was largely negative and defensive. As absolute monarchs were replaced by democracies in Europe, the Roman authorities placed themselves on the side of the monarchies and opposed many of the forces that were creating the modern world. At its extreme Gregory XVI condemned the new invention of trains, saying that they were not paths of steel, but paths of hell. Pius IX, in his Syllabus of Errors, condemned the idea that “The Roman Pontiff can and must reconcile himself with and adapt to progress, liberalism and recent developments in society.” This led to the condemnation of a rather vague, and for that reason, all-embracing idea called Modernism, and this lasted right up to the time of the Council.
John XXIII, on the other hand, wanted the Church to look forwards, not backwards. He wanted it to reach out to the world, not condemn it. He wanted to overcome two hundred years of inertia and defensiveness and open the Church up to the world.
Two words became the key words of the Council, one French, the other Italian. The French word was ressourcement, a return to the sources, that is, going back behind the ideas of the immediate past to the sources of our faith in order to renew that faith. The Italian word was aggiornamento, which meant bringing the Church up to date through dialogue with the modern world.
Crucial to everything was the personality of Pope John XXIII himself. I met him a few days after his election, when Cardinal Gilroy took the Sydney students with him for his visit to the pope. I remember him as exuberant and constantly moving about, so that his brand new white skull cap kept slipping off his bald head and, as the youngest person present, I had the job of picking it up and handing it back to him. I was a blond, fresh-faced youth and the first papal words ever addressed to me (no doubt infallible) were “Ah, no beard”.
I remember that first exhilarating month when he left the Vatican more often than the pope before him had in nineteen years. I remember him visiting the major prison in Rome and, rather than delivering a profound discourse on the morality of prison life, telling the prisoners of an uncle of his who had done time for sheep stealing. He won my imagination and my undying affection, as he did for millions of other people.
There are three reasons why I consider him a great pope. The first is that for him the gospel truly meant what the word itself means, “good news”. This good news filled him with joy, and he constantly radiated a true Christian joy to all around him.
The second reason is that the greatness of his office was never allowed to obscure his humanity. The wholeness and goodness of a most likeable human being shone through everything he did.
The third reason is that he had the humility to know that he did not have all the answers to the problems facing the Church as it entered the new and difficult world of the 1960s. And so it was with his heart first and his head second that he instinctively turned to the collective wisdom of the whole Church and called a council.
Much of the council was taken up with the clash between the old and the new, and the recently published English version of the diary kept by one of the great theologians of the council, Yves Congar, is a vivid and moving portrayal of this clash.
Neither side won a total victory, and it is important to realise that the documents of the council have many ambiguities and compromises. For example, the council said that “the whole body of the faithful….cannot err in matters of belief,” but it also said that, in coming to these beliefs, it must follow the teaching authority of the pope and bishops.
In the same way, the council in one passage extols conscience, but in another passage can’t get away from the idea that a good conscience will always follow the teaching of the pope. In many ways the council was a beginning rather than an end.
And yet, despite the amount of time and energy that the clash between the old and the new took up, I do not believe that it is the most important story of the council. I find that greater story in the large majority of the bishops who were not theologians and who suddenly found themselves in the middle of this intense clash. At first they were quite unprepared, but they slowly and painfully educated themselves, awoke to new ideas and came to realise that the very future of the Church was in their hands. It was as this process developed that the council truly came alive, and one saw the Spirit at work.
Over the last thirty years there have been attempts by certain forces within the Vatican to reverse a number of the steps forward of the council. And yet, among the irreversible fruits of the council are that it saw the Church as a divine mystery and a pilgrim people rather than in the legal terms of a perfect society, it placed the bible back beside the sacraments at the centre of Church life, it put the pope into the context of the college of bishops, it greatly promoted the active role of the laity, it renewed enthusiasm for Christian unity, it made landmark statements on religious liberty and conscience, it brought the liturgy to the people. Above all, the council gave us a glimpse of what the Church could be, and for the last fifty years it is this vision that has inspired my life and my priesthood.
There are two ways to judge any movement in a society. The first is the very common one of judging the movement by the criterion of how far short it falls of where we believe it ought to be, and by this criterion the results of the council will to many be seen as disappointing. The second, and more realistic, way is to judge it by how far the society has moved from where it used to be, and by this criterion vast change has already occurred within the Church, and the hope for more is alive and strong. The whole process may take longer than we hoped, it may not achieve everything we hoped, but I believe that the Second Vatican Council is a work of the Holy Spirit and that it is still only just beginning.
The day after our wonderful celebration which included the above homily, Geoff sent me the following quotation from Fr Yves Congar’s My Journal of the Council with the accompany comment:”I sent off a copy of my homily to you, then some time later took up my reading of Congar’s diary. I almost immediately came upon a brilliant piece that you may wish to put beside the homily”. Here is the quotation:
Sunday 26 April 1964 (between the second and third sessions)
“Oh, but I wish it (the council) would end!!!! I am unable to do anything more. I have scarcely time in the intervals between my periods in Rome to deal with day to day correspondence and minor commitments. Besides, a crowd of people are engaged, at great expense, people who already have more than enough to do are further weighed down, for an outcome that is rather mediocre. Our texts, in the end, are pretty banal. So much effort, so much time spent, to achieve middling declarations.
“However, 1) What if they are frankly limited and unsatisfactory? The opening up of dialogue, the gaining of liberty, are of incomparable value; 2) In certain countries things that seem commonplace to us will be taken very seriously, and will allow some substantial advances; 3) I have just reread the whole of De Ecclesia, with a view to a paper to the French bishops. There is, after all, MUCH that is very good; sometimes a great density of dogmatic thought, and, throughout, openings, seeds.
“I believe in seeds. As I always say: between 100 grams of living wheat and ten tons of dead wood, I don’t hesitate…”