A different fire: Vatican II and the new evangelisation

A different fire: Vatican II and the new evangelisation

Archbishop Mark Coleridge

The following are edited extracts from Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane's keynote address at a Melbourne conference on the Second Vatican Council on 19 September 2012. These are published with his permission.

The call to a new evangelisation born of the Second Vatican Council and given momentum by John Paul II and Benedict XVI implies a particular view of the history of the Church. Looking back across two thousand years, it sees a number of key threshold moments when there was a new surge of Gospel energy, often in dark times and against the tide.

The first evangelisation came with the apostles sent out by the Risen Lord himself, and it yielded immense and unexpected fruit. The next threshold moment comes with the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West and the chaos that ensued. At that point, St Benedict goes into his cave in Subiaco, and from that cave is born not only a new way of being Christian, but a new form of human consciousness and eventually a new civilisation that would become medieval Europe.

Gospel energy

In the medieval period, the friars appear working in ways very different from the monks who were the heirs of St Benedict. They did not stay in monasteries but walked the roads of the world, taking the Gospel in new ways to the people wherever the people were. This again brought a new surge of Gospel energy, a new kind of Christian mission and with it a new kind of spirituality.

After the trauma of the Reformation, we saw the emergence of a new phenomenon to meet a new need in new circumstances. These were no longer monks or friars, but clerical orders like the Jesuits who engaged the changing culture in new ways and undertook missions of a new kind, even evangelising newly found continents.

After the devastations of the French Revolution, when the Church in France was reduced to almost nothing, there was the new surge of Gospel energy which saw the foundation in France of many missionary and teaching orders, some of which have been very influential in Australia and the Pacific.

Through the nineteenth century in Ireland - a time of great political strife and human suffering - there was also a surge of Gospel energy which saw the foundation of congregations, especially of women, which gave themselves to teaching and nursing and among these were some of the most influential congregations of apostolic religious women in Australia.

What both Vatican II and John Paul II have said is that, in our own time, beyond the ash-heaps of Auschwitz and Hiroshima and all they symbolise, we need another new surge of Gospel energy, a surge which will come only if there is another new and deeper contemplation of the face of Christ, a new and deeper encounter with the Lord crucified and risen.

Such a surge will bring with it a kind of Copernican revolution. Instead of seeking to recreate a world where the world revolves around the Church, or at least comes to the Church, the Church will look to the world, will go to the world with the gift of the Gospel.

In the West at least, the world will not come to the Church at this time. Therefore, the Church must go to the world, since the only alternative is for the Church to retire to some introverted, supposedly self-protective world where we Christians speak only to ourselves and we are surely forbidden to do that. The question now is, How do we go to the world? What does this kind of new mission mean? What does it require?

It requires, at least in this country, a recognition that tribal Catholicism is at an end. When I was young, to be Catholic meant by and large to belong to an Anglo-Celtic tribe, which had its tribal chieftains in men as different as James Duhig and Daniel Mannix. The two men were Irish-Australian bishops of a kind which it would be impossible to replicate now, even if both embodied certain qualities one would want in a bishop in any time, place or culture. But whatever being Catholic may mean in Australia in 2012, it no longer means belonging to an Anglo-Celtic tribe.

Tribal Catholicism

In the earlier time of tribal Catholicism, one was by and large born into a Catholic family, went to Mass at a Catholic parish and attended a Catholic school. All of this meant that one became Catholic by a powerful kind of cultural osmosis. But those days are gone. We have reached a point where being born into a Catholic family, going to Mass when young and attending a Catholic school for twelve years guarantees little.

One may or may not choose to be Catholic - but the key word here is "choose." Membership of the Catholic Church in the West has become more a matter of free choice than cultural osmosis and that is one of the reasons why there are fewer people attending Mass on Sunday. Yet those who do attend can show a quality of commitment and dedication not always evident in earlier times. They have made a deep and personal choice.

Yet it cannot be simply a matter of personal choice, unless we wish in the Catholic Church to see things as some Protestants do. That is why John Paul II spoke frequently of the need to evangelise culture. He meant that we need to provide a rich and supportive context within which personal choices can be made. Personal choices made in a vacuum are risky. Even more risky perhaps are personal choices made in a cultural context which favours wrong choices. The question may be right, but the culture can powerfully suggest a wrong answer.

That is why John Paul II spoke of the need to evangelise culture. We need to provide a cultural context which supports and encourages good choices and right answers, the kind of choices and answers which the Gospel urges or at least to which the Gospel points.

This is one of the main reasons why we need at this time in this culture to resist the pressure to push the Catholic faith into a private corner or to disqualify the Catholic Church from speaking at all on issues of public morality. The sexual abuse crisis has certainly compromised the ability of the Church and particularly the ability of the bishops to speak effectively on issues of public morality. But it cannot be allowed to reduce us to silence nor can we be intimidated by those who would dearly love the voice of the Church to fall silent on many issues.

Vatican II

The new evangelisation of which John Paul II and Benedict XVI have spoken, the great renewal sought by Vatican II, has been a more difficult process than anything imagined by us who were young when the Council ended.

Those of us who grew up in the wake of the Council were exhilarated by its agenda - or at least our version of its agenda. It seemed at the time that we could remake the Church and even the world; anything seemed possible. Yet in the meantime it has not turned out quite as we expected.

Perhaps we were too forgetful, succumbing to a kind of amnesia which saw everything before the Council as negative and everything after the Council as positive. We may have got wrong the tension between rupture and continuity; we may have misunderstood what the Council meant by reform.

Perhaps we were too inflexible, holding too doggedly to the agenda and understandings of an earlier time rather than adjusting to the later consequences of the Council which did not match our agenda or understandings.

Pope Benedict has been consistent in describing the most troubling phenomenon of the present time as a crisis of faith. This is surely the opposite of what the Council intended, and yet it is hard to dispute what the Pope has described. That is why he has proclaimed a Year of Faith as we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the opening the Second Vatican Council.

We live at a time when there is an eclipse of God under the pressure of a secularist ideology; even if they believe in God in some sense, people often live as if there were no God. God is no longer primal or central, even perhaps for believers; and there seems to be abundant evidence now of what Charles Peguy claimed in the early years of the last century - that there is a widespread denial of the Incarnation, even among the devout.

Peguy described this as a disaster, because it led people to think that they had to deny or escape from their humanity in order to find their way to the divinity. Christianity in fact claims the exact opposite - that to find our way to the divinity we have to enter more and more deeply into our humanity. In turn we have to discover more and more of the humanity of Jesus, which is why it is important to contemplate his face.

The implication of this is that humanity and divinity ultimately converge, as they do in Jesus Christ. The divinity assumed humanity so that humanity could find its way into the divinity. This is a claim made more boldly and frequently in the Christian East than the Christian West but traces of it are found in the Roman Missal, where addressing God in the Third Eucharistic Prayer we say for example, "We shall become like you." The claim needs to be carefully nuanced but it is true nonetheless: the divinisation of the human being is the goal of God's plan.

Any new evangelisation which takes its cue from Vatican II will also be a clear affirmation of the body, of community and of history. It will need to offer people a new experience of the body at a time when pornography seems an unstoppable tide, a new experience of community at a time when people want belief without belonging, belonging without belief, and a new experience of history at a time when many people subscribe unconsciously to Henry Ford's claim that "history is bunk" and a kind of cultural amnesia is rampant.

All three come together in the Eucharist which is the celebration of a radically new experience of the body, community and history. In that sense, the Second Vatican Council has as its ultimate goal a more Eucharistic Church and a more Eucharistic world. In the Eucharist, the elements become the Body of Christ, which are the words spoken when Holy Communion is distributed. Here the community of the Church recognises itself as the Body of Christ and all of history, past, present and future, is gathered up as we look to the final moment, the eschaton, when the triumph of Christ will be complete and God will be all in all.

If the ultimate goal of the Council is a more Eucharistic Church and world, it is hardly surprising that its first document was Sacrosanctum Concilium and that Lumen Gentium describes the Eucharist as "the source and the summit" of the Church's life.

It is also what the Second Vatican Council was all about at a time when the logic of "This is your body taken for me" seemed regnant. Never had the human body seemed so cheap as in the piles of corpses in the death-camps; never had community seemed so impossibly fractured as after the two World Wars; never had history seemed so tragic an arena where death held sway.

New start

No wonder the Pope in 1950 pointed to the woman crowned with the twelve stars and with the moon at her feet. The Assumption was the Church's way of saying that death, for all its seeming dominance, was not native to the human being. And the Council was the Church's way of saying that only the encounter with Jesus crucified and risen, the Lord whose scars shine like the sun, could provide the new start that was needed beyond the ash-heaps and the spiritual exhaustion which came with them.

The question was whether there was a stronger fire and a brighter light which could open a way into the future. In searching for that fire and that light the Church pointed to Jesus crucified and risen. The world had been crucified in the twin apocalypse but it could be raised from the dead by the same power which raised Jesus from the dead, the love of God which is the one power stronger than death.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says at one point, "I have come to bring fire on the earth" (12:49). This is apocalyptic language which Luke adopts only to reinterpret it. The reinterpretation comes when fire reappears eventually in the Gospel of Luke. We are on the road to Emmaus, and after the disciples' eyes have been opened at the breaking of bread to recognise the presence of the Risen Christ, they say to one another, "Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road?" (24:32).

The Second Vatican Council sought to respond to the fires of the death-camps and the bomb by setting hearts on fire through a new evangelisation which would enable people everywhere to see the Risen Lord and hear him, and to know that he is the one who walks with them on their journey out of hopelessness into hope. That different fire is what the Council was all about and what the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been all about.

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