Sebastian Gomes attended the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization in Rome this past October as a correspondent for Salt + Light. In this first of three articles, he discusses the change in mentality at Vatican II to one of openness and adaptation.
During the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization for the Transformation of the Christian Faith, news came that Giovanni Battista Montini, better known as Pope Paul VI, could be beatified in the near future. He was very much what we might call a “Vatican II” bishop, first in Milan and later as pope; in that, he adopted wholeheartedly one of the principle attitudes of many churchmen at the time – that the Church must be open, dialogue with, and even adapt (as much as possible) to the modern world. So, on September 15, 1965 Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops in words echoing the approach of his predecessor, John XXIII:
'The Apostolic concern leading Us to carefully survey the signs of the times
and to make every effort to adapt the means and methods of the holy apostolate to the changing circumstances and need of our day
, impels Us to establish even closer ties with the bishops in order to strengthen Our union with them. . . For daily experience has taught Us how helpful this kind of union will be in carrying out Our apostolic Office. . . We intend to use every means available to Us to promote and foster it.' (Emphasis added)
The experience of the Second Vatican Council, especially this genuine union or 'collegiality,' lit a fire in the hearts and minds of the leaders of the Church at the time, so much so that new and tangible things came about, one being the creation of the Synod of bishops. Paul VI went on to say that it was the Council in fact, that gave him the idea for a permanent Synod of bishops, “with the aim of providing for a continuance after the Council of the great abundance of benefits that We have been so happy to see flow to the Christian people during the time of the Council as a result of Our close collaboration with the bishops.” (Apostolica Sollicitudo
That the Second Vatican Council came about under John XXIII and the permanent Synod of Bishops under Paul VI is no accident. It was precisely the attitude of openness to the modern world that they shared which gave birth to new, exciting, tangible and life-giving realities in the Catholic Church. To miss this point is to miss a fundamental part of our two-thousand year tradition. Openness and adaptation have always characterized the authentic attitude which shapes the approach and actions of the Church, to the extent that when this attitude is restrained or impeded, the Church deteriorates rapidly.
Fear is often the motivating force behind such restraint and impediment, which reveals itself in the condemnation of the modern world and those Christians who offer it a hand of peace, in a selective reading and endorsement of the Church’s teachings, and in succumbing to an anachronistic nostalgia. The response to this fear must be a call to deeper faith. As Pope Benedict recently said in his homily on October 11, to mark the 50th
anniversary of Vatican II and the opening of the Year of Faith, “The [Second Vatican] Council Fathers wished to present the faith in a meaningful way; and if they opened themselves trustingly to dialogue with the modern world it is because they were certain of their faith, of the solid rock on which they stood.”
To what extent this attitude of openness and adaptation manifested itself at the recent Synod on the New Evangelization must be discussed later. Here it is sufficient to recognize the link between this attitude of openness and adaptation (which materialized at the Council) and the birth of new, exciting, tangible and life-giving realities in the Church (i.e. The Synod of Bishops). The Church is more itself, more catholic and more orthodox when faith trumps fear and this mentality disseminates through the People of God.
In 1965 Pope Paul VI, together with the bishops and the whole Church welcomed what was new. Have we as individuals and a church adopted this same mentality fifty years later? How open are we to the modern world? To what level do we adapt the gospel to the culture and people of our time? If the Church exists to evangelize, as Pope Benedict said at the opening Mass of the Synod on the New Evangelization, will we Catholics today acknowledge and attempt her true work: “to adapt the Gospel to the understanding of all and the requirements of the learned, insofar as this could be done. Indeed, this kind of adaptation and preaching of the revealed word must ever be the law of all evangelization.” (Gaudium et Spes
, pt. 1, ch. 4, n. 44)
Photo of Pope Paul VI in St. Peter's Square (1965) courtesy of CNS