Near the end of last year I wrote about the attitude of openness and adaptation to the modern world which permeated the ecclesiology of John XXIII and Paul VI, and found concrete expression at Vatican II and in the creation of the permanent Synod of Bishops. (Read it here)
From there we now jump forward fifty years to get our bearings in the current context of the discussion: The Synod on the New Evangelization. While the work of the Synod assembly is over, the final product has yet to arrive in the form of an Apostolic Exhortation written by the Pope (which may take up to two years). And it will be necessary in the third and final instalment of these essays to look forward, as far as possible, not only to the Exhortation but beyond, to follow the line of thinking of the Bishops who participated in the Synod and infer where we might be headed over the next fifty years. Chesterton said that “Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision.” From my experience of the Synod I propose that we have enough information about the vision to reflect on the progress being made.
One afternoon during the Synod, Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, SJ came to the press hall to speak to the English journalists. The current Superior General of the Jesuits spoke about his intervention in the Synod hall and the New Evangelization from the nearly five hundred year missionary tradition of his order. He said, “We can hardly think of a New Evangelization unless we are sure we have learnt something from the First Evangelization, from the things we did well and from the mistakes we made, as well as the insufficiencies we suffered in our desire to communicate the Gospel.”
This same approach can be applied in a condensed manner, I think, to the history of the New Evangelization itself, which, “started precisely with the Second Vatican Council.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Sept. 20, 2012) What can we learn about the New Evangelization from the Council? What was really new
at the Council? What have we done well over the past fifty years and what mistakes have been made? These are all very pertinent questions if Catholics are to understand, believe in and live the New Evangelization. And you will recall from the previous essay that we can, in fact, give answers to some of these questions. First, the change of attitude to one of openness and adaptation to the modern world that manifested itself during the Council was a profound and concrete shift from the ecclesial attitude of the Magisterium. If we take the New Evangelization seriously, this attitude must again become prevalent throughout the Church. Second, the development of the permanent Synod of Bishops is an example of something “new”.
As to the question about what we have done well and what mistakes have been made, it is wise to defer to the Bishops who participated in the Synod, because it is they who bring together a truly universal pastoral perspective. Perhaps at no other time was I so aware of the limits of my own views as those days inside the Synod hall, when one-by-one the Bishops shared the experiences of their communities, many of which suffer religious persecution and threats to basic rights. Thus, any assessment of the implementation of the Council must take seriously the plurality of social and cultural expressions affecting the Church around the world; this is simply a consequence of realizing that the Church cannot exist outside of or apart from history. So while our perspective (whatever it is) is important it is not complete because we are bound, ultimately, by the limits of our own experience. Any ecclesiology that neglects this plurality neglects reality, and risks losing its balance, becoming narrowly focused, and falling into extremism.
But issues did emerge in the Synod hall that can be called “global” – issues that affect the universal Church. One of these issues was the role of the Laity in the New Evangelization. About a third of the world’s Bishops mentioned the Laity concerning their proactive role in the life and mission of the Church, and some even called them “the protagonists”. Almost all these made explicit reference to at least one of Lumen Gentium
, Gaudium et Spes
or Apostolicam Actuositatem
(the Council documents that outline the new teaching on the laity). In his five minute intervention, Bishop Winston Fernando of Badulla, Sri Lanka said, “The Church does not lack teaching and structures to involve the Laity in her mission, but often pastors do not seem to recognize the urgency and necessity of entrusting the Lay faithful their proper roles in evangelization.” Bishop Brian Dunn of Antigonish, Nova Scotia upheld the Vatican II teachings but called for changes to those structures that have hurt or diminished the role of the Laity. And he went further saying, the New Evangelization requires “a profound change of mentality, attitude and heart in our ways of working closely with lay people.”
Listening intently to the Bishops, I quickly realized that this was not a “Canadian" or even a “Western world” concern. And I left Rome thinking that the fifty year old Vatican II teaching on the role of the Laity had been endorsed on a universal scale yet again. What does it say to us – the People of God – that the Council, the Popes and the Bishops have for fifty years drawn our attention to this teaching? What does it mean for the Church at this crucial moment of evaluation and reflection that this teaching is at the heart of the New Evangelization?
Near the end of his life Pope John XXIII said, “It is not that the Gospel has changed; it is that we have begun to understand it better… The moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead.” We might do well to apply this understanding to the Council and its teaching on the Laity. After fifty years it is not that the Council has changed, but in the context of the New Evangelization we are now beginning to understand it better. The Council Fathers knew that to a large degree the future of the Church would depend on the evangelizing mission of the Laity, and the Synod Fathers agree. It is now up to us, the Clergy and the Laity especially, to reflect on the Council’s teaching and ask to what degree we have adopted it in mind and heart, or to what degree we have become a roadblock to it. After fifty years are we, as Pope Benedict stressed last September, “persons truly co-responsible for the being and the activity of the Church?” The New Evangelization cannot be taken seriously without asking, discussing, and responding to such questions.
Photo: The presidents of the Second Vatican Council at one of the sessions inside St. Peter's Basilica. (CNS Photo)