Address by Archbishop Martin at the Vatican II Colloquium at Trinity College

13 Apr 2013

Address by  rchbishop Diarmuid Martin at the Vatican II Colloquium at Trinity College Dublin

I am pleased, not just to have been invited to speak at the conclusion of this Conference, I am pleased, above all, that this Conference is taking place.  One of the speakers concluded his remarks asking whether this Conference could have taken place at all before the Vatican Council and the presumption is that it could not have taken place.  I would add to such an Anglican presumption, this time almost with a touch of Catholic infallibility, that it is most likely that such a conference could not have taken place before Vatican II, but with certainty it could not have taken place here in Trinity College Dublin.

I am pleased that this Conference has been opened by Archbishop Michael Jackson and that it seems quite natural to all that it be closed by the Roman Catholic Archbishop. I wish to express my particular appreciation for the fact that the principal theological Conference on the 50th anniversary of Vatican II here in this capital city is one organised by the Anglican Church.

In this context I would also like to put on record the support that the Catholic Church received on the occasion of last year’s International Eucharistic Congress.  For the first time in the history of such a Congress the opening day was devoted to our common baptism and was led by representatives of different Christian Churches thus permitting the other Christian Churches to be present not just as guests and visitors but as full and equal participants.  Something that passed less noticed was the manner in which the leaders of the other Churches rejoiced at the success of what was an event of the Catholic Church and at the renewal of the Catholic Church in Ireland.  True ecumenism rejoices at the successes of the other.

There is a wide awareness of the fact that the relationship between the two Archbishops here in Dublin is one of friendship.  I have been greatly supported in difficult moments in my ministry by the friendship of two Anglican Archbishops.  I have experienced a true form of deep ecumenical friendship.  But no matter how important that friendship is for me and how it is recognised by members of both our communities, the real importance in our relationship, as Archbishop Michael noted in his remarks this morning, is our common sense of mission: a sense of common mission and of common witness to the message of Jesus Christ.  Archbishop Michael spoke of a “shared adventure”, a common search for the apposite language to bring the message Jesus Christ to our society and for the good of our society.

This conference should be looked at as another forward-looking step on a common path into the future in the dialogue between our common faith in Jesus Christ and our modern culture, recognising our common baptism but also being acutely aware that today for many baptized Christians their faith remains marginal to their lives and the life of society.

A few years ago Cardinal Walter Kasper, then President of the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, published a small book called “Harvesting the Fruits”.  Its aim was to gather together and examine the fruits of the ecumenical dialogues between the Roman Catholic Church and a variety of other Christian Churches and to take stock of where the fruits of these dialogues are today.

I believe that perhaps the time is ripe that we in Ireland ought to undertake a similar review of where we are in our ecumenical relations.  We need to do so in order to understand better the path forward.   It is not just a question of theological dialogues concerning historical theological differences, but the challenge of how we face the future together. This dialogue has hardly begun.

An important dimension of such a review would also be address the doubt and scepticism and tiredness that can easily creep into our relations.  There are those who talk of an ecumenical winter or a lack of progress after many years of conversations.   Such scepticism can easily lead to frustration and immobilism and drain our spiritual energies in the ecumenical field. There is a danger that many will become content with the status quo and simply go though the motions on occasions like the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

We need constantly to remind ourselves of just how central ecumenical endeavour is for the Christian life.  The call to ecumenism is an urgent call.  Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism sets out in simple yet stark words the negative consequences of our divisions.  We should be reminding ourselves of these three indications, if necessary three times a day. Our division “openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling block to the world and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the good news to every creature.”

Much has taken place in the relationship between our Churches in these past fifty years since the opening of Vatican II.   I remember my early days in the seminary at Clonliffe College fifty years ago, especially at this particular time of year, because in 1963 Ireland was in the midst of one of the bleakest winters for decades and Clonliffe was a very cold place in more ways than one.    I came to formation filled with ideals, not always entirely clear, and found myself in an atmosphere which was not quite what I was expecting.

My memory is of a building and a routine, a discipline and a way of life which seemed to have been like that for decades.   Even to someone who was not a revolutionary, it all seemed so out of touch with the world from which I had just come, and in which my friends were thriving.   But you were not supposed to think that way.  Things were to be done as they had always been done.  The Catholic Church was unchanging.

We were allowed to watch the opening of the Council on television.  We were interested but perhaps not excited and not too sure what the Council really was about. I remember earlier, when the Council was announced, we had begun to hold debates in school about the Council and especially about a possibility of which Pope John XXIII had spoken:  of the Council attaining Christian Unity. I must say that the good Catholic education I had received equipped me well to successfully debate against any such ideas.

Our Churches lived in separate compartments. Mixed marriages were considered by Catholics not just a challenge to Catholic numbers, but a danger to the faith.  Even entering a Protestant Church was a danger to the faith!  Christian Unity meant that Protestants converted.  We were not just divided religiously but socially. My mother thought she had been successful in getting job early in the twentieth century only to find that her future employer, highly embarrassed, had to come to her and say that a problem had emerged:  “Miss Mullen I am really sorry, but I always thought you were Church of Ireland”.

But there were ups and downs in relationships.  I find in my archives many references to the regular presence of my predecessor Archbishop William J. Walsh here in Trinity College and of the Provost of Trinity College in Archbishop’s House.  When Archbishop Byrne died in 1940 the Church of Ireland Archbishop was among the early callers to express his sympathy.  We were polite but very much living in separate compartments and the protestant community in particular must have felt threatened by the emerging cultural dominance of the Roman Catholic Church as Ireland began to identify itself as a “Catholic country”.   The separate compartments became more tightly sealed.

But let me come back to my seminary days as the Second Vatican Council began its course.  Within months, the Council began to fascinate me.  The reading in the refectory in the seminary was Abbot Cuthbert Butler’s “History of the [First] Vatican Council” and that helped me to understand something of what a Council was and the manner in which doctrinal and pastoral challenges were faced in truly robust discussions at Vatican I.   We tend to overlook the fact that Vatican I was anything but monolithic.

That book was followed by The Council and Reunion, by Hans Kung, which we listened to in the refectory with attention and fascination and then went to our weekly conference with our spiritual director who denounced the book as near heresy.    Robust discussion was coming alive again in the Catholic Church even in Archbishop McQuaid’s seminary.

Over these past months I have been reading a number of books published to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II.  I came across an interesting recent interview with the then private secretary of Pope John XXIII, Archbishop Loris Capovilla, who is still alive today.   He recounts how Pope John had been thinking of a Council from the very first days after his election.  Pope John was a man of intuition and was not afraid to think boldly.

His announcement of a Council, made during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, just three months after his election, caused surprise and not a little anxiety among some of his collaborators in the Vatican. Pope John was anxious, but his notes show that his initial conversations with the few influential Cardinals with whom he shared his intentions before he announced the Council were actually positive, especially the reaction of the Secretary of State, Tardini, whose support was vital.   There are times when consultations about bold decisions work much better when bold decisions have already been taken.

Pope John was fortunate that the Spirit had placed on his path ecumenical leaders who were also deeply committed to Church renewal, people like Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher or Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople.   The encounter between Archbishop Fisher and Pope John and the later meeting between Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI were historic and represented the reattachment of conversation after centuries of separation.  It had been over 400 years since Henry VIII broke with Rome and the divisions with the East were even longer.

It was remarkable at the recent Synod of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church which also celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Vatican Council, to see the normality of the participation at the Synod of the successors of Archbishop Fisher and Patriarch Athenagoras, Archbishop Rowan Williams and Patriarch Bartholomew and their evidently fraternal relations with Pope Benedict.

At the Synod, Archbishop Rowan Williams gave a remarkable reflection on the Church fifty years after Vatican II.   He recalled how the Second Vatican Council did so much “for the health of the Church and helped the Church to recover so much of the energy needed to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ effectively in our age”.

Fifty years after the Council, we are called to reflect on how we can derive and use the energy needed to proclaim the Good News effectively in a world which has changed so much.  Archbishop Williams noted: “For so many of my own generation, even beyond the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church, that Council was a sign of great promise, a sign that the Church was strong enough to ask itself some demanding questions about whether its culture and structures were adequate to the task of sharing the Gospel with the complex, often rebellious, always restless mind of the modern world”.

The Council began by allowing many of the right questions to emerge.  They are the perennial questions which as the Church of Jesus Christ we have to ask generation after generation.  Rather than be trapped in our certainties and the safe comfort zones of our denominations, we have to see that promise comes when we have the strength to ask if our denominational culture and structures and the quality of our ecumenical relationships are adequate to the task of sharing the Gospel with the men and women with whom we live.

When I was a student of theology in Dublin in the 1960’s there was one word that was not in great use.  It was the word “risk”.  Risk could involve rocking the boat.  As a member of the Catholic community risk would be linked with uncertainty – and the Catholic tradition seemed to have no need to reflect on that, we had all the certainties.  Risk could even mean irresponsibly leading yourself open to uncertainties, to an occasion of sin!

Faith and life are both about risk.  Christian faith is about risk because it requires us to take that leap into a certainty of faith which requires changing our way of thinking, of trusting in God’s love rather than in the tangible securities of day to day life.  Opening to others requires the ability to take risk and to experience the joy of expressing trust.

How do we share our Christian faith in the culture of our time?  When we talk about the presence of the Church in contemporary culture and in the modern world, we are tempted to speak about how the Church should be present in the structures of the politics and the economics of the modern word, especially through social analysis and social commentary.  We would talk also about reform of Church structures and forms of ministry.    Archbishop Rowan Williams began with God and how we come to understand God and enter into a relationship with God.  In a world in which human advancement is high on our daily agenda he chose to speak of “self-forgetfulness”.

What did he mean by that?  Is this a sort of self-denigration or a return to a type of spirituality of self-hatred or self-annihilation or self-repression which many of us would have encountered as part of our formation?  His thrust was another one.  It was about contemplation as looking towards the light of God revealed in Jesus Christ, in such a way as to be led beyond self.   It was about contemplation which leads us beyond “self-generated fantasies of God” with which the modern world might be able live comfortably and beyond forms of religious experience that simply make us feel secure.   Faith is in Jesus Christ not a private comfort zone of our own making or a quick compromise with contemporary trends.

Faith in Jesus Christ opens us out beyond human horizons.  It offers a yearning for knowledge, but also a yearning for goodness, truth and love which changes people.  When faith leads to conformism it has betrayed the very nature of faith.  Conformism falsely feels that it has attained certainty.  Faith is always a leap into the unknown and a challenge to go beyond our own limits and beyond our own narrow certainties and the distorted understanding that comes from them.   Without faith our true self can so easily be undermined by human deception.

Looking at the light of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ is contemplation.   Without that sense of self-forgetfulness that comes from contemplation we run the risk, as Archbishop Williams says, “of trying to sustain faith on the basis of an un-transformed set of human habits – with the all too familiar result that the Church comes to look unhappily like so many purely human institutions, anxious, busy, competitive and controlling”.

Anxious, busy, competitive and controlling!  This brings me to some reflections on words of Pope Francis. As yet we have no great collection so his thoughts.  His manner of presenting himself and his ministry is not one which has up to now been marked by lengthy, scholarly academic discussions.  His vocabulary is simply and he tends to come back to some of the same words which express his sentiments.   When on Holy Thursday he washed the feet of young prisoners in a Roman detention centre his homily was simply of ten lines.

One of the most interesting and indicative comment was that made at the congregation of the Cardinals just before the Conclave reflecting on the role of the new Pope and on the future of the Church.  It was a single handwritten page.  The dominant word was la periferia:  “the outskirts”.    He said simply that the Church is called boldly to come out of herself and go towards the outskirts, not only of place but also to the outskirts of our existence; those of the mystery of sin, those of suffering, of ignorance; the outskirts of indifference to religion of thought and of all wretchedness.  And he added when the Church does not come out of herself to evangelise she becomes auto-referential and so shuts herself in.  “The evils which as time passes afflict ecclesial institutions are rooted in self-reference, a sort of theological narcissism”. I spoke earlier of how things were to be done as they had always been done.  One key to understanding the mismanagement of the recent child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church is precisely what happens when a Church becomes auto-referential.

Pope Francis notes that we at times feel that the failures in our evangelising efforts are due to the fact that so many in today’s world do not hear the call of Jesus; that when Jesus knocks on our doors we do not let him in.  The Pope counters that by adding:  “we also fail at times when Jesus knocks from within and we do not let him out.  The self referential Church keeps Jesus within her and does not let him out  A self referential Church believes that she is her own light and stops being a witness to the [true light]”.

Today our societies have radically changed.  The pace of social, scientific and political change is increasing.  This means on one side that risk is today part and parcel of the way we live and the range of choices that are open to us.  It may also mean that in the face of the rapidity and uncertainty of change we may become fearful in new ways and reject the risk that is necessary to really hope and to translate our hope into a meaning reality in our lives.

Bringing the message of Jesus Christ to the outskirts of our society inevitably involves – to use another key word of Pope Francis’s thought – breaking out.  It involves breaking out from ourselves to follow Christ, breaking out from a tired faith based on pure habit and breaking out from being imprisoned in our own dissatisfactions and frustrations which only impede the creative action of God working in and through us.

Faith frees.  Faith liberates. Preoccupation with ourselves alone enslaves.  A  Church which is not riddled through and through with real and enthusiastic commitment to Jesus Christ will be an empty self-serving, self-referential organization to which no one will be attracted.

Vatican Ii asked many of the right questions regarding the signs of the times for fifty years ago.  We need today to search for the signs of the times in our days, not just the signs of our contemporary culture, but above all the signs of God’s presence and his call to us, so that the freshness of his message can break out and flourish anew in our Church and in our society.

Further information: Annette O’Donnell 087 8143462