“Let God surprise us”
On Tuesday, 8 December, the Catholic Church will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. Tuesday coincides with the important Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and also with the opening of the Jubilee Year of Mercy called for by Pope Francis. During last week’s Winter General Meeting of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Maynooth, bishops recalled with gratitude this great event of the Spirit that still guides the Church in the modern world. As a student in Rome, one of the members of the Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Michael Smith, Bishop of Meath, was a secretary at the Council. His memories of the Council have enriched many.
First and foremost bishops express gratitude to God for the Council. Through God’s grace, we live in this moment of history marked by the largest Council in history, the Council that saw the great Irish layman, Frank Duff, receive a standing ovation.
A Council is an event that begins and then journeys. We in Ireland can be grateful for what it opened up for us in the past fifty years: new ways of participation in liturgy; new attention to catechesis; new initiatives in Ecumenism leading, for instance, to the Inter-Church Meeting; the establishment of new realities such as Trócaire, the overseas development agency of the Irish Catholic Church; Mater Dei Institute of Education; the opening of the Catholic Communications Office; the broadcasting of Radharc, the social justice award-winning television series; the Liturgy Centre; new youth initiatives; new pastoral outreach; marriage and family agencies, new movements and communities. We can think also of pastoral letters published by the Irish bishops for the benefit of the faithful such as The Work of Justice (1977).
As well as giving thanks, marking fifty years since the conclusion of the Council is also a time to review. How has the Council been received in Ireland? While grateful for many new initiatives, we are all aware of limits and challenges. Some of those on fire with the excitement of the Council have passed away or grown elderly. Today the Church faces new problems unforeseen by Irish bishops in the 1960s. We need to review but without becoming prophets of doom. Rather our task now is to discern what the Spirit today is saying to the churches. What matters is that we be attentive to the Spirit who comes to our aid today to interpret and review. If the Council was an event of the Spirit, it is the same Spirit who helps us interpret accurately the Spirit of the Council. To help us tune into what the Spirit is saying, we have been helped by the wonderful encyclical of Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) which was published in 2013.
We realise today that there is a need to go deeper in taking on board what the Council was about, in particular regarding the “secular” dimension of the Church’s Good News.
Here we can recall the gift of Saint Pope John Paul II’s apostolic pilgrimage to Ireland in 1979 which helped us realise again, more deeply, the vocation of all the baptised. In underlining the important role of the responsibility of lay people in protecting and promoting family life, he also commented:
“It is their specific vocation and mission to express the Gospel in their lives and thereby to insert the Gospel as a leaven into the reality of the world in which they live and work. The great forces which shape the world – politics, the mass media, science, technology, culture, education, industry and work – are precisely the areas where lay people are especially competent to exercise their mission. If these forces are guided by people who are true disciples of Christ, and who are, at the same time, fully competent in the relevant secular knowledge and skill, then indeed will the world be transformed from within by Christ’s redeeming power.”
Bishops also see the fiftieth anniversary celebration as a time to recommit ourselves to renewal. We know there is something of an ‘ex-culturation’ going on in Ireland, a distancing from the Christian culture or, at least, from the institutional forms of the Church that generated and nourished our culture for centuries. The Second Vatican Council prepared us for that challenge by offering new perspectives on how to be the Church in the modern world. It is the renewal we all need to rediscover.
Jubilee Year of Mercy 2015 – 2016
Bishops repeat the words of Pope Francis that we should not be robbed of hope and vigour. The Spirit who prompted the Council comes to our aid. The celebration of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council coincides with the opening of the Jubilee Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis. It is a time to take fresh hope that, in God’s mercy, we will be able to do our part in bringing forward what the Spirit opened up for the Church fifty years ago in an event that still provides us with a compass to guide our journey. As we mark the fiftieth anniversary, let us lift up our hearts in gratitude, review and renewal, heeding the invitation of Pope Francis to “let God surprise us”.
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678