The True Spirit of Vatican II | Douglas G. Bushman, S.T.L. | Catholic World Report
The main desire of the Council was to reinvigorate the Church’s mission of promoting a fully human life in Jesus Christ.
As far as I know, no participant in the Second Vatican Council summed up its goals or described its spirit as addressing the question whether God’s truth and love are effective, that is, whether they have the power to steer men on a course conforming to their dignity. Nevertheless, the overarching question that the Council did address leads to this question. For the Council Fathers the question was: “Ecclesia, quid dicis de te ipsa? Church, what do you say about yourself?” The context of the question is determinative of the Council’s pastoral nature. The concern was not to produce a technical treatise of ecclesiology, but to respond to the spreading perception that the Church is no longer relevant, that it has nothing to offer to a humanity that has taken its future and the aspiration for a better world into its own hands.
Why the Council?
Just a few years after upheaval of World War II, with the Cold War coming to a head in the Cuban Missile Crisis, with historic revolutions taking place in technology, science, politics, economics, and culture, the Church found herself in a position similar to that of John the Baptist. He lived differently than his contemporaries, putting God first in every way, and he spoke with the authority of a prophet. He did this in the name of fidelity to the God who called him and fidelity to the vocation that God entrusted to him. He had a message, a lifestyle went with it, and a baptism of repentance that attracted great crowds. He could not be ignored. Everything about him provoked the question: “Quid dicis de te ipso? What do you say about yourself?” (Jn 1:22).
This is precisely the question put to the Church at the time of Vatican II: Can you give an account of yourself, of your convictions and values and way of life, at a time when these are increasingly at odds with the surrounding culture and increasingly treated as irrelevant?
Could a Church that was so old, that had been there all along the way and evidently did not prevent the unprecedented assaults on human dignity of the twentieth century, make a credible case that it has something positive to offer? If, in looking to the past, this Church must acknowledge that its own members contributed to division among Christians and to a defensive, even hostile stance in relation to science and the modern democratic states, can this Church dare to say that it is not only not part of the problem but has a solution to offer? Is it not audacious for this Church, and thus contrary to the humility that it professes, to say to the world, in the words of Pope Paul VI: “I have that for which you search, that which you lack” (Ecclesiam Suam, 95)?
The Church’s response to the crisis of humanity as it manifested itself in the middle of the twentieth century parallels what John’s Gospel says about the Baptist: “He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light. The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world” (Jn 1:7-9). The first words of the Council’s central document on the Church begin with this theme.
Christ is the Light of nations. Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church (Lumen gentium, 1).The Church’s mission is to point to Christ. She does this most effectively by reflecting His eternal light, and that light shines especially conspicuously in times of darkness. In his encyclical convoking the Council, Humanae salutis, Pope John XXIII envisioned that the Council would result in “vivifying the temporal order with the light of Christ.” The brutalities of the twentieth century had demonstrated what can happen in the name of progress and development that deliberately exclude any reference to God and set themselves against the Church. This could only constitute an urgent call for the Church, who knows when men do not acknowledge God neither are they able to acknowledge human dignity or set any limits to their own power and action. What was needed was a counter-demonstration.
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