Back in the 1940’s and 50’s, bishops, priests and theologians were for the most part very relaxed about the Church. Most of them thought that everything was just fine and they never dreamed that an explosive development was coming down the pike that would be known in history as the Second Vatican Council.
However, there had been certain glimmers of approaching change and they first began to appear in the liturgical life of the Church. In the Western Church, everything was in Latin, not just the Mass and the Sacraments, but it was the working language of the Church. It was really a good thing for people who traveled a great deal. If you were a Frenchman attending Mass in the Congo, you were right at home with the Latin, but for most of the faithful the Latin language served as background music. They understood nothing but found it comforting.
Pope Pius XII had worked hard to encourage theologians to go back to the scriptures and he unleashed a very strong surge of dramatically improved scripture studies. Scripture would soon be overlapping in the world of liturgy and question began to be asked about certain things that might be accented too much or not enough.
Liturgists began to organize, liturgical and scripture scholars began to communicate more effectively, and suddenly there came to be a sense that not all was well in the inner-life of the Church.
In 1958 a wonderful, fulsome, Italian bishop from the Alps was elected to the Chair of Peter and he took the delightful name of Pope John XXIII.
He had been listening to that questioning and wondering himself about the need for updating the inner-life of the Church and then finally he did it. He called for a meeting of all the bishops of the world to come together under the dome of St. Peter’s and to pray, study, test, debate and decide on how the Church could more effectively move forward. In calling the Council, it generated an explosion of excitement and hope. The bishops answered his summons and met for several months a year for four years. Needless to say, the first issue that they took up was the sacred liturgy and they published an extraordinary document that would have awesome repercussions around the world.
Let’s take a look at that subject tomorrow.
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The Second Vatican Council is now a half century behind us. Pope John XXIII’s calling of the leaders of the Universal Church into session was an extraordinary historical event and opened not only windows for fresh air, but doors for improved communication and solidarity with the larger world. As is so often the case when sudden changes occur, there has been resistance and opposition. Today, we are seeing under the leadership of Pope Francis that we are going to reach back to the Second Vatican Council and hopefully move it towards achieving its original purpose.
When people think of the Council they think of changing from Latin to the vernacular, the celebrant facing the people at Mass, the restoration of the diaconate and the use of lay lectors in the liturgy. These were all good things but they are really minor issues around the edge of the life of the Church. The true purpose of the Council was to achieve a vision of collegiality. It was the central ecclesial theme to emerge from Vatican II, namely that everyone who is baptized and confirmed shares in some sense with the spreading of the Gospel.
Happily, the geography of the pope’s new cardinalatial appointments tells us a great deal not only about our Holy Father, but changes in the Church itself. You don’t hear much about it in the United States, but the Church in Asia has done extraordinary things in attempting to fulfill that dream and vision and the appointment of Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato in the Philippines is a wonderful example of that.
As I mentioned the other day that Haiti, little Haiti, now has a dynamic young cardinal and we see in the person of Quevedo a new leader in the Church who will bring the Asian experience to the fore. All of this reflects that the domination of the Church by Europe, which has been so overwhelming for centuries, is beginning to recede. Given the fact that the European Church has grown so weak over the last fifty years, it is a good thing to see vision and leadership shifting to other parts of the planet.
When these 19 archbishops or bishops were appointed Pope Francis wrote each of them a personal letter the next day telling them very clearly, “The cardinalship does not imply a promotion. It is neither an honor nor a decoration.” He then asked the new appointees to not hold lavish celebrations before they officially become cardinals in a Vatican ceremony on February 22nd. Being a cardinal, Francis said, “is simply a service that requires you to broaden your gaze and open your hearts.” Of the 19 new cardinals only four come from the Vatican and only one is an Italian. The majority of the rest are from the Southern Hemisphere. It is startling, exciting and encouraging.
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In the world of economics, there has always been a principal called “The Law of Diminishing Returns.” It describes a situation where when you have something that is good you should be happy about it. However, if you keep adding the same thing, the value diminishes. It is good for a person to have a good pair of shoes or a suit. That is truly a blessing. However, when you get the second suit and the second pair of shoes, it is still a good thing but it isn’t as valuable as that first pair. Imelda Marcos, wife of the former president of the Philippines, was a good example of that. She got herself down to 3,000 pairs of shoes!
There was a tiny trace of that from last week’s excerpt from the 6th chapter of Acts of Apostles. The Church had a problem. It was really a wonderful problem. The Church was growing rapidly and suddenly there appeared some rough edges. We need to remember that because there are so many rough edges in the Church today that we have to remind ourselves from time to time that they were there in the first generation as well. They have always been there and they always will.
In Acts we saw rapid growth of the faith community. People were coming in in droves because of their newfound faith in Jesus of Nazareth. Very soon the problem of language appeared. The community was divided by language. Some spoke Greek and some spoke Hebrew. With two languages, communication became more difficult and misunderstandings arose. Then we saw that the Christians realized that they needed some type of organizational structure. Not everyone agrees that their common positions are being divided equally. A little conflict!
Who is going to be in charge? Who is going to do the work? They decide to commission and chose seven men and commissioned them with responsibilities to handle the logistical problems of this infant church. So you have a rapid increase in numbers, two languages, new job descriptions and a certain amount of tension. Does that remind you of anything?
It may be that when the Hebrews speakers and the Greek speakers began to have problems that the Church decided to switch to Latin!
The important message that we should draw from this reading is that from the very first day the essence of the Church was present and functioning. The followers of Jesus were formed into a community of faith, faith in Jesus Christ and faith in his continued presence among them. The Eucharist would make them one with Jesus and one with each other.
These heroic believers did not know what was ahead for them.
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