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Continuing the work of Vatican II

12 October 2012

THE Roman Catholic Church is currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council, in October 1962; but the 47 years since its close have been riven with controversy about its application. Has the Roman Catholic Church gone far enough in pursuing the spirit of openness that was experienced in Rome during the Council's three years of debate? Or does the cultural and social revolution since the mid-'60s require an approach more deeply rooted in the certainties of the past? The former is the question asked by most lay Roman Catholics, and, indeed, most in the hierarchy, when talking in general terms; the latter question tends to be expressed when it comes to putting any reforms into practice.

The vernacular liturgy is the most obvious change brought about by the Council, but more significant, perhaps, has been a thorough change of attitude. Interviewed in The Tablet, Fr Ladislas Orsy, a consultant theologian serving in Rome at the time, talks about the "miracle" of Vatican II. Three thousand bishops and cardinals, mostly elderly, directed by a Pope who was very elderly, manifested the Holy Spirit through, first, bolshiness, and, second, collegiality. It is this spirit of edginess and to­gether­ness that has kept the flame of reform alive through the ensuing years, despite the periods when it has been starved of oxygen.

The Irish journalist Mary Kenny has written that Vatican II gave her contemporaries "a new permission to be friendly with Protestants". Evidence of this took its time to appear in Irish politics, but, over the years, and around the globe, the outworkings of Unitatis Redintegratio have advanced ecumenical endeavour. The latest fruit was the invitation from Pope Benedict XVI to Dr Williams to address the Synod of Bishops in Rome, marking the anniversary of Vatican II with a debate about "the new evangelization for the transmission of the Christian faith".

It is tempting to concentrate on the significance of the invitation, but it is Dr Williams's words that require our attention. He used the opportunity to speak about "spiritual ecumenism", not as a conscious goal in itself, but as a natural outcome of seeking the unveiled face of God's image. "In so far as the habit of contemplation helps us approach all experience as gift, we shall always be asking what it is that the brother or sister has to share with us - even the brother or sister who is in one way or another separated from us or from what we suppose to be the fullness of communion." In a judicious contribution to the Synod's thinking, and speaking from his Anglican experience, he warned that, without this expectation of learning, and without the disciplines of self-forgetfulness, the Church succumbs to the fate of purely human institutions: "anxious, busy, competitive, and controlling". Anxiety about reform in the Roman Catholic Church, too much or too little, will drop away, he suggests, if the object of all is to become a new humanity in communion with God.

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