IT IS just a quarter of a century since the first session of the second Vatican Council. What are our thoughts now, if any, when a whole generation of Catholics has grown up since John XXIII made his momentus pronouncement that this event would occur?
Surviving enthusiasm is mixed in some circles with cynicism. But it is good to recall that enthusiasm and cynicism were the conflicting emotions which accompanied the sittings of the Council in its very first months, even among some of the Council fathers.
In fact the great Council, the first for years and designed to finish the uncompleted work of its troubled predecessor, gave few signs in that far off first session of becoming tire "milestone" that some, including Pope John VI, confidently asserted that it was certain to be.
Let us remember some words of its actual convenor, however, the good Pope John. The object of the Council, he said, was "to restore the simple and pure lines which the face of Jesus' Church wore at its birth." If it could actually do this, it would produce nothing short of a revolution.
The future Pope Paul, then Archbishop of Milan, was characteristically more cautious. He said that the Council would throw "light upon those places and institutions where men are working for the union of peoples, for the welfare of the poor, for progress, for justice and liberty."
But would the Council's declarations amount to a morally binding programme? or had the bishops of the Catholic world come together merely to philosophise? The first session suggested, to some, that the letter was nearer to the truth. No decrees were promulgated and much time was spent on general argument and disputes over procedure.
One event did, however, occur which, by very dint of its being received with some cynicism at the time, has heightened the dramatic impact it turned out to have, insignificant as it may have seemed to some at the time. There was an awareness that Pope John wanted to mark some special honour for St Joseph, but there was, if not actual opposition to this, at least a rather arrogant indifference to the idea among some of the conciliar fathers.
The Pope's response was to insert St Joseph's name into the Canon of the Mass, a move which indicated to some a rather superficial approach to reform along lines familiar with many centuries of mer tinkering around with rubrics.
But the Pope's move was intended to be very much more than this, and it was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm by the faithful at large. It produced a new respect for Pope John, who was working very hard behind the scenes to assess the mood of the Council; and we now know that much important groundwork was laid during that allegedly uneventful first session 25 years ago.
Today, May 1, is a good day to remember it all with gratitude not least the apparently trivial matter of the insertion of the name of Our Lord's foster father into the canon — subsequently to be known as the eucharistic prayer — of the Mass.
For John had a very special devotion to St Joseph and was aware of the motives of Pope Pius in designating May 1 the feast of St Joseph of the Worker. The new feast came on the first day of a month dedicated to the spouse of Joseph. Our Blessed Mother, particularly beloved by Pope Pius under the title of Queen of Peace.
An honest approach to work and an earnest desire for peace have this become, for Catholics, the twin theme for this month of May, during which devotion to Joseph and Mary take on a special and more urgent meaning. The first lesson they bring to mind is the importance of the united and sensibly loving family as the cornerstone of peaceful community life. Even those who were rebels in the sixties now ruefully realise, and openly admit, for reasons not connected in any way with religion or moralising, that the throwing over of ancient values connected with family life has brought untold harm to the community at large.
In Northern Ireland, where devotion to Mary is still very impressive, the last weeks have seen a series of escalating horror for which even the evils of the last 18 years have not fully prepared us. It has been said by divines of the past that evil cannot long thrive in a truly peace-loving country and one which believes in working for God at all times, whatever the nature of one's actual employment.
Those lucky enough to be employed have the chance to put this principle into practice. Those cursed with lack of work deserve greater sympathy from their fellow citizens and many more imaginative ideas, coming from self, community or state — or even (why not?) from the Church — for turning lack of normal employment into some means for giving glory to God by constructive activity.
Easier said than done, it must be admitted. But the feast of St Joseph the Workman need not be allowed to pass with special prayers by all members of the Christian fraternity that work and peace will be seen as priceless means for bringing back dignity to the human being, and that the gesture of Pope John XXIII during the first session of the Vatican Council was not meant to be a mere cosmetic operation.