OU' RE ABSOLUTELY
right, that's exactly what Pope John wanted to do. When one of the Cardinals heard that he was going to call a Second Vatican Council, when he should have been making his will and saying his prayers, he said: "Surely, Holy Father, it's too soon." To which he replied: "I was beginning to think it was too late." When the same cardinal asked why he was calling such a council, Pope John opened a window and said: "To let some fresh air into the room."
Contemporary commentators interpreted this fresh air as nothing other than the breath of God's own spirit, who drew life out of chaos at the beginning of time and breathed life into a new Church at the first Pentecost. When the Pope made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, those same commentators interpreted his visit as a profound symbolic action that summed up all he aimed to do in the council that few of his close advisers in the Roman Curia thought necessary.
The renewal that would be introduced by the council would involve stepping over almost two thousand years of complexity in order to return to the simplicity of the early Christian Church inspired by the gospels. Here the principles of Christian theology, liturgy and spirituality would be gleaned afresh in all their primitive purity, then adapted to the needs of the Church of the twentieth century. Thanks to the many great biblical theologians and liturgists whose master works preceded the council, it was in itself a great success, but it never had the deep and lasting effect on the Church that Pope John must have originally hoped for.
I WAS A STUDENT shortly before the Council, as ignorant of what came to be called the "new theology" as the professors who taught me. Suddenly everything changed when two fellow students, both Cambridge graduates, returned from their holidays on the Continent. One came back from Germany, the other from France. They were brimming over with enthusiasm for the exciting new theology that had inspired them and with which they began to inspire us.
We devoured book after book of the new exhilarating theology, leaving what was called "swot week" at the end of term to cram in the contents of the boring old Latin text books to pass our exams and satisfy the professors. They, for their part, were not only ignorant of, but actively opposed to, what set us all afire. The open warfare that divided the students from the ill-informed professors continued after ordination as the young priests found themselves isolated in religious houses or presbyteries where there was little sympathy, if not open hostility, to their ideas and ideals that had in fact been canonised by the council. Despite their ignorance, their seniors and their superiors were nevertheless forced to implement them.
IN OBEDIENCE they reluctantly did as they were told, but as they themselves did not understand the theology behind the changes and as they were unwilling to allow the younger priests who did to explain it,the laity were left confused and the young priests themselves frustrated. I remember feeling utterly frustrated myself when our parish priest stood up to introduce the new changes with the words: All you have to do is to learn to become a jack-in-the-box, jumping up and down as the new rubrics tell you." You may well remember him and that particular sermon, because he was your parish priest too at the time and the chaplain of your junior school. Now I know where you got some of your strange ideas! No reason for anything was given because they were not known or, if they were, they were not understood. Through ignorance rather than malice the majority of priests of the older generation dug in their heels. The laity became ever more confused and began to vote with their feet like so many of the younger clergy who became more and more frustrated and therefore vulnerable. Sadly the voting has gone on and on so that there are today even less practising Catholics than Anglicans and fewer priests to serve them since long before the war.
I'm not writing this to try to apportion blame, but to by to pinpoint the problem that has prevented the vision and the hope of Pope John being realised as deeply as many would have hoped. Monsignor Ronald Knox once said, "the more clearly you are able to pinpoint the problem the more clearly you are able to see the solution".
I know the end of the second millennium and the beginning of the third is a purely an artificial and even inaccurate date in Christian chronology, but it can be an important symbolic moment. It could herald a new departure, for all who wish, to be reenkindled with the Spirit of Christ, who transformed the first Christians at the beginning of the first millennium.