Last week, Fr. Robert Barron, rector of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary and author of the “Catholicism” series presented the 2012 Pallium Lecture at the Cousins Center, speaking principally about the new evangelization. As we are poised to begin the Year of Faith and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, I was particularly attuned to what he had to say about these things.
Fr. Barron likened the church to Noah’s ark; after the waters receded from the earth, Noah opened up the ship to let the new life out, to go forth and replenish the world. Similarly, Pope John XXIII ardently desired to open up the church to the modern age, so that the saving life and grace of Christ could shine forth in a more effective way.
The renewal of the church was to only serve the greater mission of “Christifying the world,” as Fr. Barron put it. Vatican II was a missionary council, answering the question: How can the church be more fully herself in service to the mission of proclaiming the Good News of Christ, crucified and risen?
I remember asking my mother once what impact Vatican II had had upon her life and her faith. As a person who loved Jesus and his church deeply, my mother replied that the council had helped move her to take a more active role in the Eucharist, in the life of her parish, in learning about the Bible, in giving witness to Jesus. This call to the laity to renew their faith, to live their baptismal consecration, to move from being observers to actors, in the church and the world, is one of the great fruits of Vatican II. Summarized as the universal call to holiness, this renewal of the laity has energized the mission of the church to sanctify the world and to preach the Gospel.
The Second Vatican Council moved the church from a defensive posture of reaction to the challenging events of the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, two World Wars, the rise of Nazism and atheistic communism to a proactive openness to what was true and good in modernity. The goal of this dialogue was to transform the world and to renew the church. To be honest, however, at times and in some ways since Vatican II, it seems that modernity secularized the church who subsequently lost confidence in the truth of her Gospel message.
The current focus on evangelization, certainly present in the council documents, profoundly articulated in “Evangelii Nuntiandi,” Pope Paul VI’s letter on the subject, recurrent in the writings and speeches of Pope John Paul II and brought front and center by Pope Benedict XVI, who has created a Vatican office dedicated to the new evangelization and will host a world Synod of Bishops in Rome next month addressing the topic, takes us back to the freshness of Pentecost morning when the Holy Spirit stirred up the first followers of Jesus to go forth and proclaim the risen Christ as the new meaning of human existence.
We can no longer depend on a culture that is sympathetic to belief in general nor rely on a Catholic subculture that just carried us along on a social tide of religiosity. In a real sense, our culture compels us to choose to practice our Catholic faith, to intentionally give witness to Christ, to act and speak in ways that may bring misunderstanding and even ridicule from those around us. We can no longer afford to be “institutional” Catholics who just “pray, pay and obey,” as the saying goes.
I would argue that this current state of affairs is not all a bad thing. While the drop in Mass attendance, the crisis of vocations to religious life, priesthood and even lay ministry, the struggle to grow our Catholic schools and the clergy abuse crisis remain disturbing realities, there is a new spirit rising within the church. I remain so impressed with thousands of young people who are on fire with love for Christ and have embraced with zeal various vocations within the Body of Christ.
I sense a great thirst for formation, prayer and service in the lives of many Catholics, a longing for authentic encounters with Christ in the context of a believing community. A deep conviction is growing in many Catholic hearts that it cannot be business as usual for us, that we have a mission to live and proclaim Jesus and we must find new ways to do this work of Christian witness, if the church is to thrive and grow.
In many ways, we find ourselves in exactly the same position as the early believers did on Pentecost morning. On fire with the Holy Spirit, the Lord compels us to unlock the door of the Upper Room and go into the whole world to proclaim Christ, beginning with the people who are right on the other side of that closed door.