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Grateful remembrance of Vatican Council II.

Participating at Vatican Council II as a peritus of the Secretariat of Christian Unity was the most exciting and liberating experience of my life. I witnessed how the Church's magisterium, eager to make the gospel relevant for today's world, became willing to update its official teaching. On several issues the magisterium now affirmed what it had previously rejected. It now recognized "dissident" Christians as living members of Christ's mystical body; it praised the ecumenical movement as the work of the Holy Spirit; it acknowledged the ongoing validity of God's covenant with the house of Israel; and it expressed respect for the world religions, recognizing in them an echo of the Word that was fully revealed in Jesus Christ. The council acknowledged the creativity of the regional churches, the priesthood of the baptized, and the collegiality of the bishops with and under the pope. Reappropriating an ancient patristic theme, the council recognized the presence of the Word and the action of the Spirit in the whole of human history, summoning forth faith, hope, and love in people's hearts and making them yearn for freedom, justice, and universal solidarity.

My Activity at the Council

After my studies at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, I returned to Canada in 1959. A year later I received a letter signed by Pope John XXIII appointing me as peritus at the Secretariat for Christian Unity. I was totally amazed; I was also happy and grateful. My dissertation on an ecumenical topic, later published as a book, had attracted the attention of Cardinal Augustin Bea, the chair of the Secretariat, and his assistant, Monsignor Johannes Willebrands. They chose me to work with them, because in those days Catholic theologians familiar with the ecumenical movement were few in number.

My work at the Secretariat before and during the Vatican Council was an exciting activity, a spiritual experience, a theological adventure, an unmerited privilege, and an unforgettable time of intense living. The Secretariat was responsible for composing three draft documents to be submitted to the council: on ecumenism, on religious liberty, and on the Church's relation to the Jews and to the world religions. These were among the most controversial topics at the council.

As I am writing these lines, I remember the first meeting of the Secretariat in November, 1960, at which Bea impressed upon us the importance of convincing the bishops of the Church's new openness. In order to reach them, he urged the members of the Secretariat, upon returning to their own countries, to publish articles, give lectures, write to newspapers, and speak on radio and television about the new Catholic approach to religious pluralism. If we have an impact on public opinion in the Church, the cardinal said, the bishops will listen. He himself would give public lectures and publish them in the review La documentation catholique. We could use these speeches, he said, as an umbrella when attacked as unorthodox by conservative Catholics.

At the end of this first meeting, Bea announced that he just had a conversation with John XXIII, at which the pope asked the Secretariat to prepare a draft document on the Church's relation to Jews and Judaism. Many years later I found out that John XXIII had been visited by Jules Isaac, a well-known French scholar, a Jew whose wife and daughter had been deported to the death camps, who was the author of several books on the anti-Jewish rhetoric that was part of the Church's proclamation. Isaac was sad but not bitter. With his Christian and Jewish friends, he founded the center l'amitie judeo-chretiene to promote dialogue and mutual respect among Christians and Jews. When Isaac visited John XXIII in 1960, the pope promised him that the council would redefine the Church's relationship to Judaism. Bea did not give us this background information. He only asked us to give him the names of Catholic theologians familiar with this issue whom he might appoint as periti. After the meeting I told the cardinal that I had just written The Jews and the Gospel, a book that dealt with the Church's anti-Jewish rhetoric and its tragic cultural consequences. I also mentioned the great work of John Oesterreicher, who would soon be appointed as a peritus.

My presence at the council was an ecstatic experience. Living at the monastery at the Irish Augustinian parish San Patricio, I would get up very early in the morning, pray the hours, meditate, and say mass with the small community. Then I would go to the meeting of the council at St. Peter's, take notes, and talk with colleagues and bishops; at noon I would attend the American press conference that explained to the journalists what was discussed in the session that morning; in the afternoon I would work at the Secretariat, taking part in committees, reviewing documents, meeting with the Protestant and Orthodox Observers, or writing a report for Commonweal; in the evening I would have supper with theologians and bishops, passionately discussing the imperatives of the gospel in today's world. Often, I returned to the rectory after midnight. I was young at the time and did not need much sleep. We were totally immersed in the issues of the council and grateful that God's Word continued to address the believing community. We felt that the Church and all of us were visited by the Holy Spirit, initiating a turning point in the Church's history, and summoning forth the renewal of Catholicism that would have a healing and reconciling impact on the world.

Dialogue in the Church

I will make a few remarks on two theological themes that emerged at Vatican II. The first is the creative power of dialogue. The bishops were open to one another, expressed what the gospel meant to them in their situations, listened to others who lived in different circumstances, and paid attention to the ideas of theologians and the voice of the Catholic people. This intra-ecclesial dialogue produced new insights, a deepening of faith, and innovative pastoral policies. Dialogue was for the bishops the experiential verification of the conciliar teaching that the Holy Spirit guides the Church through all its members, not only through ordained ministers. At the council the bishops and Paul VI himself were impressed by the spiritual fecundity produced by trustful conversation within the believing community.

Since Paul VI recognized dialogue among the bishops and the believing community as the source of the Church's conciliar renewal, he decided to write the encyclical Ecclesiam suam, published during the council in 1964, (1) on the pastoral importance of dialogue--dialogue with the world, dialogue with the separated churches, and dialogue within the Catholic community. The pope himself wanted to be in dialogue with the Church. This is what he wrote:
   How greatly we desire that this dialogue with Our own children may
   be conducted with the fullness of faith, with charity, and with
   dynamic holiness. May it be of frequent occurrence and on an
   intimate level. May it be open and responsive to all truth, every
   virtue, every spiritual value that goes to make us the heritage of
   Christian teaching. We want it to be sincere. We want it to be an
   inspiration to genuine holiness. We want it to show itself ready to
   listen to the variety of views which are expressed in the world
   today. We want it to be the sort of dialogue that will make
   Catholics virtuous, wise, unfettered, fair-minded and strong, (no.

Paul VI promised that dialogue would become the Church's policy ad intra and ad extra. Popes and bishops would keep their authority, and the Catholic people would obey them, Paul VI wrote, but their authority would be practiced in the spirit of dialogue.

Paul's enthusiasm for dialogue did not last. In 1968 he published the encyclical Humanae vitae (2) on sexual ethics without consulting the bishops and without attending to the insights of Catholics based on their sexual experience. In the May, 1989, motu propria, Ad tuendam fidem, (3) John Paul II demanded strict obedience to papal teaching, and on June 29, 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith obliged the bishops and all ecclesiastical ministers to take a solemn oath promising to agree with papal teaching, thus outlawing dialogue even on the highest level. Pope Francis, elected on March 13, 2013, returning to the spirit of Vatican II, has renewed the emphasis on dialogue in a remarkable way: dialogue within the Church and the Church's dialogue with the world. To prepare for the World Synod of Bishops in October, 2014, Francis has asked the bishops to consult the faithful as widely as possible--a first in the history of Catholicism.

God's Redemptive Presence in History

The second theme is that some people have criticized the council because it dealt with issues of Church and world and said nothing about God at the time when believers were challenged by the secular culture. I have already hinted that a careful reading of the conciliar documents offers an image of God that is more wonderful, more loving, and more compassionate than any image of God found in traditional piety. Passages in various conciliar documents profess that, in Jesus Christ, God has embraced all humanity, that God's Word resounds in the whole of history, and that the Spirit is at work in all people's lives, summoning forth love of neighbor and holy action so that "God's will be done on earth." In the past, the Church was for us the community of salvation in the darkness of the unredeemed world, the Arc of Noah floating on the waters of perdition. We used to say, "Extra ecclesiam nulla salus." Traditional piety drew a line between believers and nonbelievers, preventing us from seeing God's gifts of grace among outsiders and from hearing Christ's summons of universal solidarity. The world is indeed steeped in sin, a place of wars, genocides, oppression, and exploitation, where the powerful triumph over the weak, yet people continue to be addressed by God, enabling them to trust, hope, and love and to become servants of God's reign. The image of God that emerged at the council has greatly transformed our perception of the world in faith.

We presently live at a wintery time in the Church--to cite an expression used by Karl Rahner--yet the council remains our guide. It cannot be silenced; its message remains relevant. John Paul II called it the compass guiding the Church in the twenty-first century. We live in a society of encounter, stated Pope Francis, convinced that every person has a truth that deserves to be listened to.

(1) Available at

(2) Available at vitae_en.html.

(3) Available at motu-proprio_30061998_ad-tuendam-fidem_en.html.
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Author:Baum, Gregory
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Conference notes
Geographic Code:4EXVA
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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