If the Holy Spirit was to manifest before you today to say, “I have a gift for you,” how would you respond?
Is there any chance you’d say, “Sounds great, but that’s probably not for me?” Of course not! Yet that’s exactly what most Catholics have unwittingly been doing for the last four decades or so.
Pope John Paul II called the Second Vatican Council “the Spirit’s gift to the Church.”
Pope Benedict XVI has said that “the true inheritance of the Council,” the gift of which his predecessor spoke so often, “lies in the Council documents.
The Spirit’s gift; the Council documents…
In spite of the numerous times that these themes have recurred in the exhortations of the Holy Fathers over the last forty plus years, the “gift” has largely been left unopened as very few Catholics can say they’ve actually read any one of the sixteen Council documents from beginning to end. Far fewer still have ever taken the time to explore them more deliberately by the light of sacred Tradition. This is true even among Catholics who routinely read spiritual works and willingly participate in adult faith formation programs in their parishes.
Now this isn’t to say that Catholics are largely uninterested in Vatican II; indeed the opposite is true. Catholics are very interested in discovering the truth about the Council’s teachings; the fact that you’re reading this column right now is evidence enough.
So what exactly is going on here.
Well, I’ve had the great privilege of discussing Vatican II with countless individuals over the last five years or so — from ordinary laypeople to priests, from catechists to cardinals — and I’ve personally come face-to-face with some of the fears and assumptions that serve as an obstacle that stands between the People of God and the treasures of faith contained in the documents of the Council.
In spite of their sincere desire to know what the Council Fathers truly taught, even some of the most well catechized Catholics admit to feeling somewhat intimidated by the prospect of exploring the Council documents directly. Those in charge of adult religious education often misread this sense of apprehension and assume that very few people if any in the parish are truly interested in exploring the conciliar decrees. As a result, parishes rarely invite the faithful to participate in programs designed to assist in the effort.
This situation has been so prevalent for so long, there are actually very few faith formation programs like “Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II ” (available for those educators who are actively seeking them. In fact, I personally know of no others.
So how did we get to this point?
Let’s be honest; it’s not exactly a secret that many of our priests and bishops don’t even seem to agree on what the Council Fathers truly taught and intended. Toss in the fact that the secular media has a fondness for airing opinions that run contrary to that of the Church’s authentic voice; that of the Pope and those bishops who teach in union with him, and it’s not surprising that laypeople often draw the conclusion, “Heck, if our clergy can’t even agree on what the Council taught, what chance do I have of understanding it?”
While it may seem logical to assume that the documents of the Council are terribly complex, nothing could be further from the truth.
The very mission of the Council was to present the sacred deposit of faith in ways that modern men and women, read ordinary people, can readily understand. The conciliar documents weren’t written with only scholars and clergy in mind; they were very specifically written for all of us. No, they don’t read quite as easily as People Magazine; you’ll have to work a little bit harder than that, but they are remarkably approachable nonetheless.
So why aren’t we seeing a large scale effort in parishes worldwide to implement faith formation programs designed to break down the barriers of assumption and fear, encouraging Catholics to at long last explore the actual text of the rich and beautiful documents that were written specifically for them?
As much as it troubles me to say so, the unfounded notion that the typical Catholic is somehow unqualified to explore the Council documents has become institutionalized to some extent. I am sorry to report that no small number of those who are officially charged with catechesis, both on the diocesan and the parish levels, are of the opinion that the average Catholic is neither steeped enough in their faith nor intelligent enough to explore the Council documents directly. In fact, the catechetical director of a large archdiocese said this to me almost verbatim! This view reflects an undeniably elitist mindset that essentially says, “We get it, but they cannot.
Now, this is not to disparage or to judge these often dedicated catechetical leaders personally; it is simply to make known to you “the facts on the ground” such as they are after allowing fears and assumptions to run unchecked for forty plus years.
We see the unfortunate results in the kinds of faith formation programs that are routinely offered in most parishes. Many of the more common offerings contain little substance, and while some may touch on “conciliar themes” as interpreted by — you guessed it — those who believe that they alone “get it,” programs that offer the “Spirit’s gift” in the unadulterated words of the Council Fathers are practically nonexistent.
There is good news however. In spite of being decades old, the current situation is very easily corrected; all that is required is a simple act of the will on the part of all concerned.
If you who are reading this column right now occupy some official position in the field of evangelization and catechesis — whether you are an educator, a catechist, a priest or a bishop — please know that the people you are charged with serving need not be sheltered from the Council any longer. If you harbor any thoughts whatsoever that say “they can’t get it,” you really need to take a step back and prayerfully consider the fact that the very nature of your vocation is to make sure that they do get it!
Invite your parishioners to explore the actual documents of the Council firsthand. Be sure to assist them by providing a program that applies what Pope Benedict XVI calls the “hermeneutic of continuity;” one that helps them read the conciliar documents in the context of all that preceded it by the light of sacred Tradition. Whether it’s “Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II ” or some other program of your choice, a reliable approach will depend upon Sacred Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, papal encyclicals, the writings of the Church Fathers, etc. as guideposts.
If you who are reading this are one of “the people in the pews,” you need to hear the voice of John Paul II echoing in your heart once more saying, “Be not afraid!” Set your fears and preconceived notions aside and tell your pastor that you’re prepared at long last to receive the gift of the Council. If he cannot be convinced to invite the entire parish to join you, simply delve into the Council documents on your own with the aid if a good faith formation tool at home.
Exactly what is this gift? Well it’s certainly not dry academics, and I can assure you that it’s anything but boring. You see, the gift of the Spirit is ever the same in the Church; it is no less than an encounter with Christ, and that’s exactly what all of us are invited to receive in the Council documents, if only we’re willing to say yes.