I’ve been in Leeds for the last three days, for a conference entitled Vatican II, 50 Years On: The New Evangelization, at Leeds Trinity University College – one of the former teacher-training colleges that hopes to become a fully-fledged Catholic university soon.
There was a great buzz, with the event sold out and over 200 people attending as registered delegates, and many more for the public lectures in the evenings.
It was the usual conference format: keynote speeches and questions from the floor in the main hall, a huge array of shorter papers offered in the parallel sessions, good food, a running track below for when the days get a bit heavy, and lots of time to connect and chat over coffees or in the bar later in the evening (with a TV in the corner so we could watch the agonising Spain/Portugal penalty shootout). But I suppose not every academic conference has an hour’s Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament followed by Mass each morning.
There was a refreshingly diverse mix of people attending for this type of conference: highbrow academics and ecclesiastics swapping experiences and sharing ideas with ordinary ‘practitioners’ of the New Evangelisation – catechists, teachers, diocesan workers, priests, etc. And with every vocation and ’state of life’ represented: single, married, ordained, consecrated (I even had an enlightening discussion with two members of a new community about how their promises made in a ‘society of apostolic life’ are quite distinct from religious vows and even the commitments made in a secular institute! I can fill you in later if you are interested). It was a tangible experience of the Church, made possible because everyone had such a manifest love for the Church.
The ecclesiastical big-hitters included Archbishop Fisichella on the New Evangelisation, Cardinal Filoni on Mission and the Young Churches, and Cardinal George of Chicago on the Ecclesiology of Communion. Other keynote speakers included Prof Tracey Rowland, Prof Susan Wood, Prof Gavin D’Costa and Mgr Paul Watson.
I won’t even try to summarise the programme, let alone the content of the talks; and I was late so missed the first evening. Here are just one or two thoughts that stayed with me, and that I want to mull over.
Archbishop Fisichella, after a long critique of Western secularism, ducked away from the topic completely and said: the Church doesn’t evangelise because of the challenge of secularism, but simply through obedience to the command of the Lord to proclaim the Gospel to all nations. This is such an important point. You don’t share good news because you are afraid of the ‘threat’ of secularism, afraid of what it is doing to you as a Church or to your culture; you share good news because it is good news, and because the Lord has asked you to do that – in season and out of season.
Cardinal George put the Council in context and explained how one of the major concerns (certainly for Pope John XXIII) was to speak to a world that was becoming more and more fragmented and divided, and in danger of destroying itself because of these divisions. The call for the Church, in this context, was to offer a deeper communion; hence the significance of the theology of communion that emerged in Lumen Gentium.
But the context today is almost the opposite; the world is more and more united (despite serious ongoing and new geo-political conflicts), secular culture (if not secularism) is becoming more and more pervasive and universal, and there is a global consciousness emerging because of our economic, ecological, cultural and technological unity.
The danger today is not fragmentation, said Cardinal George, but a ‘united’ world that is increasingly closed in on itself and cut off from the transcendent. This echoed Archbishop Fisichella’s lovely point that one of the purposes of religions, and above all the encounter with Christ, is not to solve all human enigmas, but to give space for the enigma of human existence to be acknowledged. This acknowledgement is becoming harder and harder in a global secular culture.
It was good to hear Gavin D’Costa for the first time. He’s a very clear thinker, and was at ease stepping away from his text and engaging – joyfully – with the conference participants. He showed how easy it is to find texts in the documents of Vatican II that seem to make mission and evangelisation redundant: the possibility of salvation outside the visible confines of the Church, the seeds of truth and holiness in other religions, the need to respect people’s freedom and conscience. And the reality is that many theologians and pastoral practitioners have concluded that proclaiming the Gospel to non-believers is unnecessary, incoherent, and possibly unjust.
But D’Costa then showed how for every text that points to the work of the Holy Spirit outside the Church or the sacraments, there is another text – usually following on its heels – about the continuing importance of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, and inviting people to share in the graces that come through explicit faith and participation in the life of the Church. It’s not about playing one text off against another; it’s about seeing that the Council is often holding together two truths, that are not contradictory, and that are both vitally important: our need as Catholics to be open to God’s wonderful work in people’s lives outside the Church; and the continuing need to evangelise.
Jon Kirwan, a PhD student from Oxford, gave a very helpful short paper about the historiography of Vatican II, and the three most common schools of interpretation that have grown up in the last 50 years: the Council as radical ‘event’ (in a good sense – creating a positive rupture), promoted by ‘the Bologna School’, creating an obligation to remain faithful to the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ that prompted the event; the Council as radical ‘event’ (in a bad sense – creating a disastrous rupture), promoted by the Lefebvrists and a number of Catholic thinkers still in full-communion, creating an obligation to repudiate as far as possible the work of the Council; and the Council as an important reform, but in clear continuity with the Tradition of the Church, promoted by Pope Benedict and others, creating an obligation to see how the texts and explicit teachings of Vatican II (rather than its ‘spirit’) sit within the continuous Tradition of the Church. Of course this is simplistic, as Jon would have recognised; but it’s good to have some hooks on which to hang some of the ideas you hear about the Council.
The main topic of the conference was the New Evangelisation, so let me finish with a remark from Pauline Danel, who is a member of the Emmanuel Community in France, and gave a testimony about their work in a recent city mission in Paris. She said we shouldn’t feel burdened by the call to evangelise, as if the conversion of the world or of individual souls were our problem. It’s not our problem; the burden belongs to the Holy Spirit. But we do have a responsibility. What is that? She quoted St Bernadette, testifying to the authorities about the visions she saw in Lourdes, who said: ’I am not here to convince you, but simply to tell you’. The conference was a much-needed reaffirmation of the call to tell others, as best we can, about the love of Jesus Christ; and a reminder that the Holy Spirit will do everything else required.