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Week 4: Vatican II and the Church in the Modern World

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Vatican II’s document on The Church in the Modern World is one of the most remarkable of the sixteen documents produced by the Council. In many ways it is the fruit of the Council itself, since originally there had been no plans for such a document in the preparatory stages. Also, if you know the history of the church leading up to Vatican II, the very title is somewhat of a surprise. Just a hundred years before, Pius IX issued a document that basically denied that the church could ever have anything to do with the “modern world” and its ideas of democracy, individual dignity, the right of people to follow their consciences, the importance of history.

During the Council the document was very controversial, and there were times when it was not clear that there would be a statement on the church’s dealings with contemporary society at all. The bishops were also divided about the document that was eventually presented for discussion on the Council floor. Some thought it was too optimistic, that it was not critical enough, that it neglected the reality of sin, and it neglected the theology of the cross. Some interpreters of the Council still object to it today, arguing that the Council should not be interpreted from its perspective, but from the perspective of the more internally-focused document on the church. Nevertheless, the document was passed by a large majority of the bishops, and many think that it is the Council’s masterpiece, its most mature statement.

What is clear, in any case, is that it is an inspiring document, and there are in it many inspiring passages, some of which will be presented this week for your reflection. The document is the longest of all those issued by Vatican II—by far—and its contents are very complex. It consists of a substantial Preface, followed by a rather lengthy “Introductory Statement” on the context to which the document is addressed. Part I of the document is entitled “The Church and the Vocation of Human Beings,” and consists of four chapters: (1) on the dignity of the human person; (2) on the human community; (3) on human activity in the world; and (4) on the role of the church in the modern world. Part II is addresses “Some Problems of Special Urgency,” and has five chapters: (1) on the family; (2) on culture; (3) on socio-economic life; (4) on politics; and (5) on world peace.

Since the publication of The Church in the Modern World there can be no doubt that the point of the church is not the church itself, but the service of and sanctification of the world in which it lives. The church is a community-in-mission, and its mission is to be a partner with God in bringing creation to full flourishing.


DAY 16

Quote of the Day:

“The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the women and men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.  …  That is why this community realizes that it is truly and intimately linked with humankind in its history” (paragraph 1).

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What do you think are “the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties” of people today? Do you feel called to respond to these in some way?
  2. What are your own “joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties”? How do you think the church can best respond to these today?

Prayer of the Day:

Creator God, not only are you interested in my joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties, and those of the world. It is in the very midst of these that I can find you, for your Spirit is intertwined with them, calling for wholeness and healing in all things. Make me truly human, truly myself. Let these joys, hopes, griefs, and anxieties be mine, as they are yours. I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.


DAY 17

Quote of the Day:

“In the depths of conscience, human beings detect a law which they do not impose upon themselves, but which holds them to obedience. Always summoning them to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to their heart more specifically: do this, shun that. For human beings have in their hearts a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of human beings; according to it they will be judged” (paragraph 16).

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Have you ever experienced the “voice of conscience” in your life? How did it affect you?
  2. Why do you think that obeying one’s conscience “is the very dignity of human beings”?

Prayer of the Day:

Spirit of truth, you whisper your truth in the depth of my hearts, and show me the way to life. What is important in my life is not that I obey or disobey laws, but that I obey or disobey you. Allow me to listen carefully to your gentle voice, and give me the courage to always follow my conscience, no matter what the consequences. And since my conscience needs to be formed by a truth that often exceeds my grasp, give me an openness to the wisdom of the ages, especially preserved in your church and expressed by its teachers. Form me into a person of integrity, like Jesus my brother. I pray in his name. Amen.


DAY 18

Quote of the Day:

“The social nature of women and men makes it evident that the progress of the human person and the advance of society itself hinge on each other. For the beginning, the subject and the goal of all social institutions must be the human person, which for its part and by its very nature stands completely in need of social life. This social life is not something added on to women and men. Hence, through their dealings with others, through reciprocal duties, and through fraternal dialogue they develops all their gifts and are able to rise to their destiny” (paragraph 25).

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Where do you find community in your own life? School? Work? Church? Catholics on Call?
  2. How do you think you can contribute more fully to your community? What gifts do you bring to your community?

Prayer of the Day:

Holy triune God, you are yourself community, and you have made humankind in your image. I will never be fully happy or fulfilled until I find myself in a life-giving community, and am able to contribute significantly to that community. Help me find my heart’s desire. Help me find other women and men with whom I can share my life, and so find you in all your overflowing gracious love. You are the Mystery that surrounds me, and so I open myself up to your Spirit in Jesus’ holy name. Amen.


DAY 19

Quote of the Day:

“[the church] gratefully understands that in its community life no less than in her individual sons and daughters, it receives a variety of helps from women and men of every rank and condition. For whoever promotes the human community at the family level, culturally, in its economic, social, and political dimensions, both nationally and internationally, such a one, according to God’s design, is contributing greatly to the church community as well, to the extent that it depends on things outside itself. Indeed, the church admits that she has greatly profited and still profits from the antagonism of those who oppose or persecute it” (paragraph 44).

Questions for Reflection:

  1. The above quotation comes from a section of the document entitled “the Help which the Church Receives from the Modern World.” How do you think the church could be helped in its mission by respecting and listening to the events and movements in the world today?
  2. How do you think the church has profited “from the antagonism of those who oppose or persecute it”?

Prayer of the Day:

God of infinite openness, I cannot believe that you are not affected by the world, by the joys of humans, the beauty of the mountains, by human suffering, by human discoveries. If this is so, your church needs to be like you. Sometimes it doesn’t want to admit that it can grow and learn from the events and people in the world. Give me, give us, a heart closer to yours, so that we can be open and grow as we experience the freedom and wonder of your creation. We pray through Christ our Lord, in the same openness to your Spirit that he had. Amen.


DAY 20

Quote of the Day:

“… the church, sent to all peoples of every time and place, is not bound exclusively and indissolubly to any race or nation, nor to any particular way of life or any customary pattern of living, ancient or recent. Faithful to its own tradition and at the same time conscious of its universal mission, it can enter into communion with various cultural modes, to its own enrichment and theirs too.” (paragraph 58)

Questions for Reflection:

  1. How does your own culture help you to follow Christ more fully? How does the church honor your culture? How might the culture honor it more?
  2. How do you think the church can enrich your culture? How do you think your culture can enrich the church?

Prayer of the Day:

Incarnate God in Jesus, you show us the depth of God’s love by taking on our human nature, but also by limiting your Mystery to one particular body, one culture, one time in history. Help me to understand you better by giving me a deeper knowledge and love of my own particular culture. Let me use my culture—my language, my customs, my traditions—to praise you more fully and follow you more closely. Let me glory in my identity, not for its own sake, but because it shows me how fully your Mystery has been expressed in your own. Your Spirit leads me to pray in your name. Amen.


AT THE END OF THE RETREAT

 

We hope you have had a taste this month of the spiritual riches contained in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. There is much more there, of course. In his Spiritual Testament, Pope John Paul II expressed the hope that Catholics would take the documents of Vatican II as their “spiritual compass” for the future. We hope that you have recognized the usefulness of such a “compass” and will continue to deepen your knowledge and love of the great treasury of spirituality that is the Second Vatican Council.

 

Image: Fr. John Christman, S.S.S. "The Church in the Modern World" - From an exhibit at Catholic Theological Union

"It is my hope that many of the themes of Gaudium et Spes can be seen in their lines, shapes and splashes of color. I hope the paintings succeed in evoking some of the 'joys and hopes,' 'griefs and anxieties' of the people of the world as God's grace shines through the sometimes bewildering (and sometimes delightful) cacophony." (Fr. John Christman, S.S.S.)

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