Year of Faith Opening Ceremony
Homily by Rev Prof Brendan Leahy (Maynooth College)
Kildare & Leighlin Diocese, Carlow Cathedral, October 11, 2012
Fifty years ago exactly on this day, nearly three thousand bishops filed into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. Little could they have imagined what was beginning. Yves Congar, one of the theologians at the Council commented that something happened at it, our way of seeing the Church changed.
It’s not that the Council decided to redefine the Church! That can’t be done – the Church comes to us as a gift. But we can and always need to take a new look at the Church. Perhaps I can put it this way. Imagine you are viewing an object or landscape. It takes just a short movement of a few centimetres to have a new perspective on that object or landscape. It isn’t that the object we are looking at changes but our perspective enables us to see it anew.
Likewise, the Council got us to see the Church from a new perspective, that of unity, communion with Christ and with one another, as the recent Eucharistic Congress reminded us. Yves Congar comments that the phrase of Mt 18:20 “where two or three are united in my name, I am there among them” is the sentence that summarises the Council.
To let Jesus be seen, heard, touched, encountered in today’s world – that was the Council’s agenda. It wanted to remind us that the Church is a sign and symbol pointing towards, and communicating in a way that can be recognised by others, the presence of Jesus who brings the Kingdom of God.
That is the great task that emerged with Vatican II. To journey alongside our brothers and sisters, sharing their joys and griefs, questions and anxieties, witnessing that the Church can be a prophecy of a new humanity, where genuine, profound relationships are lived out according to Jesus’ New Commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. We have just listened to the Letter of St. Peter speak of this mutual love (1 Peter 3:8-9).
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that in the very opening words of the Council’s document on the nature of the Church, Lumen Gentium, the focus is on Jesus Christ and the unity he desires for the Church:
Christ is the Light of nations… and the Church is in Christ like a… sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race…
The great vision of the Council inspired and enthused many. I remember at school we sang new kinds of songs, dedicated to the Holy Spirit: “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord… And we pray that all unity may one day be restored… And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
It’s true that some have felt the vision of the Council got lost along the way. And yet, all the Popes since the Council continue to say it’s the “compass” that guides us still. Recently, I read of a letter written by Pope John Paul I when he was created cardinal by the then Pope, Paul VI, thanking the Pope for his “untiring effort to bring about the spirit and decrees of the Second Vatican Council… especially when it is said here and there that that the First Vatican Council has many followers and likewise the Third Vatican Council, but few followers of the Second Vatican Council”.
There is truth in this. The Second Vatican Council is a gift and a task, still fully to be taken up. We cannot go back. Nor can we rush forward without taking the steps required of us now. As we gather this evening, perhaps we can take up three points to guide us as we enter the Year of Faith that begins today on the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.
People of God
It is well known that the Council underlined the image of the Church as the “People of God”. But what does it mean to say we are a people? The image is rooted in the Old Testament – God formed a people, the people of Israel, in order to communicate his life, his project, his plans to humanity. For the Israelites, they found their identity as members of the people. It wasn’t so much that they saw themselves as a collection of individuals who decided to come together but rather as the assembly of God, those chosen and bonded together, not by their own initiative, but by the covenant that God initiated. They were a covenant people.
Jesus, the Son of God, was a member of that covenant people and he wanted to bring renewal, helping them be faithful to the covenant, God’s initiative. That’s why, the night before he died, he instituted the new covenant that we celebrate at every Mass. So it is good to remember at every Eucharist that we are formed as a people, first and foremost, by God’s initiative, not ours.
And then, yes, we are bound together by a pact, a covenant that has the measure of love that Jesus gave us at its heart, and it is our dignity and opportunity to live it out. So, before all the distinctions of who we are – laity, clergy, men, women, Eucharistic ministers, fathers and mothers of families, readers, choir members – we are to realise and live out the fact that we are bound by a deep covenant.
But what does it mean practically? It means that everything about us has to do with this people. So everything I do and say can have value – even if I am not in this minute directly dealing with “churchy” things. Nothing is small if done out of love. To use an image: we are tiles in a mosaic. Each one of us is important. Without us, the mosaic looks disfigured. My part is important. Your part is important. And that means too that we rejoice in the joys, achievements and successes of others “as” our own. Because they really are. We are saddened and dismayed by the failures of others and seek to “take away the sins” also through our own work for justice, peace, truth. So all that goes on in the diocese, the schools, the parishes has to do with each member of the diocese. No single person alone can do everything. But together all members of the diocese are co-responsible for making of our families, parishes, and the diocese a place where people can encounter the Risen Jesus Christ who always precedes us and who always wants to be among us.
It follows from this too that we are all called to the forefront in the Church’s mission. All are evangelists. As the recent document in preparation for the Synod on Evangelization puts it, evangelization is not just for specialists. One of the main goals of the Council was to position the Church to be ready to evangelise as we enter the third millennium. Certainly, there’ll be specific moments dedicated to Church initiatives but evangelization isn’t just limited to these. It is by working together wherever we are in a parish or diocese, in a school or association that we evangelise.
I always like re-reading a letter written possibly in the second century. It’s called the Letter to Diognetus. It seems that Diognetus, a non-believer, had written to a Christian friend asking him to explain what Christianity was about.
In his response to Diognetus, the Christian, tries to explain. He says that it isn’t that Christians are different from others in terms of nationality, language or customs. They don’t live in separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in. And yet, the writer says, “there is something extraordinary about their lives”. What they do is they “give soul to the world around them”. .
To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world… It is by the soul….that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians… that the world is held together.
Christians give a soul to the world by the faith, hope and love they have. Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion, in his examination of the First Christians, writes that Christianity had the best of all marketing techniques: person-to-person influence. Somebody has written they were “gossiping the Gospel” because they lived out the language of love. The story is told of Pachomius, a general with the Roman Empire. After one of the battles he was impressed by seeing people come out taking home the injured and looking after them. “Who are these people?” he asked. When told they were Christians, he decided to become a Christian. He went on to become one of the greater founders of monasticism.
Pope Benedict has said recently that evangelization is not the work of some specialists, but of the whole People of God and that it is authentic Christian life, credible witness that evangelizes.
Of course, then, if we witness, we speak. We are not fair to others if we do not share our message, our hope, the Good News of the Gospel, the wisdom of the Church handed on over generations, the light of God.
So evangelization calls us to be, that is, to witness with our lives, and to speak up, to speak of our faith, of what difference the Gospel has made in our lives.
The Year of Faith that is opening up is a “time of grace”. The Bible has always recognised special moments of God. Tonight one of those special moments is beginning and it will continue until November next year. I know the diocese has a programme of events prepared. This year is to be, as the Pope’s letter put it in announcing the Year of Faith, “a time of particular reflection and rediscovery of the faith” so that “everyone may feel a strong need to know better and to transmit to future generations the faith of all times”. For that reason we are reminded to re-read the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism. And he underlines how the door of faith is open to all.
Faith needs to be supported by correct knowledge and this needs to be emphasised today when faith is not a “self-evident presupposition for life in society” not even for those Christians who “are more concerned for the social, cultural and political consequences of their commitment”. It’s not just a question of helping children learn their catechism. All of us are called to rediscover faith.
But what is faith? Pope Benedict reminds there are two aspects. On the one hand, there is an “act” of faith (that is, I entrust myself totally to God who has communicated himself to us in Jesus Christ), and there are “contents” of faith.
By way of catechetical example, he points to the episode of a woman called Lydia who we read about in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 16:14). As she listened to Paul who had gone to Philippi to proclaim the Gospel, God opened her heart to adhere to the words of Paul; she became a disciple. Here we see Lydia’s entrusting herself to the God proclaimed by Paul (this is the “act” of faith and it is preceded by the light of the Holy Spirit that enlightens the heart and mind). Lydia also assents to the “contents” of this faith (what St. Paul, the apostle, teaches).
Throughout his letter for the Year of Faith the Pope is careful to remind us that “there exists a profound unity between the act by which we believe and the content to which we give our assent”. At the risk of an oversimplification, it can be said that before the Second Vatican Council, the emphasis was on the content dimension of faith. After the Council, the focus shifted more to the experiential element of faith. In both cases, there is a danger of undervaluing the other dimension. Pope Benedict wants us to see the profound link of both dimensions.
To assist us reflect more on this in Ireland, we have the national directory for Catechesis, Share the Good News (2011). While reflecting on faith, it’s also important to remember those who, not claiming to have the gift of faith, are nevertheless sincerely searching for the ultimate meaning and definitive truth of their lives and of the world.
There are two other points I would like to make this evening about faith. Firstly, faith is both a personal and communitarian act. Each person who says “I believe” is sharing in the communitarian “I believe” of the whole Church in response to God. That’s why we recite the Creed every Sunday (“I believe in God….” – this is the whole Church saying “I believe”). It is in and from the Church that each of us then learns to say “I believe”. Faith is a communitarian journey in the Risen Christ who takes hold of our whole being – mind, soul, body, life – and clothes us with his light, enabling us to translate the Truth that is Jesus into “daily life”. This is important. Faith is not to be limited to a corner of my life.
Secondly, a Christian may never think of belief as a private act. At Pentecost, the apostles showed us that faith has a public dimension. They proclaimed without fear. So too all believers are invited to speak and give public witness.
As I draw this evening’s reflection to a conclusion, I want finally to underline the journey aspect of faith. We have all set out on that journey. We help one another. We go to God together. And, ultimately, this journey we are on is one of holiness to which we are called. Again, the Second Vatican Council emphasised this universal call to holiness. Last week we celebrated the Feast Day of Teresa of Lisieux, one of the women doctors of the Church. It is said that Pope Benedict is going to declare another woman, Hildegaard of Bingen, a doctor of the Church. When Teresa was young she had told a Jesuit priest she would like to become a great saint like Teresa of Avila. The priest felt there were traces of pride and presumption and advised her to moderate her desires. But Teresa replied: “Why, Father?” “since our Lord has said: ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’”. St. John of the Cross had taught her that God never inspires desires in us that cannot be fulfilled. The Holy Spirit, through the Council, wants to inspire us all to strive towards holiness which it defines as “perfection of love” (not perfectionism!).
Here we have to say that it has been particularly the feminine, Marian dimension of the Church that has kept this fundamental aspect of the Church alive. In our times, we need a greater appreciation of the Marian profile of holiness in the Church. It is interesting to note that the Synod in Rome on Evangelization has the highest number yet of women invited to take part in a Synod. It’s a sign. Women are linked particularly to the Marian profile, having a particular charism for building community, spirituality, evangelisation, for witnessing to and transmitting the faith.
As we begin the Year of Faith, let’s repeat in our hearts, “Lord, increase my faith, our faith”. We need not be afraid though there are difficulties around us. We need not lose heart because God has promised us, in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Look, I am doing something new, it is beginning already, can you not perceive it?”.