Fifty years ago a council was called

National Catholic Reporter writer Jason Petosa reflects on the fifty years since Pope John XXIII called for an ecumenical council to take place starting in 1962. He says that the Church is mired in the tension between the call to engage the modern world and the need to conserve tradition. Petosa suggests that the way for the Church to move forward is forgiveness.

He reminds us that John XXIII surprised the world when he called for a council. Many hoped that he would leave well enough alone.

Fifty years ago today, Jan. 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII surprised the world by calling for an Ecumenical Council. Vatican II would convene in 1962….and it was a fresh and far reaching initiative for the church, although there were many people who believed that the church was doing very well as it was, and had no need for change.

To the contrary, these conservatives believed the church should resist any efforts that would disturb its good order of practice and doctrine—as governed by the Roman Curia. Their attitude was “not in my china shop!”

The bishops in attendance overruled the agenda set by curia bureaucrats and went directly for liturgical reform.

Slowly the tide shifted and a huge wave of optimism, energy and enthusiasm emerged as the assembled hierarchy proceeded through the final two sessions of the council. When the council ended, the wave crested with an outpouring of pent-up hope and excitement.

Millions and millions of Catholics along with many more millions of believers from other faith traditions rolled up their collective shirtsleeves and began to put into practice the reforms wrought by the council.

For the most part, bishops, clergy, religious and a fired-up laity worked together. Maybe it was goodwill run amuck. (Was that so bad?) Maybe, as many proclaimed, it was the Holy Spirit at work, silencing or at least muting those naysayers whom Pope John XXIII called “prophets of gloom and doom.”

Looking back at the immediate post-Vatican II church, we can say that this parade of joyous engagement was like Palm Sunday: a prelude to the agony and crucifixion to come.

It is easy to be disappointed that the “promise” of Vatican II seems to have never been fulfilled. Moderates and liberals feel that whatever progress the Council brought is being systemattically rolled back, and conservatives feel as if the Council brought about much that was regrettable and even ruinous to the Church. Much of what was fought over then appears to us today as trivial but the heart of the motivation for change fifty years ago seem to be untouched.

Petosa suggests a way forward that may instructive to Christians of every tradition: forgiveness.

Weary and even heart-broken, let us consider forgiveness. Our ultimate model of forgiveness is Jesus Christ, and for a concrete, recent Christian example we have the Amish of Nickel Mines, Pa. In the fall of 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV, a truck driver, entered the Amish community’s one-room schoolhouse and held 10 girls hostage for several hours. He then shot and killed five of the girls and seriously wounded the other five.

How the Amish community responded with forgiveness in so many ways is told in the book Amish Grace, How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercher (Jossey-Bass). “Amish people are likely to say that they are simply trying to be obedient to Jesus Christ who commanded his followers to do many peculiar things, such as love, bless and forgive their enemies,” they write. These Amish people’s ongoing forgiveness, pardon and reconciliation are a model for us as we try to liberate the Catholic church from its current predicament.

Forgiveness is the way to make us whole again. It is the medium through which we tap into the transcendent power of the Holy Spirit. Forgiveness is the balm to ease our pain and restore our optimism. Forgiveness helps us avoid sinking into the ugly cancer of contempt. It frees us from the temptation to get even, to one-up or put down our adversaries. Forgiveness enables us to purify our intentions so that every step of our ecclesial crusade is marked with magnanimity.

Forgiveness matters because internal church reform is important. Because the church — the entire people of God, including the hierarchy — is important to the world and to each of us individually. A disfigured body of Christ, a distorted proclaiming of the good news, destroys the church’s credibility, which weakens and diminishes the power of that proclamation, much as Kryptonite saps the power of Superman.

Read the rest here.

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