DENVER, Colorado, OCT. 13, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Archbishop Charles Chaput offered this commentary on the Second Vatican Council. Posted at the archdiocesan Web site, www.archden.org, it was adapted from his Sept. 27 talk on “The Council, the Church and the Vocation of Bishops.”
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Reflections on the anniversary of Vatican II close
December marks the 40th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council. So these final months of 2005 are a good time to reflect on the needs of the Church in today’s world and our own commitment to Catholic discipleship.
History is a powerful teacher. While all true ecumenical councils are important in the life of the Church, some failed to achieve their goals. The Council of Florence failed in the 15th century because the Western Church was badly divided and the Greek Church could not accept a union. The Fifth Lateran Council failed in the 16th century because it focused on the wrong issues. It did too little too late to change the conditions that led to the Protestant Reformation.
We need to ask ourselves this fall, as we consider the goals that the Second Vatican Council set for itself: Will history judge it a success or a failure? In opening Vatican II, Blessed Pope John XXIII said that, “the council now beginning rises in the Church like daybreak, a forerunner of most splendid light.” Pope John Paul II, who attended the council as a bishop, spoke many times about “crossing the threshold of hope” and a rebirth of Christian faith in the new millennium.
So far the evidence is mixed. One in every three new children born in “Christian Europe” today is Muslim. Except for Islam, religious belief and practice are declining across the continent. So are fertility rates. Pope Benedict XVI told a gathering of Italian priests recently that the “so-called traditional Churches look like they’re dying.” In fact, in Europe’s wealth and selfishness and refusal to have children, an entire civilization seems to be choosing to die.
Last month, Pope Benedict urged a group of new bishops to pray for “a humble trust in God and for the apostolic courage born of faith.” In 2002, the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said that “a bishop must do as Christ did: precede his flock, being the first to do what he calls others to do and, first of all, being the one who stands against the wolves who come to steal the sheep.”
Whether history judges Vatican II as a success or a failure finally depends on us — bishops, clergy, religious and laypeople alike — and how zealously we live our faith; how deeply we believe; and how much apostolic courage we show to an unbelieving world that urgently needs Jesus Christ.
We’ve been here before. Seventeen centuries ago, the great Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) could have failed. In reaffirming God’s Trinitarian nature and the reality of the Incarnation, Nicaea deeply influenced not only the faith of the Church but the course of Western civilization. But that council, and all the long history that followed it, could have turned out very differently. It didn’t, because of one man — a young deacon and scholar at Nicaea named Athanasius of Alexandria, who was inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Athanasius fought for the true Catholic faith at Nicaea and throughout his entire career. Hostile bishops excommunicated him. Emperors resented him. His enemies falsely accused him of cruelty, sorcery and even murder. He was exiled five times. And in the face of it all, he became the single most articulate voice defending the orthodox Catholic faith, which is why even today we remember him as “Athanasius contra mundum”: “Athanasius against the world.”
He never gave up. He had courage. He had the truth. And the truth won. He became one of the best-loved bishops and greatest saints and Doctors of the Church — and the faith we take for granted today, we owe largely to God’s work through him.
Now, that’s my idea of a leader. That’s my idea of a Catholic believer fully alive in Jesus Christ. And if bishops and their people choose to live that same apostolic courage once again — beginning here and now — then John XXIII’s hopes for the council as a new dawn for Christian life really will rise in the Church as a light to the nations.