My dear people of St. Mary’s:
Fifty years ago this December, the Second Vatican Council came to its conclusion. Called by Pope St. John XXIII in 1959, the Council brought together more than 2,500 Catholic bishops from around the world over four separate sessions. They met in Rome each autumn from 1962 to 1965, and the Council would even outlast the Pope himself. St. John XXIII died in June of 1963, and was succeeded by Pope Blessed Paul VI, who ordered the Council to continue.
St. John XXIII gave an address in St. Peter’s Basilica on October 11, 1962, the first day of the Council. Read today, at a distance of more than half a century, his words reveal a boundless optimism about the future of the Church and the world:
Illuminated by the light of this Council, the Church — we confidently trust — will become greater in spiritual riches and, gaining the strength of new energies therefrom, she will look to the future without fear. In fact, by bringing herself up to date the Church will make men, families, and peoples really turn their minds to heavenly things.
In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life.
We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand. In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.
The Council now beginning rises in the Church like daybreak, a forerunner of most splendid light. It is now only dawn. And already at this first announcement of the rising day, how much sweetness fills our heart. Everything here breathes sanctity and arouses great joy.
St. John XXIII on that day foresaw and predicted a “new morning” for the Church in the modern world. The future, bright with promise, seemed to offer untold spiritual riches. The Catholic Church would be able to shepherd mankind into a new epoch of religious fervor and devotion on the part of all people. It must have been wonderful to live at that time and have such confidence and hope for what lay ahead.
And yet, just shy of ten years later, on June 29, 1972, Pope Blessed Paul VI celebrated a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on the ninth anniversary of his coronation as Supreme Pontiff. Preaching to a great multitude, including cardinals, about the then-current state of the Church, the Pope said:
There is doubt, incertitude, problematic, disquiet, dissatisfaction, confrontation. There is no longer trust of the Church; they trust the first profane prophet who speaks in some journal or some social movement, and they run after him and ask him if he has the formula of true life. And we are not alert to the fact that we are already the owners and masters of the formula of true life. Doubt has entered our consciences, and it entered by windows that should have been open to the light. Science exists to give us truths that do not separate from God, but make us seek him all the more and celebrate him with greater intensity; instead, science gives us criticism and doubt. Scientists are those who more thoughtfully and more painfully exert their minds. But they end up teaching us: “I don’t know, we don’t know, we cannot know.” The school becomes the gymnasium of
confusion and sometimes of absurd contradictions. Progress is celebrated, only so that it can then be demolished with revolutions that are more radical and more strange, so as to negate everything that has been achieved, and to come away as primitives after having so exalted the advances of the modern world…
This state of uncertainty even holds sway in the Church. There was the belief that after the Council there would be a day of sunshine for the history of the Church. Instead, it is the arrival of a day of clouds, of tempest, of darkness, of research, of uncertainty. We preach ecumenism but we constantly separate ourselves from others. We seek to dig abysses instead of filling them in…
We believe in something that is preternatural that has come into the world precisely to disturb, to suffocate the fruits of the Ecumenical Council, and to impede the Church from breaking into the hymn of joy at having renewed in fullness its awareness of itself.
In fact, referring to the situation of the Church in 1972, the Holy Father said that he had the sense that “from some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.”
How did it happen that within such a short period of time (less than ten years), we would go from: “Everything here breathes sanctity and arouses great joy”, to “the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God”? And it is certainly not hard to make the case that the situation in the Church and in the world has worsened since 1972. The statistics we have been looking at in this space over the last several weeks attest to a collapse of the practice of religion in our country, not just among Catholics, but among all people. Remember that more Americans now identify themselves as having no religion than identify themselves as Roman Catholic. We have seen that as the percentage of Christians in America declines by 1% per year, the number of those with no religion increases by 1% per year. If this trend continues, in less than twenty-five years there will be more non-believers than Christians in America.
However, lest you think I am merely one of those “prophets of gloom,” next week we will look at what Pope Francis has been saying about the situation, some signs of hope, and what role we can play in the future of the Church.