When He saw the vast crowd, His heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd, and He began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)
Fifty years ago this fall, the bishops of the world met together in St. Peter’s Basilica. The first session of the Second Vatican Council. The Council Fathers began by praying, of course. Then they issued a statement to the world, to explain what they were doing. In their “Message to Humanity,” the Pope and Bishops cited a passage from the gospel. Namely, the passage we just heard–about the compassion of the Lord for the poor human sheep without a shepherd.
Now, of course none of us are “old.” But maybe some of us can remember back fifty years. Fifty years might seem like a long time. But not when you “think in centuries,” like the Church does. And spiritual gifts like the Second Vatican Council do not come along very often. Like maybe once every hundred years, on average. Twenty-one ecumenical councils so far, as the 21st century begins.
“He began to teach them many things.”
The Council Fathers wrote in their opening message to the world:
Since we are shepherds, we desire that all those who seek God may have their longing satisfied… Hence, obeying the will of Christ, …we as pastors devote all our energies and thoughts to the renewal of ourselves and the flocks committed to us, so that there may radiate before all men the lovable features of Jesus Christ, who shines in our hearts.
The Fathers went on to declare:
It is far from true that because we cling to Christ we are diverted from earthly duties and toils. On the contrary, faith, hope, and the love of Christ impel us to serve our brothers… We urgently turn our thoughts to all the anxieties by which modern man is afflicted. Hence, let our concern swiftly focus first of all on those who are especially lowly, poor, and weak. Like Christ, we would have pity on the multitude weighed down with hunger, misery, and lack of knowledge.
The Council Fathers’ opening words ring out with a stirring urgency for us. Since we, too, love Christ, we want to share in the Council Fathers’ spirit of loving solidarity with all our fellowmen. Why don’t we dedicate ourselves to prayerful and steady reflection on the Second Vatican Council? At least over the course of the next year, which our Holy Father Pope Benedict has proposed as a “Year of Faith,” to commemorate the Council.
Perhaps we might consider the kind of questions which the Fathers considered while they met in Council. Does man need to be taught by God? And another question that goes with that one would be: Does the Church have the authority to teach about God and about what a life worthy of God entails? And another: What’s the best way to go about trying to teach what we have to teach?
One of the points that the Council Fathers made was: Mankind has in our times achieved almost unbelievable technological progress. But with every benefit that comes from modern technology, a corresponding danger also arises. The same technology that fosters easier transportation and communication also makes war more sudden and deadly, and endangers the lives of the innocent and defenseless. The same technology that can increase farm production can reduce factory workers to a state of veritable slavery. The same technology that opens the world up to us through the internet can enchain a soul in a dungeon of self-centeredness.
The ancient Romans developed amazing technology, too. And they crucified the Son of God. Engineering prowess, or science, or political organization, or the proliferation of communications media—none of these, in and of themselves, make people good. To be good we need wisdom, real wisdom, wisdom about reality as it actually is.
Does the Church teach wisdom that the modern world needs? What exactly is the wisdom that our church has?
The Catholic Church has accumulated experience over 2,000 years—no small thing. Any person with common sense would probably not dismiss the teaching of the Church out of hand, given all this history that our institution possesses. Two thousand years of “institutional memory.”
But we don’t claim to have the market cornered on human insight. We know that Catholics can make the same rookie mistakes as anyone else. The accumulated human wisdom of many generations is not the unique gift of the Church of Christ. We might rather say that the folly of all the countless human generations is precisely what makes us so desperate for the divine Savior Who founded our Church and endowed Her with His grace.
Fifty years have passed since the electric days when all the Bishops of the world—men of every skin-tone, language, and culture—fifty years since the heady days when they packed their bags for their first autumn in Vatican City.
Fifty years. Not long, in the grand scheme of things. Their moment really is our moment, too: The exhilarating moment when the Bride of Christ, holding in Her beautiful hands all that the Savior has given Her—the moment when She turns Her eyes to the hungry and confused world and asks Herself: What can I do to renew my strength, so that I can reach out and help?