Later this year (October 11) the Church will mark fifty years since the opening session of the Second Vatican Council.
Many of us were taught to see this gathering of the bishops of the world as a ‘turning point’ in the direction of the Church. Contrasts are often made between life before the Council, and post-Conciliar life in the Church.
Such contrasts are at best an over-simplification of the reality, and a missing-out on the clarity and depth of the Council’s renewed presentation of the life of faith.
I suspect that the generalisation I am about to make is correct: most New Zealand Catholics think that the main work of the Council was to reform the liturgy by turning the priest to face the people and in allowing the Mass (and other sacraments) to be celebrated in English.
Pope John Paul II was aware that many Catholics either did not know, or had mis-heard and therefore wrongly understood the teaching of the Council. To address this he published the Catechism of the Catholic Church to mark the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Council. In this volume that we see the work of the Council presented in a concise, coherent, attractive and relevant way. I am fortunate in these weeks to be studying at the Liturgical Institute of Mundelein University in Chicago. Even after many earlier years of study, and over 25 years of ministry as a priest, I am discovering anew the beauty and depth of the faith of the Church.
It is encouraging to see again that the documents of the Second Vatican Council are a re-communication of all that is at the heart of the life of faith. It is true that in this process we are encouraged to let go of some attitudes and practices that had wrongly taken central place in the faith lives of Catholics. Once again the Council reminds us that our faith is not primarily about doctrines and practices, but about the person of Jesus Christ who is the source and summit of all human life.
This is not to say that the doctrine and practices of the Church are not important. In fact that life of the Church (with all the teaching and practice) is essential for our lives of faith. Without these gifts our ‘faith’ is reduced to a ‘wishful thinking’, or continual attempts to ‘look on the bright side’ of difficult situations. If this is what we understand by ‘faith’, then it is no wonder that we are afraid!
In 1968, Pope Paul VI invited the people of the Church to “make “an authentic and sincere profession of the same faith”. Rather than going along with the crowd (and being Catholic simply because my parents and grandparents were Catholic), Pope Paul wanted people to make an “individual and collective, free and conscious, inward and outward, humble and frank” profession of faith. The pope’s purpose was for the whole Church to “re-appropriate exact knowledge of the faith, so as to reinvigorate it, purify it, confirm it, and confess (i.e. proclaim) it”. (Paul VI, June 30 1968, Credo of the People of God)
Forty-four years later we find ourselves in a similar situation. In fact comparisons can be made between life in 2012 and life in Judea and Samaria at the time of the earthly ministry of Jesus. The fundamental human needs don’t change that much, and human attempts to satisfy human desires are remarkably uncreative.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus responds to the fear of the people. Their fear is caused by the same concerns that worry us most: sickness and death, insecurity about the future, guilt and anxiety about the past. Jesus’ response is both immediate and transforming. The sick are healed and the dead are returned to life. Jesus then says to them: “do not be afraid; just have faith.”
This gospel even gives the detail that the afflicted woman had “spent all she had” on therapies, healers and other treatments. Nothing had worked for her. But her encounter with Jesus did much more than enable her to ‘look on the bright side.’ She is healed! She received what we all need.
In one of my classes this week, the teacher gave the example of taking his children to Mass and making them enter the Church through the main front doors. The children are not always happy about this, but Chris insists. Entering a Church for worship is not like slipping into my house, or a concert venue.
When I enter a Church, I am intentionally (and ritually) articulating my deep desire for life with God in the Kingdom of God. The casual conversations of the street are fine in the foyer, but in this sacred space my desire is simply for God.
Each Sunday we enter the Church for Mass aware that there is much that makes us afraid. But the God whom I seek has given me faith. This faith is not the ‘power of positive thinking’, but the ultimate relationship with Jesus, which HE initiates (in baptism) and that HE nurtures and sustains in the sacraments. Even the fact that you have read to the end of this little reflection is proof that faith is alive in you.
Do not be afraid. Just have faith!