Thursday, 6th August 2020

Review – The Furrow

This volume brings together papers delivered at a symposium in the Irish College, Rome to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. The editor calls to mind the words of Pope John Paul II when he speaks of the Council as a “sure compass” for the Church as we enter a new century. But the task of ‘reception’ remains. How has the teaching of the Council been received in the local Churches throughout the world? How, indeed, has the Church in Ireland received and integrated the insights drawn from the largest gathering of Christian leaders in history? Four themes were chosen for this volume amongst the many possible avenues of thought opened up by the sixteen documents of the Council. The four themes are particularly apt for reflection after forty years: the role of other religions, biblical renewal, sacramental life and the Council and Ireland. Responses to the main papers by other participants in the symposium give an indication of just how open all of these themes are to further development.

Gavin D’Costa deals with one of the most important ecclesial issues of our times – the salvific value of other religions. There is no doubt but that the non-Christian can be saved. Church teaching has stated this clearly and the renewed emphasis in Vatican II on personal conscience has reaffirmed this understanding. But the more contorted issue concerns the salvific efficacy of other religions per se. If these religions are understood as a preparation for the Gospel (preparatio evangelica) then what do we mean by evangelisation? If seeds of the Word (semina Verbi) are detectable in Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism then what of shoots and branches and fruit? The discussion in this volume between D’Costa and Daniel Madigan demonstrates just how important an issue this is for the church in our times.

In his article on the Bible in Catholic life Joseph Fitzmyer draws attention to the antecedents of the Council. The sad neglect of biblical study in the aftermath of the Reformation is acknowledged. Clement XI (1700-1721) went so far as to condemn the proposition that “the reading of sacred scripture is for everybody”. But two notable Popes, Leo XIII (1878-1903) and Pius XII (1939-1958), prepared the way for Vatican II. Fitzmyer closely analyses several key paragraphs in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. In our own times, when the fundamentalist reading of religious texts has become a matter of political as well as of theological concern, this noted biblical scholar demonstrates how Dei Verbum, as well as the writings of Pope Pius XII and the Pontifical Biblical Commission, have awoken a new sense of scholarship concerning key issues such as revelation, inspiration, inerrancy and the composition of the Gospels.

Commenting on the Irish experience Dermot Lane names the numerous commissions and institutions established directly as a result of the energy unleashed by Vatican II. But he and his respondents reflect on their disappointment at the unfulfilled promise of the event that was the council. If the Irish Church was taken by surprise by the council, it has been rocked to its foundations by the scandals that emerged in the 1990s. Lane calls for a new imagination in addressing the theological and pastoral realities of our times.

Liam Bergin comments on the controversial area of liturgical change. Many debates concerning this topic are sterile as they amount to little more than restatements of positions either for or against the conciliar reform. Bergin points to a way forward by emphasising that the key to liturgical reform is biblical reflection. Recent biblical scholarship has rediscovered the importance of eschatology, of the future, in Judaeo-Christian belief. We need a liturgical spirituality which anticipates this future through encounter with the living God in the here and now of our lives. Such a spirituality should draw both on the insights of the council and also on the efforts at renewal over the past forty years.

There are rich pickings in this volume. It is particularly suited for use by discussion groups, whether amongst third-level students or in adult education settings. Close study of these texts will nourish the mind and heart while fostering reflection on key pastoral questions. How do we understand other religions? What does it mean to say that the bible is ‘inspired’, that it is ‘true’? Whither the Church in Ireland? How should we continue the liturgical reform? Clearly, there are no simple answers. Some argue that we need another council to deal with unfinished business. Others point to the fact that we have had only two substantive councils in almost five hundred years (leaving aside the very short First Vatican Council) and yet both Trent and Vatican II have each had an enormous effect on the life of the Church. So why have another council when we are still only coming to terms with Vatican II? One way or the other the papers in this volume have much to contribute to our reflections.

Fr. Michael Drumm, in The Furrow, October, 2005