Rome still rules, 50 years after Vatican II reforms
Stephen J Costello ponders life and death on the anniversary of the Second Vatican Council
Bucketing rain greeted me as I made my way to 85 St Stephen's Green last Thursday for a conference in UCD's Newman House. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of Vatican II. Not Fifty Shades of Grey but 50 years on, and more like the black and white of a Dominican's habit than subtle shades of grey.
The theme of the conference: to examine the enduring significance of the Second Vatican Council and its implications for the Irish Church.
A stellar array of serious scholars was present, with liberal luminaries such as Enda MacDonagh, Gabriel Daly and Sean Freyne. I had fascinating chats with them over dinner and drinks -- for a long while they have been my theological heroes.
Death was in the air though. The man who had organised the day, Padraic Conway, had passed away at the age of 50 but he wanted the conference to continue. He was fondly remembered. The day before one of my oldest and closest friends had been cremated after having suddenly died in his 40s. It had left me reeling.
I was wondering what I was doing there. What hope is there for suffering humanity? Is there any redemption? Salvation? Good news? The Church had always kept the flickering flame of faith alive but had been brought low with the appalling sex scandals that have left us all outraged. But priests still go about their pastoral duties; they baptise and bury us. They bring us Christ's body and blood in the Eucharist. The Spirit works its wonders in the world even if we find it hard to hearken, finding it too difficult to discern the divine desire in everyday epiphanies.
Lying awake the night before and wondering about life and death, about my own loss and fractured friendships, one friend texted me the following words from Viktor Frankl: "If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as faith and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete."
Frankl founded 'logotherapy', which centres on the quest for meaning. He was a Holocaust survivor and had endured appalling misery. His book, Man's Search for Meaning, had been voted one of the 10 most influential books ever written. Frankl never lost sight of the point and purpose of earthly existence seen in the light of eternity.
And so fortified I listened to the lectures in the splendid surroundings of Newman House. I gazed up at the rich rococo style of the beautiful Baroque plasterwork as the rain lashed down outside. The faces of Hopkins and Joyce, both of whom studied in the House, passed before my eyes as did that of my late friend, John.
The theme of the day was reform more than mere renewal. Speakers delivered learned papers on meaning and the Magisterium, Thomism and the Tridentine Mass, Scripture and Tradition, Pre-Nicea and Post-Conciliar visions of Church, liturgy and liberation theology, hermeneutics and hope, ecumenism, ethics, ecclesiology and exegesis.
Hope was expressed that a new model of the Church would emerge, one of dialogue rather than diktat, that the relevance of the Second Vatican Council not be relegated to the dustbin of history. But the Holy See shows no sign of changing.
Catholic means universal but 'Rome' means the Pope and the Curia. The Church is us -- 'miserable sinners' -- as Freud labelled us, searching for meaning on the margins. It is the guardian of transcendent truth despite its structural and sacerdotal sins. It still offers supernatural solace through the sacraments. Its message may be stated starkly: the salvation of man is in love and through love. That is the secret to living and dying with dignity. It's about meaning and mystery. "Lead kindly light amid the encircling doom," as Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman put it. Indeed, among the greatest contributions to the council are surely Newman's teachings on the primacy of conscience.
The most seminal insight of the entire council is that the Church herself is in need of continuing reform (ecclesia semper reformanda). As a Catholic myself (whatever that still means for me), I feel that the Catholic Church has become a cold house for Catholics. Ratzinger reneged on his earlier liberal perspective as poacher turned gamekeeper.
But I still believe in faith, hope and love, in human solidarity, in the preferential option for the poor, in faith and social justice, in the grand ideal of Fr Newman for both church and state -- the latter with his inspired and expansive vision of what a university should be.
The people I met there were visibly hungry for 'spirituality'. One speaker told me her computer crashed after downloading pictures of Paul VI! I told her it served her right.
The great Hans Kung summed it all up for me thus: "Resurrection means a life that bursts through the dimensions of space and time in God's invisible, imperishable, incomprehensible domain. This is what is meant by 'heaven' -- not the heaven of the astronauts, but God's heaven. It means going into reality, not going out."
As I left to go out into the reality of St Stephen's Green the sun was just beginning to shine.
Dr Stephen J Costello is a philosopher and Director of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland: School of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis