From Vatican II to the New Evangelisation

The word gospel comes from the Greek word euangelion and the Latin word evangelium meaning good news. Often the term was reserved to important announcements by public officials. It is found in the first verse of Mark’s gospel.

We do not speak of Our Lord as an evangelist, although his revealed version of the good news, the “Maker’s instructions”, are the teachings we follow. For us the principal announcements of the good news are found in the four synoptic gospels.

During the 2000-year history of the Catholic Church we find a number of dramatically successful examples of reform and renewal. The monastic rule of St Benedict (480–547) eventually produced thousands of monasteries across Europe. And St Columcille’s Iona too was part of the monastic renewal that helped bring about the revival and spread of Christianity in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman empire. The next great wave of renewal was with the Dominican and Franciscan friars in the thirteenth century.

At its best the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation was an attempt to return to the Scriptures (Henry VIII’s problems have a quite different motivation). I have heard it argued that the Reformation helped to save the Catholic Church by forcing the Catholics to take their religious claims seriously. The Council of Trent (1545–63) began too late and dragged on too long but eventually produced wonderful fruit, especially through the creation of the Tridentine seminary (an adapted model is still used today by most dioceses) and the publication of the Catechism of the Council of Trent. The Society of Jesus, founded by St Ignatius of Loyola, was the leader in the so-called Counter Reformation.

We should also see the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) as the most spectacular attempt at re-evangelisation since the time of the Reformation and the most recent foundation stone on which our present efforts are based.

The Second Vatican Council was also the most important event in Catholic life since the sixteenth-century Council of Trent. Its teachings and the unexpected aftermaths have changed the Church, especially in the First World of Western Europe, North America and smaller countries like Australia and New Zealand.

Yet for most youngsters and many of the middle-aged, this Council is about as well-known as the Council of Chalcedon. Only those sixty years and older can remember much about the days of the Latin Mass, high rates of Mass-going and plentiful vocations. To the extent that they think about it at all, they presume things were then as they are now.

Occasionally I have encountered small groups of fervent young Catholics who covertly lament the Council and gaze nostalgically at a pre‑Conciliar Golden Age. I have disappointed them by pointing out that we would all be discomfited in such a return, by the constraints then taken for granted—for example, no ecumenical co-operation, “mixed marriages” celebrated in a sacristy outside the church, and the absence of parish councils and school boards. Catholic life then was much more “clericalised”, with all leadership positions in Catholic schools and hospitals held by nuns, brothers and a few priests.

In Australia at least, while we had many orphanages and refuges, we had very few social welfare services outside the St Vincent de Paul groups and no Caritas agency collecting for development and relief work internationally. This was a Conciliar development in Australia, although we had been blessed with vigorous societies supporting Catholic missionary activity overseas.

The most important document of the Council was the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, where a Copernican revolution saw the People of God (Chapter 2) treated before the hierarchy and episcopate (Chapter 3). The recognition of the baptismal dignity of the lay faithful was deeply in accord with the New Testament. It was also providential for the society which has emerged where hostile pressures have increased so much and are quite beyond the capacity of the reduced number of clergy and religious for effective resistance. The Second Vatican Council recognised the proper dignity of the baptised.

Lumen Gentium also took up the interrupted work of the First Vatican Council and spelt out the role of all the bishops as successors of the apostles, rather than delegates of the Pope, in the doctrine of collegiality (the bishops ruling with and under Peter), which is classically exemplified in an Ecumenical Council and reflected in the regular Synods of Bishops, the last of which dealt with our topic of the New Evangelisation.

While I will mention later some of the misapplications of the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the World (Gaudium et Spes), the basic doctrine that we engage with all those of good will, seek to co-operate rather than condemn, and participate regularly in the discussions of the public square are foundational attitudes for nearly every Catholic today. One hundred years ago in England, Scotland and Australia our situation was something like that of the Muslims in our communities today (without the violence, except for Northern Ireland).

The most obvious day-to-day change took place in the liturgy, where the transition into the vernacular for the celebration of the sacraments was not explicitly mandated by the Council itself. I suspect that not many of the Council Fathers anticipated that our liturgies would so quickly resemble, at least on the surface, Protestant eucharists rather than the Tridentine Mass. Pope John XXIII had only expected that a portion of the Mass would be celebrated in the vernacular.

On that point, it has been pleasing to see, some forty years later, how the new translation has improved the quality and fidelity of the English text of the liturgy to the Latin original. More importantly, this more sacral language has helped turn us more towards Transcendence, the worship of the one true God. Christ should always be at the centre of the Mass, rather than the priest. As a consequence, I strongly support placing a crucifix between the people and the officiating priest and would support a return to the practice of the celebrant facing east, with his back to the people for the offertory and Eucharistic prayer. This would make it abundantly clear that whoever is at the centre of the celebration, it is not the priest.

All the Conciliar documents were approved by overwhelming majorities of the Council Fathers and were generally the successful fusion of two different and sometimes contrasting ambitions. One group emphasised first of all the return to the Biblical sources, “ressourcement”, while the other school emphasised the need for “aggiornamento”, the need to bring the Church up to date.

Both movements are to be understood indicatively rather than literally. No one espoused a strict biblical fundamentalism, while no Catholic became as up-to-date as the Rev. Don Cupitt, an Anglican academic of Cambridge in the sixties who did not believe in God. A number of theologians (non-Catholic) belonged to the Death of God school.

Karl Barth, the distinguished Protestant theologian, deeply admired by Pope Pius XII, asked Pope Paul VI what were the criteria to determine whereby doctrines and practices were to be judged as suitably contemporary or old-fashioned or a step too far. “What does aggiornamento mean? Accommodation to what?” he asked.

These contrasting attitudes saw the creation of the theological review Communio as the alternative to the increasingly radical Concilium. Both orientations were spelling out the consequences of their foundational positions.

These tensions continue, if in a muted fashion after the policies of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, between those who follow Pope Benedict in espousing a “hermeneutic” of continuity, an organic development of doctrine and practice within the tradition, and the Bologna School of historical theology, who are suspected of believing in a “hermeneutic of rupture”, seeing Vatican II as a radical development or departure, somehow standing isolated from the preceding 2000 years of history. Appeals to the “Spirit of Vatican II” always make me suspicious because they usually imply that no justification can be found within the texts of the Council for the ideas being announced, and that other more “modern” criteria are being invoked.

I add here that there are aspects of both approaches represented at the Council— “ressourcement” and “aggiornamento”—which are needed and important.

The 1960s was initially an age of optimism exemplified in the person of Pope John XXIII. President de Gaulle in France and Konrad Adenauer in West Germany were strong Catholics and the election of John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic president of the USA electrified the Irish diaspora everywhere in the English-speaking world.

The permissive revolution which followed the invention of the contraceptive pill in 1962 had not properly got under way and the social dislocation which accompanied the unpopular war in Vietnam had not reached its peak. The student uprisings in France and Germany in 1968 followed after the Council, but triggered a whirlwind of revolution in the Catholic world.

Pope Paul VI’s long-delayed decision against artificial contraception in 1968 was a catalyst. Many realised their exaggerated ambitions for change would not be realised. Around the world 10,000 priests and a larger number of religious left during the pontificate of Pope Paul VI. A number of my contemporaries had been ordained expecting to receive permission to be married later; they were disappointed.

Vocations to the priesthood and religious life declined in many Western countries and Catholic life collapsed in countries with an extraordinarily high rate of religious practice and with many missionaries overseas, such as Holland and Quebec. I was fearful in the past that we faced such a prospect of collapse in Australia; but the situation here has been stabilised, although the gains are still fragile.

Mixed fruit followed the efforts of the Second Vatican Council at New Evangelisation, many of them not intended by the Council and not direct consequences of the Council teachings.

Let me try to use the parable of the sower and the seed (Luke 8:4–15) to elucidate our situation. In this parable one person scatters the seeds before the furrows are ploughed. Seeds therefore fall on nearby paths, some on rocky ground. Other seeds are taken by the birds. Today with mighty machines we can sow the seeds in the already ploughed furrows and cover them quickly. These developments mean the enemy too can plant his weeds very efficiently. Today we can more easily water and fertilise the crops whether they be good or bad.

Many hardy varieties of genuine wheat have been developed to suit different climates. Not everyone has to join Opus Dei or the Neo‑Catechumenal Way! Some brands however are deficient, appear healthy, but produce no seed. Some forms of Catholic life are contraceptive, where all seems well on the surface, but no new life is produced. All plants have to be hardy because the pollution in the air is now nearly as bad as it was in the pagan world in Jesus’s time and they still have to battle the weeds.

Reading the signs of the times is difficult because majority opinion is not always correct. We need goals and objectives, following the difficult-to-recognise Spirit rather than being captured by trends, good or bad, because in many, perhaps most, parts of the Western world the Church is still losing ground.

In the Western world, all those of us who love the Church cannot afford to ignore this, much less to be in a state of denial. If we cannot recognise where we are, it is much more difficult to plan for re-evangelisation.

Because we cannot command or call up conversions to Christ, what might we usefully try to do? Let me suggest some simple measures and the best way to resist hostile pressures. To reverse decline—whether it be in sport or religion—is to insist that the fundamentals are in place.

First, we must emphasise the importance of faith in the one true God who loves us. We need to combat intellectually the forces of the new atheism and be confident about what we have to offer in the pursuit of Truth. This implies a knowledge of philosophy and science, a defence from reason before any appeal to revelation.

Second, the crucified Christ and his teachings have to be at the centre of all our catechetical and religious formation work with the young. Crucifixion Christianity is essential if we are to speak to those who are suffering and those who acutely feel the need for redemption. The fruits of the resurrection are too seldom felt or observed in day-to-day life. At the time of the Reformation it was unnecessary to state this, because Christ was central for all the contending parties. This is not our situation within or outside the Church. Therefore as an archbishop I began by reforming religious education and the seminary. It was essential to sequentially and comprehensively explain and promote the importance of core beliefs to audiences which often had little prior formation and no idea of their own basic story.

No new evangelisation is possible without a sound catechesis for the young. I believe we have made important progress in many parts of Australia in religious education. In the past our efforts were too often unfocused and misdirected.

It is no use teaching fifteen-year-old boys about the “literary forms” of the New Testament, when they have no idea about the basic kerygma and can scarcely distinguish a gospel from an epistle.

Once upon a time some began catechesis for first grades by talking about the liturgical year rather than emphasising the gospel stories of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. I recall one young boy, admittedly a bit further along the track than a first grader, who told me that ordinary time in the liturgical year was when nothing happened.

On too many occasions in the past we presumed that someone else was teaching the central truths of the baptismal promises; what are described as the four foundations on the last page of our “Know, Worship and Love” textbooks: one God, one Redeemer and Son of God, one Church (primarily and substantially) and Jesus’s call to follow Him by living the two great commandments of love through the essential framework of the Ten Commandments.

My third point was well made at a recent meeting of bishops, when a young bishop pointed out that our views on salvation, on its nature, universality or limits, on the criteria Christ uses in judgment—this ensemble of views colours our whole approach to Catholic life.

November is the month when we particularly meditate on the mystery of death and resurrection, on Jesus’s explicit teaching on the reality of reward and punishment in the next life. In other words we consider the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, hell. If the fires of hell are never populated (in our view), then our life is likely to lack a sense of urgency. If purgatory has lapsed into limbo also, so that we are unconcerned about the necessity of purification before entering into God’s presence, then we might be drifting towards supporting an unreflective attitude that heaven is a universal human right. This could be quite close to a radical agnosticism about life after death, and especially about reward or punishment after death.

Dangerously, we can start to act as though we are a purely this-world organisation, where considerations about God count for little. The closer we come to this extreme the less we should be surprised when people are unconcerned about the call to conversion.

We certainly understand today that the God who judges us is loving and sympathetic as well as just, but Jesus also said that “narrow is the way that leads to salvation” (Matthew 7:14). We live in the light of eternity, following Christ’s call for purity of heart, conversion, genuine love and faith.

My fourth point is that today even in regular Christian formation Christ is too often displaced from the centre, His hard teachings obscured or neglected. While disinterest is usually the greater problem, we have a whole range of alternatives—the charism of the founder, global warming, the sustainability of the planet, theorising about social justice, even the struggle for life rather than stressing the call to repent and believe, to follow our brother the redeemer Jesus Christ the only Son of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; so too misdirected zeal has too often turned our eucharists into community celebrations rather than solemn traditional acts of worship.

Proper worship of God our Father, through Christ His Son, combined with accurate Christian formation, could be described as putting into place the required sociological frameworks for the unpredictable work of the Spirit within our believing families and communities.

Liturgy which uplifts us and encourages a contemplation of the Divine is essential. All Catholics must be helped to understand the importance of reverence for the Eucharist and for that important moment when God unites himself to us through his own self-gift. It is through this self-gift that we are more fully able to become People of God who can truly live out the New Evangelisation.

A fifth fundamental. Youngsters and their parents from every type of Catholic family, good, bad or indifferent, need to be informed that the Ten Commandments are the indispensable moral framework for all Christians, not just for a few old churchgoers. The primacy of conscience (a damaging notion when applied to the Word of God) cannot dispense anyone from any of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are not like a final examination of ten questions where only six need be attempted.

Most young Australian Catholics talk like relativists, even when their moral views are correct. No longer is there any instinctive acceptance of moral truths, except perhaps in ecology or social justice.

Moving beyond these fundamentals to grapple with the Catholic forms of the new evangelisation, we should acknowledge that Catholicism is not only for saints because sinners of every type and quality have always been part of Catholic history, to our shame. We need to be doing what we can sociologically for those on the outer edge of the concentric or overlapping circles which make up the Christian community.

Few, if any, people fifty years ago expected the dark stain of sexual abuse to have spread so widely across the Church, while varying in extent even within countries. It does not need to be said that this is the most important and powerful barrier to the New Evangelisation.

In Australia, sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has caused deep concern among Catholics and the wider community. It is shameful and shocking that this abuse, with its tragic toll on those who were abused and on their families, was committed by Catholic priests and church workers. That church officials have sometimes failed to deal appropriately with those who have been abused, and with priests and church workers accused of abuse, is deeply disturbing.

We acknowledge the pain that victims and their families have experienced and continue to experience. We express our remorse for past failures.

Again, in Australia at least, survivors and victims have been assisted, received some measure of justice, considerable compassion and many practical helps. However, we are committed to doing more and there is much to be done. Without doubt the press has helped the Church face up to its problems.

Much still needs to be done in Australia and will be done, but substantial steps have been taken procedurally in the last sixteen years and generally these procedures have been followed.

We would hope that the Church community is purer and stronger in itself after removing much of this criminal moral cancer. However, the Church will remain at the foot of the cross until every cancer cell is excised.

In the English-speaking world, where Catholicism is nearly everywhere a minority, after the Second Vatican Council, and especially after Gaudium et Spes, we were properly urged to come out of the ghetto and dialogue with the world. There is no alternative to this, but we overestimated our strength and underestimated the strength of the enemy, which has exponentially increased because of television, the worlds of entertainment and fashion, and now the internet and the ever-expanding range of instant communications.

Instead of lamenting the helps traditional Catholic life gave across the centuries in cities, towns and villages and somehow rejoicing in small numbers in our hostile world, we need to be working to rebuild our defences, to shore up Catholic identity and practice sociologically rather than insisting on the removal of those surviving props.

Only Western Protestantism has moved further than Western Catholicism away from the penitential practices of all the good monotheist traditions. I commend the decision of the English Catholic bishops to reintroduce the traditional Friday abstinence from meat for both intrinsic reasons (as a help to conversion) and as a sociological marker.

In one Australian seminary some decades ago the Salve Regina was banned as too divisive and the rosary could not be recited together as a public devotion. Devotion and prayer to Our Lady constitute one of the identifying marks of genuine Catholicism.

Some of the older medieval traditions are popular with young people, such as prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, which meets their need for silence and recollection, while Benediction is regularly an equally popular encouragement for worship. Rediscovered forms of prayer such as silent meditation can also be taught usefully to young children who do not come from regularly worshipping families. We are teaching this in an increasing number of primary schools in Sydney and to good effect.

A final point on Family Prayer. The New Evangelisation needs the prayerful contribution of the Ecclesia Domestica. Encouraging commitment to a simple model proposed by one American bishop of “eat together, pray together and go to Mass together” has much to commend it. The Catholic family is the heart of the Church and we need to encourage that heart to have a strong prayerful beat, so its members can be effective witnesses to the New Evangelisation.

We need allies. First, religious allies. Naturally our first allies are all the “gospel Christians” in the other Christian churches and communities; that is, those who start from and give precedence to the Christ of the New Testament. Allies, even Christian allies, radical or liberal, who rewrite the New Testament according to modern understandings can be dangerous. We should seek to build upon our natural common ground with our brothers in faith in areas such as the defence of marriage and the family. The Jewish and Muslim communities are also deeply concerned by the rise of aggressive secularism; in particular, its attempts to redefine marriage and impose a new orthodoxy on the culture, the aim of which is to silence traditional believers and force them out of the public square.

I do not underestimate the significant differences between Christians and Muslims on matters of belief, including attitudes to non-believers. I am also well aware of the terrible situations facing Christian minorities in some Muslim countries. We need to acknowledge this and speak about it, including in interfaith dialogue. But we also need to start from where we are. In Sydney we are blessed by good relationships with Jewish and Muslim leaders. Our tenth annual Abrahamic Faiths Conference last year focused on our shared tradition of marriage and the family as the “patrimony of humanity”. We are grateful to God for the opportunities we have to work and stand together, especially on these issues of marriage, the family and religious freedom.

The questions of the broader interaction of Islam with secularism and with the Catholic Church remain to be determined and we need to do what we can to give shape to this. We hope that terrorist violence will regularly diminish throughout the West (this is not inevitable) and that interfaith co-operation on some religious issues might be possible. New habits of mind will be necessary.

We need secular allies also, especially civil and political leaders. Even in these troubled times, there remains an enduring respect and admiration for the Church because of its commitment to serving the poor and its contribution to education, healthcare and human dignity. This compassion is the practical and public expression of a Catholicism that is free to practise, to grow, to teach and to evangelise.

Last year I was invited to address the annual scientific meeting of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. I was given the topic, “Is Catholicism compatible with women’s health?” The audience seemed a little surprised but responded warmly to the figures I cited, demonstrating that the Catholic Church provides a quarter of the world’s healthcare, is the largest non-government provider of education in the world, and, through its Caritas network, distributes over US$2.6 billion annually in aid to the poor.

For a variety of reasons, people today respond more positively to witnesses, rather than teachers. By drawing on the power of the Church’s witness and its living out of the teachings of Christ, especially the Beatitudes and the Commandments, we are more likely to be taken seriously by those within and outside of the Church.

The great Scottish novelist Dame Muriel Spark once explained her conversion by saying, “If you’re going to do a thing, you should do it thoroughly. If you’re going to be a Christian, you may as well be a Catholic.” In these times when the secular vision of human life is becoming more and more impoverished and unfulfilling, only a religious vision which thoroughly and intelligently contrasts with this poverty will attract those seeking God, identity and belonging.

As other Christian churches and communities sadly are struggling to hold on to a coherent apostolic tradition, the depth and fidelity of Catholicism to the roots of Christianity has become heightened. The beauty and richness of its witness to the person of Jesus Christ in all aspects of human life and society is a compelling answer to the void of secularism.

New techniques alone cannot improve our situation, although we have 70,000 members of Xt3, our interactive website in Sydney. Modern and effective methods of communication are helpful but insufficient in themselves. They produce sympathy and some interest, rather than the deep personal conversion Christ invites us to make. Christians are called to go deeper: to repent and to believe. For those who feel a bit uneasy about the term “holiness”, somewhat unnerved by the sentimental holy pictures of sixty years ago, the call to follow Christ more closely through prayer and action is still indispensable and foundational to any attempt at re-evangelisation.

God is with us. We have the basic truths about life. We know and access God’s forgiveness and rejoice in the promise of eternal life. Christ has taught us how to pray.

The living witness of the Church throughout the world continues to proclaim that only in Christ does man discover the fullness of his humanity and that it is only through Christ that he is redeemed. May this witness give us a renewed and greater confidence to invite all men, women and children to that personal encounter with him that is the essence of the New Evangelisation.

We all know what lies at the heart of the New Evangelisation, that it is not like the higher mathematics of rocket science; beyond the reach of most of us. Rather, the New Evangelisation is like losing weight. We know this is achieved by eating less and exercising. The challenge is to do what is required and, in Australia at least, to convince many that they should lose weight!

Cardinal Pell is the Archbishop of Sydney.

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