Irish church making progress towards 'medicine of mercy'
THINKING ABOUT the anniversary of the Second Vatican Council led me to reading again Pope John XXIII’s opening speech. While some of the phrasing seems dated, the wit and joy for which he was famous shine through, writes BREDA O’BRIEN
“In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times, they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin . . . We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.”
Nevertheless, he is not guilty of a Pollyanna-ish optimism, having a great awareness of the suffering and darkness in life.
It is clear that Pope John did not think that major innovations in core church doctrines were desirable. “It is necessary, first of all, that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers.
“But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world, which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate.”
Many of the themes that were to be more fully realised in the 16 documents of the council are present in his opening words. He spoke both of the need for unity within the church, and unity among the Christian churches. He spoke of the errors of having “excessive confidence in technical progress and a wellbeing based exclusively on the comforts of life”. There is a real spirit of joy in what he wrote, a sense that the church had something extraordinary to offer the world, not in a hectoring or condemnatory way, but as a gift.
“Nowadays however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.”
Fifty years later, where are we? No one in 1962 could have foreseen the decline in esteem of the Catholic Church, caused in great part by the self-inflicted wound of failure to deal adequately with sexual abuse of children by clergy.
As a teacher in contact with young people, it is clear to me that those who have grown up with little but scandals are often deeply sceptical about the church as an institution. Yet despite that reality, the council has brought about many positive changes. No one would suggest that all the changes envisioned by the council have happened to everyone’s satisfaction, but the modernisation brought about by it was dramatic, as 400 years of deferred change began to happen within decades.