Monday, March 30, 2009

So that the Fresh Air of the Gospel Come In . . .

This year we commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the incredible convocation made by Pope John XXIII for the celebration of the Ecumenical Council in the Catholic Church, which is known as “Vatican II.” During the twenty centuries of its existence, the Catholic Church has only held twenty plus Councils. The last one, the Ecumenical Council Vatican II, was called for with a very clear purpose: to motivate and bring to conscience an “up-dating” (aggiornamiento) of the Church in the World. The outcome was the renewed work which such purpose required of the being, of the purpose and of the mission of the Church. In other words, it motivated a renewed lifestyle for all of God’s people (hierarchy and laity), and a change in liturgy and in the pastoral and evangelistic work of the Church in the world.

This purpose implied a serious and profound self-examination of the faithfulness and indefectibility of the Church to the Gospel and its Founder; a sincere repentance when facing the past mistakes; and the need for the abandonment of old practices and models –practices and models which are more in accord with the “perfect societies” of the World than with the Community of believers in Christ. Beyond all that, it also implied a sincere wish for conversion and a spiritual and material renovation by God’s people, who go to all four corners of the world, and all levels of the structures which make up the ecclesiastic Catholic Institution in the world.

We do not ignore that during twenty centuries of history and of the Catholic Institution, the Church has been exposed to the contamination which entails a service to the world ideologies and philosophies more than to the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. To serve more the money than God; more the Old than the New Testament; more the Canon than the Gospel principles; and more the power and pomp of the world than the needs of the poor to whose service the Church is privileged and particularly destined to serve. Therefore, the Second Vatican Council represented, in its moment, a unique opportunity for the Church to adapt itself to the new era, to the new urgencies, to the new challenges which today’s world presents for its work of evangelization.

From the first day of its announcement (January 25, 1959) until the day of its closing (December 8, 1965), Vatican II proved to be the most important event of the Church in its 450 years of history. The majority of the previous Councils caused ruptures and divisions within the Church. This was the only Council which, without provoking division or serious dissentions (except for the small group of lefevristas who rejected the innovative proposals of the Council; and, on the other hand, the representatives of intellectual currents who looked for an acceleration of the radical teachings and doctrinal interpretations of Vatican II) motivated and started great and important transformations within the Church itself, in true consonance with the contemporary world. The Second Vatican Council, without harming the established basis of the faith, and in historical continuity with the Teachings of the Church --which are based in the Holy Scriptures and in Church Tradition-- recovered important themes that had been put aside during the last centuries, themes such as: the collegiality of the Bishops, the priesthood of all who have been baptized, the theology of the local church, and the centrality and importance of the Holy Scriptures and the Eucharist in what the Church is and does.

The Second Vatican Council distanced itself from the dogmatic methods and language of other Ecumenical Councils --like the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council--and abstained from pronouncing condemnation. It was all the result of the renovation movements which took place in the 20th Century in the fields of biblical study, patristic understanding, medieval studies, liturgical theology, and ecumenical conversations. Besides that, Vatican II was the result of the meeting and dialog of new philosophical and scientific trends; of the restating of new relations between the Church and the world; and of the new role which the laity is to play in the work of evangelization of the Church.

Like all realities of the World and of the Church, the changes and renovations proposed by the Second Vatican Council also touched the Hispanic Catholic World in the United States. Because of it, in 1972, the Hispanic Catholics met and called for the First National Pastoral Encounter; with the Second taking place in 1977 and a Third Encounter in 1985 --all in Washington D.C. These encounters were praiseworthy since they seeked to find the communion, the participation and the integration of the Spanish speaking community to the Catholic Church in the United States.
The Second Vatican Council meant a new Pentecost for the Church and, in the last 50 years, the Catholic Church has experienced incredible changes within the community of believers, and in the historical course of the world. Without doubt, the result of the Council, as much in the hierarchy as in the laity, was the unique experience of enrichment and vitality in the story of Catholicism.

Today’s Pontificate of Benedict XVI directs Catholicism to re-discover a personal and new inner life through closeness to the Scriptures; and to seek a dialog and coming together with the other Churches in the Christian world. Nevertheless, in this fifty year commemoration it would be good to ask ourselves if the Church of today (which includes all of us) continues to be faithful to the renewing spirit of the “good” Pope John XXIII, when he called for Vatican II. In other words, are we being faithful to the responsibility which we have, as a Church, to respond and make known, at all times and circumstance, the urgencies of mankind and of the world, in the light of the Gospel, without getting anchored in the assurance and comfort which the known past gives? Moreover, we should ask ourselves if today’s Church continues to have its doors and windows open so that through them, and for the benefit of all humanity, the always new and fresh air of the Gospel of Jesus Christ can circulate.

“Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel!”

Saul (Hebrew name), Paul (Roman family name) are the names by which we know the great apostle and foundation of the Catholicity. The little we know about Paul of Tarsus comes to us through two sources: his own letters, and the book of Acts of the Apostles. The exact date of his birth is not known but --according to some of the most important Pauline theologians, like Joseph A. Fitzmyer-- it is reasonable to place his birth in the first decade of the Christian era.

Paul was born in the Hellenistic city of Tarsus and, from birth, enjoyed the privileges of a Roman citizen. Because of this, we can say that in his mind all three cultures of the time fit brilliantly: the Semitic-Jewish of his parents (Hebrew, Jewish, Pharisee); the Hellenistic (dominant culture); and the Roman (the culture of the Empire in which the apostle lived). This triple vision of the world, this triple cultural dimension constantly shows in his writings; and allows the apostle great versatility to adapt himself to each distinct audience, to preach adequately, and to try to reach all people of the known world by preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ.

This cosmopolitan personality, this cultural versatility in Paul explains more than enough the title which we give him with honor: “The Apostle to the Gentiles.” Thanks to this cultural opening in his character, and this “globalized” vision of the world, Paul would become the most important missionary and preacher in the beginnings of the Church. Also, thanks to his work of evangelization we can say, without doubt, that the Good News of Jesus Christ came out of the local roads and paths of Galilee to reach, up until today, every man and woman of good will born in the four corners of the earth.

What pushed Paul to unconditionally dedicate himself to this mission from the moment of his conversion until the end of his life? What was the motor to his apostolic work? What gave him “strength” and motivation? The certainty of having found in the Gospel the happiness that every man and woman seeks and longs for, and --in its Theology-- the person of Jesus Christ himself. From the moment when he had that personal encounter with Jesus, whom he persecuted by persecuting the Christians, a fact told by the symbolism used in biblical texts, Paul dedicated himself completely to tell that marvelous works were done in him by Christ. Paul understood these marvelous “works” as part of the work of the “Crucified Christ”: to bring salvation to mankind. A salvation/happiness which, according to him, will reach all throughout the world without distinction of race, condition, nationality, age, etc.

Therefore, the fundamental affirmation of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is born in Paul from an indescribable and very personal experience: The crucified Christ changed his life, and if he changed his life sheathing it with a new mentality, it is because the Crucified “Lives”! This confession by Paul of his fundamental faith in the “gospel” is not born from intellectual works, but from a daily experience guaranteed and reconfirmed by the testimony of the first believers; those first Christians (men and women, martyrs of the first hours of Christianity) whom Paul vehemently persecuted, impelled and in perfect alignment with the enthusiasm of his previous pharisaic convictions.

Because, if anything is clear in Paul’s personality, it is his authenticity: first, he lived authentically as the “most” Pharisee of all Pharisees; and –after his encounter with Christ-- he lived authentically as a “Christian.”

Many aspects of Paul’s life need to be rescued so that our present historical and ecclesial perspective can be enlightened. Among others:

· His cosmopolitan vision of man and of the world; his openness and embrace of all cultures and all men and women recognizing them as brothers and sisters in Christ (this completely opposite to the “petrine” vision which pretended to imprison the Gospel within the boarders of Israel); and even today, his vision goes against the xenophobic, discriminatory, and divisionist vision which, disguised by “globalism”, allows the accumulation of riches in the hands of a few while the price is payed by marginalization, impoverishment and misery of a great majority.

· His missionary fervor for the work of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

· His great generosity in the work of saving/making all peoples happy with the Good News of
Jesus Christ, even with great personal sacrifices (persecution and imprisonment not told).

· His Christian beliefs came from experience not from notion.

· His preaching and later theological reflections (put into writing in his letters) come out of the daily experiences of feeling himself loved/happy, thanks to the daily intervention of the “Crucified/Resurrected” in his life.

· To have been able to establish among the biblical theological terms (vetero and neo testamentary), words to designate God’s saving works such as salvation, redemption, expiation, liberation, justification etc. which describe the basic wish of all people: to be happy in Christ. Because for Paul, the life-in-Christ has one clear function: The “Christ-happening” was to make us happy, in other words, to save us, to give us eternal life, abundant life; that life which Paul himself found on the road to Damascus.

May these lines encourage us to know and to imitate the Apostle Paul, in a more authentic manner, for the mission which we all have as baptized believers: to live and to preach with words and actions, the Gospel of Jesus Christ which is (as it was for Paul) our power, our strength, our salvation; our happiness, our eternal life, and the plenitude of our existence and of human history.