Homily for the Opening of the Year of Faith

St Mary’s Cathedral, 11 October 2012; St Mary’s, Inverness, 12 October 2012

(The readings for these Masses were drawn from the Mass for the Spread of the Gospel / the Evangelisation of Peoples, and were Zechariah 8:20-23; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Matthew 28:16-20). 

‘The Lord of hosts says this. In those day ten men of nations of every language will take a Jew by the sleeve, and say, “We want to go with you, since we have learnt that God is with you”’ (Zech 8:23).

We heard those words in the 1st reading. They are from the prophet Zechariah, written some 520 years before Christ. Zechariah imagines ten men (Gentiles, non-Jews) in different nations of the world, so struck by the presence of God among their Jewish neighbours, that they take their local Jews by the sleeve and beg them to lead them to Jerusalem, the City of the living God.

How amazing it would be if, by the end of this Year of Faith, ten people had taken each of us by the sleeve, and said, ‘We want to go with you. Take us to this God you believe in, tell us about this Jesus you love, take us to the heavenly Jerusalem you hope for!’ How wonderful if next year, on the solemnity of Christ the King, 24 November 2013, at the closing Mass of the Year of Faith, there were ten times this number of people here, and the police had to cordon off Huntly St for the crowd!

‘We want to go with you, since we have learnt that God is with you.’

Today, throughout the world and especially in Rome, the Year of Faith is opening. By the will of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict, it opens today, 11th October, because today is the 50th anniversary of the opening of the 2nd Vatican Council. I don’t imagine anyone here took part in those opening ceremonies in Rome on 11th October 1962, but some, even many of you will have memories of the Council happening. And there’s not one of us here, even if we’re unaware of it, who has not been affected by this Council – through the Liturgy certainly and in other less tangible ways: in our understanding of the Church, in our outlook and attitudes.

Bl. John Paul II called this Council, ‘the great grace bestowed on the Church in the 20th c’ (Novo Millennio Ineunte 57). It’s about the Council I’d like to say something this evening – because of the anniversary. And because one aspiration of this Year of Faith is that the ‘great grace’ of the Council be revived among us (cf. Porta Fidei 5).

‘We want to go with you, since we have learnt that God is with you.’

The Church ‘goes’ through history. She goes because ‘God is with’ her. Because Christ is with her: ‘And know that I am with you always, to the end of time’ (Mt 28:20). She is God’s people and Christ’s Body on pilgrimage. She ‘goes’ from all the places where she is – all the local churches – to the heavenly Jerusalem. She’s on pilgrimage from Pentecost to the Parousia. And one thing that has marked this corporate passage through time has been General or Ecumenical Councils – gatherings of bishops, normally with the Pope, the head of the College of Bishops. 21 times to date this has happened. They are occasions when the Church experiences that God is still with her. Disputed points of doctrine are settled and guidance is given for the life of the Church. She finds a direction at a certain moment of her pilgrimage through time. She is re-focussed on the heavenly Jerusalem. Often Councils are surrounded by controversy. They can cause division. Sometimes they were unfinished. Sometimes a later Council has to complete and balance an earlier one. They are always limited and imperfect. But as time passes, it becomes clear that the Lord was with them. They become sources of inspiration. They revive drooping Christian spirits, put a spring in our step, renew us as we continue our journey in the footsteps of Christ.

And so with the 21st of these Councils, the one we remember tonight, the 2nd Vatican Council. It met in 4 sessions over 4 years from 1962 to 1965. It had the largest number of participating bishops ever, 2625. And it approved 4 Constitutions, 9 Decrees and  3 Declarations. None of these 16 texts is insignificant, but it is the 4 Constitutions that stand out. They’re known by their opening Latin words: Sacrosanctum Concilium on the Sacred Liturgy, Dei Verbum on Divine Revelation, Lumen Gentium on the Church, and Gaudium et Spes on the Church in the Modern World. These are the four corners, as it were, of the world of Vatican II, the 4 pillars of the house it built. And around them everything the Council wanted to say clusters.

We’re encouraged this year to revisit these texts, read them, discuss them, look at their teaching. That won’t always be easy, but if we try it together in our parishes and elsewhere it can be doable.

Why bother? we may wonder. What was it all about? This brings us to the grace of the Council. It brings us back to Zechariah: ‘we want to go with you, since we have learnt that God is with you.’ The Council was, and is, a great sign that God is with us. We live in history. And Pope John XXIII, who summoned the Council, and Paul VI who continued it, knew that the world was changing, that for better and for worse humanity was, in some way, entering a new stage of history. And if the Church was to be faithful to Christ, she needed to renew herself in order to meet this new situation and fulfil her mission. How be believers, Christians, Catholics, in today’s world? This was the question. Christ is the Shepherd of his flock. What is he asking? What are we being called to, one by one and together? We are like the Gentiles in Zechariah’s vision: we want to take a Jew, the Jew, Jesus, by the sleeve (of the tunic of his divine humanity woven by Mary), and go with him – through life, through history. We want to go with Christ, with Mary and the apostles, the first disciples and all the saints. We want to go with the Holy Spirit. We want to go together. And because God was with it, the Council cried out, Go these ways, this way. Here is the path – here and now, at the turn of a millennium. Here is the way to the heavenly Jerusalem. Do not be afraid, little flock! God is with you!

The Council, I would say, had three great points of reference: the person of Christ, the Church, and humanity. And, in their light, it proposed a three-fold way, opened a three-lane highway. Or issued a triple call.

It calls us, first of all, one by one, to a deeper, personal Christian life. Faith is no longer automatically supported by the society and culture in which we live. And so it becomes a very free personal choice. The Council called us to become more aware of believing. It called us to nourish this believing with the Word of God and Scripture (hence Dei Verbum), to corroborate it in a liturgical, sacramental, eucharistic life (hence Sacrosanctum Concilium), and so come to share in the saving death and resurrection of Christ. It invited us to see the glory of God shining on the face of the risen Christ, to go to meet him, know him, befriend him. It said, take Christ by the sleeve of his Word and the sleeve of the Liturgy, and go with him. It reminded us of the universal call to holiness.

But when we hear that call and take that path, we find we’re not alone. Christ is the Light of the nations (Lumen Gentium) and his glory shines on the face of the Church. And the Council wanted us to see this. This is the second call, the second way. The Church was the Council’s great, central, all-pervading theme. It called the Church ‘a kind of sacrament, or sign and instrument, in Christ of intimate union with God and the unity of the whole human race’ (LG 1). She is the place where God is with us, where God and man can meet and human beings be gathered together again after all the scatterings of sin. Humanly speaking, the Church is full of poor flawed mortal human beings, sinners always in need of repentance and forgiveness. Divinely speaking, she is the People of God, the Body and Bride of Christ, the Mother of grace. And ‘this Church [of Christ] , established and ordered in this world, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him, although outside her visible structure, many elements of holiness and truth are found, which, as gifts proper to the Church of Christ, tend toward Catholic unity’ (LG 8). (Hence the passion for the full visible unity of all Christians we call ecumenism.) And in this Church, said the Council again, each has his or her own gift from God, own place, own role. None of us is just a consumer, a customer. Each of us has a part to play on life’s stage in the great dramatic company of the Church. Each of us, in the circumstances of our lives, is a living member of Christ’s Body, a branch of the Vine, and called to bear fruit. So the second call, its second way, of the Council is to belong, with all our heart and life, to the Church Christ founded.

And from this naturally flows the third way / call: not to keep these gifts of Christ-knowing and Church-belonging to ourselves, but to share them with our fellow human beings, so far as the Spirit allows. Hence Gaudium et Spes, the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. ‘The joy and hope, the suffering and dread of the men and women of this time, especially of the poor and those afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the suffering and dread, of Christ’s disciples too’ (GS 1). Christ calls us, through the Council, to enter fully into human life, to continue his Incarnation. He calls us to a passion for the human, for each person in all the unrepeatable reality of what he or she is and does (as Bl. John Paul II liked to say), for human beings in their individuality, their social life, their activity. Christ seeks them as he seeks us, and wants to seek them with us and through us. God our Saviour ‘wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim 2:4), and the Council called us to enter into that wanting, willing, of God. It called us to become fully a missionary, Christ-bearing Church. To be salt, light, leaven in the world. To hear again the Gospel we just heard: ‘Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you’ (Mt 28:19-20). It’s a happy providence that a Synod of Bishops opens in Rome these days on precisely this theme: the new Evangelisation for the transmission of the Faith. This is to renew the call of the Council.

Christ, the Church, the human being: the Council’s three great points of reference. Inner life, belonging, mission: its three great calls or ways. ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Jesus asked Peter three times (Jn 21:15ff). We can say that through the Council, he asks all of us the same: ‘do you love me?’ He asks for a single, three-fold love: of himself, of his Church, of each and every human being he puts on our path. And if that threefold love can be rekindled in us this Year of Faith, then each of us will become that Jew Zechariah imagined. Ten men will take us by the sleeve and plead with us, ‘We want to go with you, since we have learnt that God is with you.’ And if only one does, if we manage to share our faith with one other person this year, it won’t be wasted. And in a year’s time, the police will still need to cordon off Huntly St for the crowds. May it be so, and may the prayers of our Lady of Aberdeen accompany and encourage us!


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