FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT – APRIL 6, 2003 – OUR LADY OF VICTORY
In today’s first reading we have one of the most important and most beautiful of the prophecies that Christians believe were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It is the announcement of a new covenant, unlike the old one struck with ancestors at the foot of Mt. Sinai. This covenant, like that ancient one, will have a law, but his one will be written not on stone tablets but on hearts: this is how in this new covenant the Lord will be their God and they will be his people.
St. Paul first, and then the great theologians of the Christian tradition, Augustine and Aquinas, expanded on the fulfilment of this prophecy in the new covenant; Christians will be taught within, by the Holy Spirit; the primary law that will inspire and guide their lives will be within them, in a love for God that becomes the inner law that directs their instincts, their spontaneities, as love guides the instinctive, spontaneous love of a mother or father for a child. God writes his law on our hearts by the gift of love for him.
This reading is another invitation to us to be sure that we have an inner Christianity, that it is not all externals, laws and regulations, commandments understood as external impositions.Some fifty years ago the Second Vatican Council sought to increase that interiorizing of the Gospel, of the Christian life. When Pope John XXIII announced the Council, he had three basic purposes in mind: the spiritual renewal of the Church, the updating of its pastoral attitudes, strategies, institutions, and the promotion of Christian reunion. Renewal, reform, and reunion. All three of them were endorsed by the bishops of the Council, who in sixteen documents offered a positive vision of a renewed Church and offered proposals for its reform.
We are celebrating this morning perhaps the most obvious result of those deliberations forty years ago: this reformed liturgy. It is celebrated in English: God’s word to us and our response of faith and prayer; there are three biblical readings; some rites are performed differently than before; there are new eucharistic prayers; there are many more ministers, most of them lay people. There is a sense, of course, in which these are all external changes, changes in the objective rite of the Mass. The changes were not made for change’s sake. The goal of the Council was to promote and facilitate what it called “the full, conscious, active” participation of the whole community of faith that gathers for worship. The people were not to attend Mass they way they attend a concert or a play, where someone else has the active role on stage. What we do here we are all to do here. The prayers the priest utters are almost always in the first person plural: “We pray. Bless us.” The priest is praying in the name of the whole community, of all of us, and our Amen makes what he says our prayer. That is why the changes in our worship were made: to make it easier for all of us to understand this communal act of worship and to enter into it with full awareness and participation.
The eucharistic gathering has always been the best expression, indeed the best realization of who and what we are as the Church. We are gathered here out of our individual and family lives and together come under the comfort, the challenge, perhaps even the condemnation, of the Word of God, and we become again the community of believers by the Amen of the Creed. We recall the sacrifice of our reconciliation with God, and give thanks for the death and resurrection by which it was effected, singing the Amen of our praise. And though many, we become one because we all eat the same bread and drink from the same cup; we become the Body of Christ that we receive. The eucharist that we the Church carry out itself makes us ever more fully and clearly the Church.
This common celebration can also be a paradigm of what the Church is supposed to be also apart from this gathering, and this also was something Vatican II stressed from beginning to end. The Church is not the clergy; the word in the first place refers to the whole body of believers, to the whole people of God. All are supposed to have their part, their roles and responsibilities. The whole Church, and every local congregation, is supposed to display unity in variety, variety in unity; a unity that is not uniformity, a variety that is not simple plurality; perhaps the best way to think of it is as integration, an integration that does not deny or squelch the distinctiveness of individuals and of groups but at the same time raises them up into a larger whole in Christ and in the Holy Spirit. In recent years in particular we American Catholics have gained a new appreciation of the fact that the Church is not the hierarchy.
The Council also enabled us to recognize that many of the blessings we have received in Christ exist also outside the Catholic Church. Thinking of other Christian communities, the Council said that “some, even very many, of the most important elements and endowments that together constitute and give life to the Church exist outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church.” We learned a new way of relating to other Christians: by concentrating on what we have in common, acknowledging it, celebrating it, and only then, within that acknowledged communion, addressing points on which we differ, even significantly. This is what has been happening in almost countless official ecumenical conversations and in even more numerous personal encounters.
That the Church does not exist for her own sake but as a sacrament, a sign and instrument, of Christ and of his purpose, was another emphasis of the Council. It did not propose a purely private, individualistic Christianity; in fact, it deplored as one of the most serious errors of the age the dichotomy that some Catholics establish between their personal faith and the way they live their public lives in the world. The Church would no longer seek influence by alliances with political power, but rather by offering what it has to offer: the Gospel of Christ as a light upon humanity in its glories and in its miseries. And the Council desired and expected that the primary bearers of this light to the world would be lay people, Christian believers living in the world, in families, in professions and jobs, themselves first discovering and then living the implications of the Gospel in the day-to-day activities that make this world go round as it does. It would primarily be through lay people that Christ would make a difference in the world–or would not make a difference.
Those are some of the things which the Second Vatican Council enabled Catholics to understand and to appreciate more fully. What the Council did for the reform of the Church and for the reunion of Christians is something that can be described in fairly objective terms. What success it had with regard to the first goal of Pope John is not so easy to describe, however. And the reason for this is that whether the Council succeeded or succeeds in terms of the inner renewal of the Church is not something accomplished once and for all. It is something that all Christians, each of them, have to decide for themselves; they determine whether or not the Gospel takes root in their hearts; they decide whether reforms and changes are just a matter of externals; they decide whether they live within the special grace of the new covenant the prophet described: where the law of God, which is the love of God, is what inspires and directs their lives. Only this law, this love, etched on our hearts, is a worthy response to the great grace we have received, I do not say only in the Second Vatican Council, but immeasurably more, in the Gospel and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. To whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever and ever.