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Pope John Paul II and Vatican II

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This is the second part in a two-part interview with Dr. Alan Schreck, author of Vatican II: The Crisis and the Promise, in which he discusses Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, as well as their roles in the "Council of Mercy," Vatican II. (Read part one.)

What was Bl. Pope John Paul II's contribution to Vatican II and its implementation?
He was in the Council from beginning to end, but at the very beginning, he was a young bishop. John Paul II said himself [that he was mainly] learning in that first year. He gave a number of interventions, but his main contribution was his involvement in the drafting of Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. During his pontificate, he would quote a couple of lines from Gaudium et Spes paragraphs 22 and 24 all the time. "[I]t is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear. ... Christ the Lord, Christ the New Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling" from 22, and "[M]an can discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself" from 24, which is really a basis for his whole theology of the body.

Throughout his pontificate, he was always quoting the Council. I started teaching college [students] at the year of his election to the pontificate and [have been] studying him all these years. He's always referring back to the Council and using it as a primary measure. He said at the beginning of his pontificate he felt all the bishops had a debt to the Holy Spirit for what the Holy Spirit did at the Council and that the debt would be repaid by the proper and full implementation of the Council. [He promulgated] the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which really was an embodiment of all of Catholic teaching seen through the lens of Vatican II. Toward the end of his pontificate, in Novo Millenio Ineunte, he said that the Council had lost nothing of its vibrancy and it is a sure compass to guide the Church in the third millennium. It wasn't as if, now that we're 35, 40, 50 years later, we should find a new agenda.

Why is Francis canonizing John XXIII and John Paul II on Divine Mercy Sunday in the same ceremony?
If you look at both of them, their personal sanctity, and even their personalities, these were men who were very attractive to the world because of their deep Christian humanness. Their canonization says that God raised up these two men to address the specific needs of the world in this period of history. Their pontificates were a [reflection of] what God wanted to do.

John XXIII saw [that mercy] was a particular need of the age, [and that insight] led him to call the Council. He [shared divine mercy] through the Council, his teachings, and his person[al sanctity]. And everyone knows, if you went to Rome and into all the restaurants, there was always a picture of John XXIII and the current pope. There'd be pictures of John because he was a beloved Pope who really reflected the warmth and love of Christ.

I would think it's clear that John Paul II is the same — the Pope who really embodied that fatherly face of God. John Paul II was pope for over 25 years. He really embodied the message of the Council and of the Church for this age. So much of John Paul II's papal ministry was [unpacking and implementing] this Council which was [the result of] an inspiration given to John XXIII. John Paul II saw the theme of mercy as a true unfolding of the Council's teaching because it was God's attitude toward the world with its struggles. The Church was to be an instrument of Christ, to bring his merciful love into the world.

As the 50th anniversary of Vatican II continues, what still remains to be done to fully implement the teachings of the Council?
If you look at each document, you can clearly see much has been accomplished in each area that the Council addressed, but also that the Council's teaching has not been fully implemented in any area. We just have to keep pursuing the course that has been set by the Council. There are the things we're always going to work on, like the call to holiness, studying Scripture, worshipping in a vibrant participatory way — so many things we just have to keep working on.

I do think there are some particular areas that need to be emphasized today. We especially need to remember the missionary activity embodied in the new evangelization and also in the effort toward Christian unity. Those are the first two items, which I can see reflected in what the popes are saying.

I've gone to a number of scholarly conferences, and it's very interesting. Among the academics, they usually seem to point to the very short but important Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, as very important in bringing about open dialogue. But a document that was somewhat neglected by the academic community and even by some church leaders was Ad Gentes, the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church. It almost seemed like there was such an emphasis on openness and dialogue because the modern western world is afraid. It's very concerned about offending people, and therefore lacks the desire for the conversion of the world to Christ. What we see with the emphasis on the new evangelization is a return to the Council's teaching on the missionary activity of the Church: the Church is missionary by her very nature and all of us — lay people as well as professional missionaries in religious communities, everyone — are supposed to be witnessing, leading people to the fullness of truth in Christ. That's one thing we're hearing more about because our leaders have recognized that our modern age doesn't want to stand up and proclaim boldly what we believe for fear of being offensive to people. I don't think we have to be offensive, but we do have to be bold in our proclamation.

The other thing we need to revivify is the effort for Christianity unity, for ecumenism. There was a fantastic initial push on the part of Catholics to take initiatives ecumenically. Many people have observed that, because it's a long haul proposition, it's difficult to keep striving on the long road toward unity. Pope Francis has recently emphasized the need to continue the efforts in building Christian unity.

Pope Francis, though, has also reminded us of the social dimensions, seeing in Gaudium et Spes the need to constantly recognize we must be a church of the poor and for the poor. Sometimes that might have been lost in the shuffle. His pontificate is timely and providential in calling our attention to the practical living of the Gospel, especially in our concern for the poor in whatever way that is expressed. He is really highlighting that aspect of the Council. There's a reason God raised him up as pope. Also, with him always emphasizing joy, he's reminding us that the greatest witness we've got is to reflect the simplicity of the poor Christ and the joyful witness of a person like Francis of Assisi, whose name he took, reaching out to anyone. Unless our witness and our work is pervaded with this joy which comes from a deep union with Christ, it becomes just another social project. Our witness and our work's really got to be carried out with the spirit of Christ, which is the spirit of joy.

If an ordinary lay Catholic wants to start learning about the Council, what's the best place to start?
It would be beneficial for the average lay Catholic if they would get some sort of resource to help them understand the documents. At the Extraordinary Synod [in 1985,] they said we need more resources to help people understand the Council. At the risk of sounding self-serving, that's why I wrote Vatican II: The Crisis and the Promise. It unpacks the documents in layman's terms.

If you asked me where to start reading the documents, start with Lumen Gentium, Apostolicam Actuositatem, and then Gaudium et Spes. I would recommend starting with a careful and prayerful reading of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. After that, I would say read Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, especially if you're a layperson. It's a little longer than Lumen Gentium, but it will really clarify what the mission of a lay person is in the Church and the world. Then I'd read Gaudium et Spes to get a sense of the mission of the Church in the world. It's the complement to Lumen Gentium. Gaudium et Spes is the longest document, though, and I'd probably say read Gaudium et Spes Part I and then Part II, Chapter 1 on the family.

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