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Mercywords: an E-Journal is published online four (4) times per year: Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall.
From the Editor
Carol Rittner RSM
Keeping the Spirit of Vatican II Alive
Deirdre Mullan RSM
Keeping the Faith
Aline Paris RSM
Keeping Alive the Spirit of Jesus and the Spirit of Vatican II
Philomena Bowers RSM
“The Spirit of the Lord...”
Dina Altamiranda RSM
A Life-giving Tapestry
Mary Roch Rocklage RSM
Janette Gray RSMOpening%20Essay%20March%202011.htmlEssay%201%20March%202011.htmlEssay%202%20March%202011.htmlEssay%203%20March%202011.htmlEssay%204%20March%202011.htmlEssay%205%20March%202011.htmlshapeimage_3_link_0shapeimage_3_link_1shapeimage_3_link_2shapeimage_3_link_3shapeimage_3_link_4shapeimage_3_link_5shapeimage_3_link_6
Change confronts us at every edge of our lives. This may seem a truism but it is probably the hardest reality we have to face every day. I think I am a person open to the future and the changes it drags me into, but when the layout of my favourite newspaper is redesigned and I find myself distressed by this, or I feel uneasy about accessing Facebook or Twittering, I know that even with insignificant things I resist change. This becomes all the more disturbing when, on the bigger scale, events overtake my expectations like the recent revolution in Egypt. Yet all this in no way prepares me for the rejection by others of significant changes that I believe in. Those who seek to wind back the great reforms of Vatican II incense me (in more ways than one). Something of my core as a Christian, Catholic and Sister of Mercy is violated by those reacting to the legitimate reforming spirit of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI and all the bishops at the Council who now seek to return us to some imagined harmony and security that existed in the Church before 1962. The problem is that while many perceived life then to be safer, it was no more than the build-up behind a dam already stretched beyond its capacity.
Despite the claims of the ‘restorationists’ Catholic life was not as uniform or settled as it appeared in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Already bishops as far away from Rome as Archbishop Hurley of Durban in South Africa and Bishop Helder Camara in Brazil knew that change in the liturgy and the Church’s too covert commitment to social justice was needed. The great French and German theologians who influenced the outcomes of Council were already experiencing suppression for their ideas about human liberty, ecumenism, and the role of women in the Church. Change was in the air but too many were so bound to the way things were that they refused it until the Council drove us forward into re-enlivening the Church for God’s mission. So how do we now deal with such resistance to change alongside our own difficulties in dealing with change?
One of the substantial revelations of Vatican II was the necessary eschatological nature of the Church. This referred to the interim or provisional nature of all of our realities – that we are not an end in ourselves, that things don’t have to remain like this. Of course if we like things the way they are, this eschatological or ‘end times’ thinking threatens everything we hold to be true. This is the position of those who want to maintain the status quo because it suits them. Instead, because we are followers of Christ who revealed that God’s will for us was different to our petty expectations, we look forward to the kin-dom of God where we share all that only the few benefit from now. This, of course, implies costs for all of us who do benefit from the way things are now. This reign of God consciousness is what motivated Catherine McAuley and her companions to extend the visible signs and experience of God’s mercy by sharing with those left out of the benefits of their time. Again and again, we Mercies seek to work for such a kin-dom where the way things are now is not settled if that means there are people disadvantaged. As Vatican II reminded us, because the Church is not the reign of God, then the Church is not a ‘perfect society’. Christ did not establish a religion that was meant to resist change.
Yet we find ourselves often besieged by those who want to return to the imagined certainties of the past and also under siege from our own uneasiness with change. Before Vatican II, when Pope John XXIII was first elected, the Dominican reformers Chenu and Congar were distressed because they had hoped for some change in Roman attitudes to reform after the long, repressive reign of Pope Pius XII. Instead, this new man seemed to them to be more of the same. He had been the papal diplomat in France when the pastoral experiment of the worker-priests had been ruthlessly suppressed by the Vatican, so they had little expectation of him. Even these reformers presumed that things could not change, but then that Pope, John XXII, called the Second Vatican Council and everything changed! So how we keep alive and fertile our faith in God’s promise to make everything new (Isaiah 43:18-19) needs an eschatological outlook on our times. Religious life owes its origins to an eschatological sense that we are ‘in the end times,’ that when we pray “your kingdom come” we orient ourselves to God’s future already in-breaking the world as it is. We need to take courage from this outlook and allow the provisional reality of all things to free us from the cares we feel about change. This is not merely to trust in an unimagined future in the face of misrepresentation, negative judgement and the winding-back of things and ways that we treasure. Rather, it is to refuse to be lured by the false-gods of security or despair.
In 1959, well before the relief of Vatican II was evident, Chenu wrote an article “Truth and Freedom in the Faith of the Believer”1 in which he described three periods in Church history when reformers were suppressed (even jailed), only to be vindicated by a change in the politics of the Church. He ended the article with this observation: “if the faithful are satisfied merely with the authority of faith, its living truth will suffer; perhaps they will advance in certitude but with an emptiness of spirit.” This points to what we fear in change: an emptying of what we have known. Our commitment to God’s kin-dom requires such an emptying so that we can make space for God’s life, God’s promise also in us, yet to be fulfilled. This is the eschatological direction that we commit to walk in when we release ourselves from the certainties of what suits us, to know and love the true God.
Janette Gray RSM (Australia) teaches theology at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne, Australia. She is also a member of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy Australia National Formation Council.
  1. 1.M.-D. Chenu OP, “Truth and Freedom in the Faith of the Believer,” Cross Currents, 9 (1959), 267-81.
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