MANY WERE ASTONISHED in the early stages of the Council by the arrogance with which new ideas were advanced and the truculence with which traditional views were defended. This led many bishops to wonder if the Council had not been summoned too soon. By the middle of the second session uneasiness was widespread. Could it be that theological and pastoral knowledge was not yet sufficiently mature for final judgments to be attempted?
The almost palpable effect of the Holy Spirit during the final sessions of the Council resulted in the deflation of extremism. By the fourth session scarcely any bishop refused to admit the need for change in the Catholic outlook. There was a similar reduction in the number of those habitually critical of Catholic traditions and papal authority. A divine harmony was prevailing. By the end of the Council journalists were less often disposed to talk of "conservative" and "progressive" bishops.
A true community of thought and attitude had developed among the bishop's. This became increasingly evident as the Council drew to its dose. During the final session only a handful could be regarded as "party" men. The bishops, deeply aware of their responsibility in God's sight, were intent only on guiding their Church wisely. Life had become too earnest for theological politics.
DURING THOSE LAST fruitful weeks there was no longer any urge to use oratorical tricks to catch the attention of the less learned. In the first two sessions it had become almost a routine to begin a speech by complaining that a schema must be made more Biblical and ecumenical but less triumphal. Having said such pass-words the speaker could safely proceed.
Such vogue phrases were rarely, if ever, heard in the final session. The Council had come of age. The emotion displayed in the first session—for example over the schema on Revelation—was scarcely remembered. The annosphere was as uplifting at the end of the Council as it had been depressing at its beginning.
WE MUST NOW return to the priest, the key man in the Church of God. The pre-eminence of the priesthood was an abiding lesson of the Council. Thoroughly grasped, this truth can serve to guide the holy people of God, both clergy and faithful, during the vital months during which we prepare to make the Council effective.
The Council has necessarily been both a liturgical demonstration and a prolonged theological and pastoral debate. Now that the conciliar decrees have been passed the real work of the Council can begin. The success of that work depends, under God, on the priests in the parish more than on any other single section of God's people.
It depends, for example, more on the priest than upon his bishop. A diocese may be without a bishop for a year or more but the work of the Church continues. The priest is more important than monks and nuns. A religious community at the call of its Superior General may legitimately leave a diocese. The religious may have to close down or hand over a school or hospital with which they have been associated for generations. The clergy and people may feel sad, frustrated, or angry but the Church will nevertheless survive.
THE PRIEST IS more important than the laity engaged in Catholic Action. Men or women regarded as irreplaceable in a Catholic society may suddenly resign. A man, for example, may fall in love and go courting. A wife or husband may object to frequent absences of the other spouse. The father of a family may decide to use his leisure to make more money. A man may quarrel with another lay apostle or he may just become bored.
For any number of reasons, including lack of recruits, a branch of the apostolate may have to be abandoned. But even with too few apostles the life of the Church though handicapped will struggle on.
TAKE AWAY THE PRIEST, however, and the Church must fail. He is indispensable. It does not matter who he is or where he comes from but there must be a priest or a parish will soon die. That is the sad story in many places. Wherever the Church lacks priests it loses vitality and declines. That is why the supply of dedicated priests is the concern of all Catholics. Priests are chosen from the laity.
There is no priestly caste and no man can become a priest by family right or tradition. The supply of priests is the fruit of the apostolate of the laity. The family, in other words, is the source of vocations. The missions, the religious life and the sanctity of God's people all ultimately are seen to depend on the quality of Catholic family life.
The Council's teaching on collegiality firmly places upon every bishop a measure of responsibility for the whole Church of God. Reference to collegiality appeared also in the decree on priests. Collegiality in some sense is shared by the whole priesthood.
IF TEN THOUSAND CATHOLICS in Asia, Africa, 1 or South America are without a priest, bishops in Europe with half a dozen priests for two or three thousand souls, cannot be complacent. Neither can the priest. His over-burdened brother priests have every right to look to him for help.
Here, too, the priesthood of the laity is involved. Bishops and priests are only part of the people of God. The laity must give up spiritual luxuries and learn to be satisfied with one priest where two or three are now at their service. The laity, indeed, must do much more.
Men and women must train to make the priesthood of the laity effective over a wider field. A layman cannot take the place of the ordained priest in everything. Lacking sacred orders he cannot, for example, say Mass, hear confessions, or anoint the sick. But there is much the laity can do to supplement the work of the priest.
ONG BEFORE WE BEGAN to talk of the priesthood 1.4 of the laity, stalwarts in many parishes were already acting as unordained curates—members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, teachers, lawyers and doctors have long formed an elite corps in the parishes.
The Council now demands that this corps be expanded to a vast army. Women, usually more ready than men for the self-sacrifice of the apostolate, will doubtless be the first to respond to the call of the Council. But eventually all conscientious men and women must accept their share of the glorious work of salvation.
A characteristic of the whole Council was its insistent call for holiness in all the people of God—holier bishops, holier priests, holier religions, holier laity. No matter how efficient we all learn to become we shall do nothing worthwhile until we have deepened our personal love of God—for that is what holiness means.
A GGIORNAMENTO BEGINS WITHIN. rust we I-1must renew our own spiritual lives. Only then can we make salutary impact on our brethren and on the non-Catholic world. The chief beauty of the decrees on the lay apostolate and the clergy lie in their sublime call to layman and cleric to come closer to God.
We are called upon to remedy the world shortage of priests and the consequent decline in Catholic life and influence. God alone can give the call to the priesthood or the religious life but we have to create the conditions in which that call can be heard. Obvious explanations of the lack of religious vocations are materialism, the unprecedented opportunities now held out to young people, the universal urge to self-indulgence, the cult of unchastity and the growth of disbelief.
These are the most obvious but not necessarily the major causes of the fall in the number of vocations. The basic cause is the need for greater holiness. If bishops were holier we would more easily communicate our enthusiasm to our priests.
If priests were more holy they would make their people more ambitious to become saints. If parents were more holy their children would be more zealous for the things of God. Then more families would be blessed with vocations.
IN EVERY SHADE OF SOCIETY Catholic parents I used to gather the family together each night to pray. Such parents were jealous to preserve a Catholic atmosphere in their homes. They cultivated holiness in the home to bring God's blessing on their children. The cross was part of the furniture not only of the bedroom but of the mind.
The people of God will be given abundant opportunity to do His work once the decrees of the Council become operative. The laity will have powers denied them before. At the time of the First Vatican Council Catholics in this country were often uneducated.
Many were completely illiterate. The educational horizons of the average Catholic did not go beyond the all-age parochial school. Higher education was the preserve of the well-to-do. The priest was often the only educated person in the parish. His standard of culture in comparison with that of his flock was high. Today the picture is entirely changed.
rrHOUSANDS OF CATHOLIC STUDENTS are now 1 in the university. The priest no longer has monopoly of learning. He must still give himself wit reserve to the poor and the sick. The Council has minded him of that. But he has an obligation to the n and growing section of his parishioners who have received a good education.
Laymen, mainly through the magnificent paper-bac produced by Catholic publishers, are discovering the riches of Holy Scripture and the joy of reading theology. The laity are now fitted to accept the obligations laid upon them by the Council.
No longer may intelligent and zealous Catholics remain aloof from the organisations which make the apostolate possilble and efficient. The laity must undergo what the Council calls formation and the clergy must study to equip themselves to provide it.
THE COUNCIL CALLS US to be "doers of the word and not hearers only" (James Ch. 1, v. 22). Dialogue, insight, thinking in depth are expressions so often used that they can easily become debased. What is now wanted is a body of men and women prepared to translate thought into action. These may not prove easy to find.
Although Catholics now have abundant opportunities for higher education, the number prepared to make some return is not notably on the increase. Tens of thousands of Catholics have taken at least a first degree in a university. Hundreds of thousands have gone through our public schools, grammar schools or convent schools. Few offer themselves for the work of the Church of God.
Those with the best education often make the least return. The Council makes a special appeal to them.
IT IS TRUE, however, that most well educated Catho1 lies remain faithful to the Church. This is largely the result of the network of Catholic parish schools. The same is true of the U.S.A., Australia and certain countries on the Continent. But it is unlikely that Catholic schools will be able to keep pace with the demands. That is an added reason why more lay apostles are going to be needed.
The Council has tried to teach clergy and faithful a spirituality suited to our times. It has attempted to create an attitude of mind to enable us all to do God's work. We have to bring the message of Christ to the whole world.
The word "conversion" is now rarely used because it is so often misunderstood. But we know our obligation, by virtue of our membership of the Church, to spread the love and knowledge of Christ among our fellows. We have perhaps been disposed to leave this work to others.
The Council has reminded us sharply that we are all responsible in God's sight for the work of the Church. The "Why doesn't the Church . . . ?" army has been officially disbanded. A new army is being recruited and the conditions for membership will be drawn up during the next few months. What is the name of these new men and women? Let us call them the "Why don't I?" apostles of the aggiornamemo.