AT some future date there will be Christian communities all over the world though not evenly distributed. They will be little flocks because mankind grows quicker than Christendom and because men will not be Christians by custom and tradition.
Nowhere will there be any more, "Catholic nations" which put a Christian stamp on men prior to any personal decision. Everywhere the non-Christian and the anti-Christian will have full and equal rights and may, perhaps, by threat and pressure, contribute to give society its character and may perhaps even coalesce in powers and principalities as forerunners and manifestation of anti-Christ.
And wherever, in the name of the necessity of uniform education and organisation, the State, or perhaps the future super-State determines on imposing a single ideology by every up-to-date means, it will not be a Christian philosophy which is proclaimed as the official ideology of society.
Christians will be the little flock of the Gospel, perhaps esteemed, perhaps persecuted, perhaps speaking with clear and respected voice in the chorus of ideological pluralism, perhaps continuing to bear witness to the holy message of their Lord only in an undertone, from heart to heart.
They will know each other as brothers, for there will be very few of them who have not by their own deliberate decision staked their own heart and life on Jesus, the Christ.
There will be very few hangers-on, for there will be no early advantage in being a Christian. They will certainly preserve faithfully and unconditionally the structure of their sacred, unworldly community of faith, hope, and love, the Church as it is called, as Christ founded it.
THEY WILL FREELY make use of everything the future offers them by way of organisation, mass media, technology. They will be dependent in everything on faith and on the holy power of the heart, for they will no longer be able to draw any strength, or very little, from what is purely institutional.
And so they will feel themselves to be brothers because, in the edifice of the Church, each of them will reverently receive obedience from one another as a free and loving gift. It will be clearly seen that all dignity and all office in the Church is uncovenanted service, carrying with it no honour in the world's eyes, having no significance in secular society. Unburdened with any such liability perhaps (who knows?) it will no longer constitute a profession at all in the social and secular sense.
The Church will be a little flock of brothers of the same faith, the same hope, and the same love. It will not take pride in this, and not think itself superior to earlier ages of the Church, but will obediently and thankfully accept its own age as what is apportioned to by its Lord and his Spirit, not merely as what is forced on it by the wicked world.
If a man of this Church of the future were to read the Vatican II Constitution of the Church one of the things that would strike hint first would be the statement that the Church is the sacrament of salvation of the world.
He will wonder how he is to live with the inalienable consciousness that the Church is founded by God, by Christ, the Lord of all history, that it is the sole, eternally valid religion when all mankind will seem to him unimaginably more distant than it is even for us.
HE WILL BE able to do it only if he views the Church as the sacrament of the world's salvation. This expression will bring enlightenment and consolation and he will be grateful to find it mentioned for the first time in an official ecclesiastical document of the 1960s. And when he studies the history of the Council he will be astonished to realise that this statement was made at the Council quietly and spontaneously, without opposition or surprise, without anyone appearing to notice what was being said.
In Vatican's 1I's text the Church is not the society of those who alone are saved, but the sign of the salvation of those who, as far as its historical and social structure is concerned, do not belong to it. By their profession of faith, their worship and life, the human beings in the Church form as it were the one expression in which the hidden grace promised and offered to the whole world emerges from the abysses of the human soul into the domain of history and society.
What is there expressed may fall on deaf ears and obdurate heart in the individual and may bring judgment, not salvation. But it is the sign of grace which brings what it expresses, and not only in cases where it is heard in such a way that the hearer himself visibly and historically joins the band of those who announce and testify to this word of God to the world.
ON THESE GROUNDS our future reader of Vatican II will have a proud and calm attitude to the non-Christian world around him. He will not have the impression of belonging to a small, unimportant, submerged group of esoterics or fanatics and yet of having to maintain that these few alone are in possession of truth, grace and salvation.
This future Christian will regard himself and other professed Christians as the advance party of those who, on the roads of history, are travelling to God's salvation and eternity. He knows that the morning light on the mountains is the beginning of the day in the valleys, not the light of day above condemning the darkness beneath and that Christians will gaze into the world serenely, without anguish.
The conciliar statement will also make him understand a quite new and profounder theology of the true nature of the Mission. He will not anxiously scan statistics to see whether the Church is really the biggest ideological organisation or not, or whether it is growing proportionately quicker or slower than world population. He will simply go out into the world with missionary zeal and bear witness to the name of Christ.
HE WILL WISH to give of his grace to others, for he possesses a grace which the others still lack, for the explicit self-awareness of grace in the Church is itself a grace. But he will know that if his zeal is serene and patient it will have the better chance of success. He will know that he can imitate God's forbearance which, according to St. Paul, is of positive significance for salvation, not condemnation.
In preaching Christianity to "non-Christians", therefore, the future Christian will not so much start with the idea that he is aiming at turning them into something they are not, as trying to bring them to their true selves.
Not, of course, in the modernist sense that Christianity is only the full development of a natural religious need, but because God in his grace, in virtue of his universal salvific will, has already long since offered the reality of Christianity to those human beings, so that it is quite possible and in fact probable that they have already accepted it without expressly realising this.
It cannot be said that such a view of the Church will inevitably hamper or render ineffective the missionary zeal of the apostoiate of clergy and laity. On the contrary, it is easier and less restrictive to be able to say to someone: "Behold what you are", than: "Destroy what you were until now." Francis Xavier told his Japanese questioners that their ancestors were in hell, and they answered that they did not aim at any better lot.
The story sums up the whole problem, and the progress which has been made in actual awareness of the faith since the 16th century, as well as the respective missionary advantages and disadvantages of both attitudes.
ALL THIS ALREADY closely concerns the second statement which our future Christian will read with pleasure in the conciliar decree. "God's salvific will also include those who (without having yet received the Gospel) acknowledge the Creator . . God is not far even from those who seek the unknown God in shadows and figures, for he gives to all, life, breath, and all things (cf. Acts 17: 25-28), and the Redeemer wills all men to be saved (cf. I Tim. 2: 4). For those who through no fault of their own do not know Christ's Gospel and Church but seek God with upright hearts and so in fact under the influence of grace seek to do his will, made known by the dictates of conscience, can attain eternal salvation."
Now even to people today this statement seems perfectly obvious. But anyone who knows the history of theology and of the Church's doctrinal pronouncements will be filled with amazement at the fact that it was accepted by the Council without the slightest remark.
A third group of statements from the decree De Ecclesia will please our future Christian. We refer to the much-talkedof collegiality in the Church, particularly that of the body of bishops with the Pope.
The Christian of the future wilt have bishops whose episcopal office confers no special social position, power, or wealth. It will no longer be a worldly honour to be a bishop in the little flock. Socially the bishop will not look very different from any other official in a small voluntary group effectively dependent on the good will of that group.
The Christian of the future will not feel himself reduced in stature or oppressed by his bishop. He will take it for granted that in the little flock of voluntary believers there must be a sacred order grounded in the Spirit of Christ.
THIS WILL BE all the clearer to him because of the terrible harshness with which the extremely complicated social structures of the future will protect their existence and unity. He will know that even in the community of the faithful there mist be those who are responsible for binding decisions and action, and that the Spirit of Christ which animates all will be with such men. And the Christian, of course, is a Christian voluntarily in faith, not a product of social circumstance and tradition.
As for the bishop, there will be nothing else for him, as in the ancient Church of the martyrs, but continually to invite such voluntary obedience and understanding for his decisions, in love and humility.
He will have to carry out his office as a service because at his back there will no longer be any earthly social power of tradition or the great mass of those who will always obey in any case.
Who can tell, perhaps in the actual details of life as well as in theoretical questions, and in view of the unmanageable complexity and difficulty of action and thought in the future, the official Church in its tnagisterium and pastoral care will simply no longer be in a position to do anything but leave very many things, or even most things which involve particular concrete decisions, to the conscience of the individual?
It may even be that in cases where such official decisions still can and must be taken, there will be an insistent appeal for prior advice and deliberation of a very fraternal kind. For on the one hand it will be impossible any longer for decisions to he taken solely from above in paternalist wisdom, and on the other, no one in the Church will have any wish to exercise the right—which will of course still subsist, and which does not belong to everyone—of making such binding decisions, in the sociological forms of earlier ages.
TT MAY BE that the Church will then observe that in doc
trine and practice what is decisive is not an ever subtler casuistry in dogmatic and moral theology, but the preaching of the fundamental truth in new tongues, in new depth and spiritual power: that the mystery which we call God is close to us, saving, loving, and forgiving; that all the apocalyptic abysses of human existence are ultimately those of eternal love; that death is life and Jesus of Nazareth is he in whom God has become absolutely present and close to us in tangible historical form, and has initiated the epoch in which alone mankind has found its way to its proper possibilities.
So the Christian of the future will read the second and fourth chapters of the De Ecclesia decree frequently and reverently, but with a slight smile at its slightly hierarchical and clerical tone, even when it speaks of the people of God and the laity.
Yet he will read them because fundamentally they say that we are all one in Christ, that the ultimate difference is the degree of love for God and the brothers; that distinctions of office are necessary but entirety secondary and provisional, a burden, a service, a sacred responsibility.
THE MOST IMPORTANT thing about Vatican II is not the letter of the decrees, which in any case have yet to be translated by us all into life and action. It is the spirit, the meaning of what happened that really matters, and which will remain operative.
They may perhaps be submerged again for the time being by a contrary wave of caution, fear of one's own courage, terror of false conclusions that people may like to draw. It may seem to some short-sighted people that after much talk and fuss everything is much as it was. But the real seeds of a new outlook and strength to understand and endure the imminent future in a Christian way have been sown in the field of the Church and the World.
God himself will provide the climate in which this crop will grow—the future historical situation of the Church which he, as the Lord of history, will bring about.
The Church entrusts itself to history; it cannot and will not be reconstructed according to the abstract schemes or blueprints of theologians, clerical politicians, journalists, and impatient theorists.
The Church exists, lives, intends to remain, true to tradition and to the future. The Church has manifold facets and is a perpetual enigma to itself despite all theoretical reflection on its nature.
It does not know its own earthly future but pursues its pilgrim way, guided by the incomprehensible God as the guide of humanity into the mystery of God.
Yet the Church knows that it is sacrament and testimony, not for its own salvation, but for that of the world, that it serves the God of the Covenant (it is the Covenant) by permitting and confessing him to be greater than itself, so that the grace of which the Church is the enduring sign is victoriously offered even to those who have not yet found the visible Church and who nevertheless already, without realising it, live by its Spirit, the Holy Spirit of the love and mercy of God.
The Church knows it is only what it should be if it is a community of loving brothers, knows that the Church too must say: "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not love, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal."
This article is an abridged text of the address given by Karl Rattner, S.J., to the Catholic Students' Association of Freiburg University in Germany. The translation is by Herder Correspondence.