This June, God willing, I’ll be a priest for 43 years. Ordained in 1973, less than a decade after the Second Vatican Council ended, I remember it as a time of huge hope and expectation. Despite the fact that the ink was hardly dry on the seminal documents of that Council, at that time we were imbued with a glorious optimism. The road had been marked clearly for us and it opened out invitingly ahead of us. Everything was possible.
It wasn’t just that we were young. With the Bible in one hand and the documents of the Council in the other, we were told that our task was to connect the lives people lived with a God who loved them. And we believed we had the conviction, energy and commitment to birth a different kind of church.
The priest-poet, Pádraig J. Daly, a contemporary, captured our mood in his poem,
The Last Dreamers:
We began in bright certainty
Your will was a master plan
Lying open before us
Sunlight blessed us
Fields of birds sang for us
Rainfall was your kindness tangible.
Paul VI, the pope at the time, and a central figure in delivering the documents of Vatican Two, was a tortured individual, fearful and uncomfortable with change, who soon came to believe that his duty was to hold the line, to rein in what he regarded as the danger of excessive decentralisation from Rome. After his death Pope John Paul II adopted a policy of centralisation, rowing back on the implementation of reforms and Benedict XVI, as we know, continued that process.
In the same poem, Daly captures the mood as the dream of reform dissipated:
But our dream was flawed
And we hold it now
Not in ecstacy but in dogged loyalty
Waving our tattered flags after the war,
Helping the wounded across the desert.
The wonder is not that so many walked away but that so many stayed with it. For those, like myself, who believed that the great Council contained the seeds of hope and progress for our Church, it was incredibly frustrating to witness the Church declining year by year while the great vision that could give it purpose and strength was disparaged and rejected by leaders who weren’t able to see (or didn’t want to see) what the Council called ‘the signs of the times’.
John Paul and Benedict directed us back to where we used to be: theologically, pastorally, liturgically, psychologically. It was as if the word ‘retrograde’ had been invented to describe the process. It was as if the Council had never happened or that it was all a mistake or that the dream was a sham. The more charitable assessment was that it was a loss of nerve; the less charitable, a betrayal. Either way, it was a profound loss of hope.
St Augustine is credited with saying that ‘hope has two daughters, anger and courage – anger at the way things are and courage to change them’. And as hope gradually died a long and difficult death and Rome eventually began to implode, a few years ago the cardinals came to the obvious conclusion that the Curia in Rome had to be reformed, rowing back in the general direction of the Council of Trent had failed and that the vision of Vatican Two was worth a second look.
Unexpectedly Francis emerged from the shadows and while hope was re-kindled we wondered whether the burden of so much expectation was too much for a man in his late 70s to bear. The Curia struck back, as everyone knew they would and vested interests manipulated opposition to Francis’ reforms. The word from the Vatican was that another pope in the mould of John Paul and Benedict would be elected in a few years when the daft notions of the man from the pampas of Argentina would become little more than a temporary aberration. To re-cast Seamus Heaney’s famous line, hope refused to rhyme with despair. The legacy of John Paul and Benedict has brought a bitter harvest.
Yet, here Francis is. Smiling. Speaking in plain words. Living simply. Reminding us that Jesus loved the poor. Telling us, his fellow-sinners, to cheer up because God loves us. Saying don’t judge, don’t condemn. Nothing is black and white. And quietly and determinedly opening up vistas of possibility and promise for our Church. Who could have thought, after the long winter of our discontent, that suddenly again everything is possible?
At the synods in Rome in 2014 and again in 2015, he encouraged real discussion – ‘Debate, debate, debate’ he advised – and he took his time digesting the different and often opposing views before he published his ‘exhortation’, The Joy of Love.
It’s an extraordinary document: ground-breaking, breath-taking, wonderful, hopeful, liberating, encouraging, life-affirming, exhilarating. Here’s a sample of some of the things he’s said:
- Church law needs to be placed in pastoral and cultural perspective
- The primacy of the individual conscience has to be respected
- Priests and bishops, in dealing with marriage and family life, shouldn’t throw ideals at people like stones but be aware and accepting of mitigating factors
- Women who are struggling for ‘liberation’ are doing God’s work
- Don’t describe anyone as ‘intrinsically disordered’
- Don’t describe any couple as ‘living in sin’
- What makes sense pastorally in one country may even seem out of place in another.
- He’s commended, to married couples, the role of desires, emotions, feelings, passion and sexuality in marriage.
- Sexual desire is a good thing; the erotic is a gift from God; sexual pleasure in marriage should be celebrated and nurtured.
- People in non-traditional families, including single mothers, need to be offered ‘understanding, comfort and acceptance’.
- He’s pointed a direction for those in second marriages to receive Communion.
- He’s brought respect for the individual into the heart of the Church.
- He’s extended the net of belonging to everyone – all are welcome in the Church.
Who would have believed it? I have a feeling I’ll be revisiting this extraordinary document, the Joy of Love, again and again.
After carrying a battered flag across the desert for more than 40 years it’s like coming over the brow of a great hill of sand and discovering a well of sparkling water.