Rejoice! Today the Year of Faith begins; the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council is here.
Let’s begin by reflecting on the end — on Gaudium et Spes, the final Council document promulgated on the last day of the Council, December 7, 19650.
Listen and Proclaim
Gaudium et Spes is the Vatican II document that most forcefully proposes the sacred duty of the Church to walk the path of dialogue with the non-Catholic world, even as the same Church proclaims with catholic audacity the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the Way, Truth and Life. The call to preserve the delicate and difficult balance between dialogue, which seeks to listen to and reason with the other, and proclamation, which boldly presents one’s own position as true, is a balance the Council hoped to foster in the Church as a whole.
This ‘dialogical’ style of seeking truth in a posture of listening-speaking reminds me of a Catholic professor I knew years ago (whom I’ve blogged about before) who had an astounding ability to hold together in himself a serene confidence in the truth of his own faith and an eager fascination with coming to understand other’s thoughts and worldviews.
There was one woman who was so deeply affected by his personal witness of faith that she eventually became Catholic. She once said that he was the first and only person of fervent Christian faith she had encountered who was genuinely interested in what she, as a non-believer, thought about the Great Questions of life. She admired most the fact that he listened carefully to her “not in order to better me in debate, but that he might better understand my perspective and learn from me.” “That opened the door,” she said, “for real and deep conversations that eventually disposed me to receive the truth of his faith. But it was only because he modeled for me genuine listening that I felt I could do the same back at him.”
Not All Are Interested
Gaudium et Spes is equally aware, however, that an offer by the Church for genuine dialogue is not always, or even often, a welcomed offer. But even in such hostile circumstances, the Council sees yet another graced opportunity — in the face of rejection is the opportunity to witness (at great cost) to the Church’s unrelenting commitment to offer humanity a chance to join her in the loving quest for Truth. The wording is remarkable:
Indeed, the Church admits that she has greatly profited and still profits from the antagonism of those who oppose or who persecute her. (Gaudium et Spes, 44)
Let me offer a final story to illustrate what I think the Council meant here.
An Orthodox priest at St. Vladimir Seminary in New York once shared the story of his visits to a man who was condemned to many years of solitary confinement in a federal penitentiary. “He was a hard man who always violently refused the offer of any chaplain to offer spiritual counsel or support. So I took it on as my ‘project’ to visit him every day, peering through the small opening in his door, offering him only the sight of my eyes. The first day, I told him I was a priest and had come to bring him Christ. Every day he would command me to leave him alone to rot in hell. Every day I returned. After doing this for a little over a year, one day he surprised me when, instead of his usual abusive rejection, he said, ‘Come back tomorrow and I will see you.'”
“The next day I returned, and he permitted me to sit with him. He looked at me in silence for a minute or so, and then said in a low voice, ‘I just wanted to make sure you meant it.'”