By Agbaw-Ebai Maurice Ashley (AMDG)
April 27, 2014 is set to mark a historic moment for the Catholic Church when two popes will be canonised. It has never happened before, and perhaps might not happen in our life time. A quick answer to what brings John XXIII and John Paul II together will be the Second Vatican Council: John convoked the Council and John Paul implemented it in creative ways.
This mission is a task that summons and places the Church in a role of an indispensable witness that confesses that Jesus is Lord (Rom. 10:9) – the shortest creedal affirmation in the New Testament. In the spiritual and pastoral legacy of these two popes, the Roman Catholicism was invited to become an evangelical confessing Church, one on the roads of all the continents of the world.
In his opening council address– Gaud et Mater Ecclesia (October 11, 1962), Good Pope John saw the confessing role of this Church to be one of mercy, of the defence and advancement of truth, and the promotion of Christian unity. In symbolic gestures and genuine acts of reform built on a keen sense of discernment, John XXIII felt that if the Church had to move beyond the siege mentality generated in a large part by her response to the crisis of modernity, the Church must engage in some ecclesial pruning of unnecessary baggage that had become unevangelical and suffocating to her mission as Church. That was captured in the word aggiornamento – updating, which had to be lived out in a spirit of dialogue with the world.
John Paul II’s long pontificate was a confessing and missionary ministry of what that updating of John XXIII meant, both in the life of the universal Church and the local or particular Churches. That desire to implement the Council turned the Polish Pope into a modern Paul of Tarsus. His life meant nothing without the proclamation of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:16).
As the Church raises these two men to the dignity of the altars, what could constitute some needed principles for the enhancement of this confessing mission of the Church? How can this engagement with the world in a spirit of dialogue be lived out today? What resources do we find in our Catholic tradition for this mission of dialogue and encounter between the world of the Church and the world of the World?
The first distinctive feature about the Church’s dialogical approach is that the Christ-event is the point of departure. Jesus Christ is the paradigm which the Church must bring to bear on all questions, notwithstanding the differences of time and space. To jettison drawing inspiration from the Christ-event to be meaningful to a religiously pluralistic world or even a hostile secularist society, will tantamount to betraying her very soul, a gambling that it will be in the Church’s interest not to engage in. The Church must always keep the doors open to the living Christ as she goes to the public sphere, for “if we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.” (Benedict XVI, Homily, Mass for the Inauguration of the Pontificate).
A second distinguishing characteristic of the Church’s dialogue with the world is that it is anthropocentric. The Church engages the world because she is concerned about man and woman. The Church is convinced that the centrality of the human person is a settled conviction across believers and non-believers alike. Gaudium et Spes, 12, declares forcefully that “all things on earth should be related to man and woman as their centre and crown.”At the same time, man and woman remain a mystery, even to the Church. The centrality of the human person has also empowered Catholic Social Teaching, enriching such principles like the common good and subsidiarity. However, in a post-modern world that is facing serious threats, floods, droughts, earthquakes, landslides, et cetera, it is necessary to pay attention to the excesses which human centrality has brought to the environment.
A third distinctive trait of ecclesial dialogue is its evangelical nature. Gaudium et Spes (4) highlighted this when it says that “the Church has always had the duty of scrutinising the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the gospel.” To see dialogue as an evangelical opportunity says much more about the Church’s self-identity. Mission is what it means to be Church. Church dialogue is an evangelical outreach, with the gospel message at the nexus of it all.
In furtherance, the Church’s understanding of dialogue is eschatological in character. When the Church engages the world, she does so with an inner certitude of faith that this “world as we know it, is passing by” (1 Cor. 7:31). This eschatological vision is very crucial in understanding why and how the Church continues to dialogue even with forces openly hostile to its presence and message. Without degenerating into any fatalistic triumphalism, the Church enters into dialogue with the world deeply conscious of its eternal destiny. The Church knows in faith, the last page of the book of the history of the world. The Church knows that while she engages the world in a spirit of dialogue, sometimes amid world persecutions and God’s consolations, it should not be discouraged when it is ridiculed in the world’s best places and reduced to ideological lines of right and left! The Church knows that the last page of history is the victory of the Lamb that was slain (Rev. 5:1-10). Eschatology is a necessary component of ecclesial dialogue, for even if the Church prays adveniat regnum tuum, it is important to keep the vision of its rejected Lord, “my Kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36). Otherwise it risks becoming an exclusive sociological grouping, not a Church.
In addition, recourse to natural law constitutes a peculiarity of ecclesial dialogue. The whole concept of natural law is a complex one with a multifarious history. There is a consensus understanding that natural law is divine law inscribed in nature, understood here as inclusive of humans and the cosmos. Regardless of the position one adopts about the complex concept of natural law, it must be acknowledged that the Church often makes recourse to it when dialoguing with the post-modern world. We see a lot of this when ethical or moral issues are concerned. It is therefore important to keep this mind to better understand the perspective from which the Church is speaking.
After April 27, 2014, it is expected that theologians will begin exploring new paths of similarity between these two popes, and how their pastoral insights and visions could help the summons to the New Evangelisation the Church today must embrace. Dialogue remains an integral lens of reading these two pontificates, and these basic principles could serve as bedrock for further theological reflection along this path of dialogue and encounter.