I am writing from Rome. I have been here a week and seen no reference to the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, even in the tourist shops attuned to every other observance. In the Vatican bookstore, I discovered splendidly printed versions of the Missale Romanum of 1958 and 1962 but not of 2002. It made me wonder, “What does the Vatican Press know that we don’t?”
My own invitation to visit Rome from the Graymoor Friars’ Centro Pro Unione, an ecumenical center, however, did come with a Vatican II connection. James Puglisi, S.A., the Atonement Friars’ superior general, had asked me to speak on developments in justice and peace since Vatican II. As I attended prayer services across central Rome for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it was clear that the ecumenism initiated by Blessed John XXIII and the council is alive and well among the internationals here in the Eternal City.
The message I brought to the Centro was that through the council the Spirit had made the church a leaven for the world. I am struck by how much confidence church leaders in that time had that the Spirit was at work both in the church and in the world. Ten years after the council, Pope Paul VI could still write: “We live in the church at a privileged moment of the Spirit. Everywhere people are trying to know him better.... They are gathering about him; they want to let themselves be led by him.” Pope Paul understood how much we need the Spirit to overcome the religious inertia that threatens to choke off the Spirit within us.
In the 50 years since the council, Catholics have challenged the powers that be. Polish Catholics like Lech Walesa helped precipitate the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, and Corazon Aquino led the ouster of the Marcos regime in the Philippines. Bishops like Zaire’s Laurent Monswengo and Guatemala’s Rodolfo Quesada Toruño led efforts at national conciliation. Chile’s Vicariat of Solidarity pioneered the work of church human rights centers; and in their defense of human rights, bishops like Patriarch Michel Sabbah in the Holy Land and Felipe Ximenes Belo in East Timor served as tribunes of their people.
The coordinated efforts of Catholics round the world helped bring about debt relief for poor nations as part of the Great Jubilee in 2000. The late Angelo D’Agostino, S.J., pioneered the distribution in East Africa of inexpensive anti-retroviral drugs for children afflicted with H.I.V./AIDS, and Catholic migrant agencies have cared for hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons. The Spirit’s inspiration is still at work.
While visiting the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, I learned that while plans for the Vatican II anniversary have just begun to be laid, the council has a full agenda, much of it dealing with the environment: water, energy and the Rio Plus 20 global summit on sustainable development. Cardinal Peter Turkson, the council president, also announced a three-day conference in 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of “Pacem in Terris,” the landmark encyclical of John XXIII that launched the church’s witness on behalf of human rights.
U.S. Catholics are significant participants in ventures of the Council for Justice and Peace. The Kroc Institute for Peace at the University of Notre Dame is assisting in a global consultation on best practices in peacemaking, and Michael Naughton of the University of Saint Thomas business school is contributing to a project on the formation of business leaders for the common good. Through the work of committed Christians, the Spirit continues to transform the world, much as the fathers of the Second Vatican Council hoped.