(Editor’s note: Patrick Schmadeke, 26, is a graduate of St. Ambrose University (‘13) and a student in the Master of Divinity program at the University of Notre Dame. His column examines the riches of our Catholic tradition and articulates the hopes of a student preparing for a career in the church.)(Editor’s note: Patrick Schmadeke, 26, is a graduate of St. Ambrose University (‘13) and a student in the Master of Divinity program at the University of Notre Dame. His column examines the riches of our Catholic tradition and articulates the hopes of a student preparing for a career in the church.)
Catholics of my generation tend to take for granted the ways the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) shapes the modern Catholic experience. Naturally, we have never known a church other than the one we were born into. Stories of the church from the distant past are shared by our grandparents at family gatherings, but never seem particularly relevant. These changes were made long ago, so the reforms of Vatican II have been realized, right?
Reading the Second Vatican Council’s document Gaudium et Spes, in an Ecclesiology course over the summer and again in recent weeks in a course on ministry, suggests that work is still to be done. Thus, studying Vatican II has been both exciting and a cause for sober reflection. Exciting because it explains the origins of my lived experience. An impetus for reflection because the text lures the reader into contemplation. Having been drawn into the text, my recent read-through and class discussion of Gaudium et Spes unearthed an unsettling tension between the lived reality of the world around us and the vision the document calls us to.
At its core, Gaudium et Spes is about the mission and “function of the church in the world” (No. 2). Unlike any document produced by the 20 ecumenical councils preceding Vatican II, it is thoroughly rooted in the human experience and establishes solidarity between Christians and all humankind: “the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well” (No. 1).
In Gaudium et Spes, the church takes seriously its “responsibility of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (No. 4). In a posture of dialogue with the world, Gaudium et Spes invites people to see that Christ is the answer to the longing of the human heart and the dysfunctions of the world. It compliments the genuine advances made by secular society and observes that the church can learn from such advances. Yet it does not pull any punches. Following two world wars, its call for peace is clear (Nos.79-82). Promulgated in the midst of the Cold War, it denounces the arms race (No. 81). Written just a generation after the Great Depression, it calls strongly for economic justice (Nos.63-72). And it importantly considers the role of the human person in an increasingly technological world (Nos. 33-39).
As I sat with the words of Gaudium et Spes, I couldn’t help but notice how applicable it is to our own times. We are privileged to have this prophetic text that calls for the Christian to bring the Gospel to everyday life. Yet, from this same reflection arises the awareness of the dissonance between the vision set forth in Gaudium et Spes and the reality in which we live. The documents of Vatican II are not just treasures of our tradition, they are mirrors into which, if we are serious about this thing called faith, we must look honestly at ourselves as individuals and communities.
Do we believe, do we live like “people are of greater value for what they are than for what they have” (No. 35), and do we recognize the “inescapable duty to make ourselves the neighbor of every individual, without exception” (No. 27)? In these words do we hear the echo of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Are our hearts filled with urgency for justice not simply for ourselves but for those who are least among us? Is the Spirit calling the church to become evermore the church we ought to be?
Catholics of my generation have fun toying with the idea of a Third Vatican Council. Such thoughts are cultivated by moments of perceived dissonance such as the one in our class discussion of Gaudium et Spes. I have no doubt that a Third Vatican Council would benefit the church and the world. On the other hand, so would living out the vision of Gaudium et Spes.