The joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men and women. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the kingdom of God, and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for everyone. That is why this community realizes it is truly and intimately linked with mankind and its history. …

Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes)

Tomorrow (10/11/12, an auspicious date, no doubt, for numerologists) is the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. (See LifeLines, page 31) I don’t expect most of you to know where you were when Vatican II began, but anyone over the age of 55 probably remembers where you were, or how you felt, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which started that same week.

October 1962 was an auspicious month, to be sure.

Pope John XXIII not only initiated what many call “the most important religious event of the 20th century,” he also played a central role in resolving the missile crisis. As James Carroll tells it in his book, Practicing Catholic, Kruschev and Kennedy were both looking for a way to back out of their standoff while saving face. Pope John provided it when he broadcast worldwide an urgent appeal for peace on Oct. 25.

“The pope,” writes Carroll, “was the only figure who could have given expression to such a sentiment. The next day, the Soviet leader made certain that Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper, carried as its front-page headline the words from the Vatican: ‘We beg all leaders not to be deaf to the cry of humanity!’ Kruschev made a point of appearing to take the initiative in responding to this plea. On Oct. 28, he announced that the missiles would be removed from Cuba, claiming the moral high ground. ‘What the pope has done for peace,’ Kruschev said, ‘will go down in history.’ In Washington, the Catholic president had to be more reticent about the papal role, but he would later award the pope the Medal of Freedom.”

Not a bad month for a guy who learned he had stomach cancer several weeks earlier.

So Pope John knew he wasn’t going to live to see the Promised Land (he died the following June). But what he set in motion was nothing less than the salvation of the Catholic Church, though you’d never guess that by the way the reactionaries in charge of the Church today are trying to put the genie back in the bottle and the toothpaste back in the tube.

They thought they had it all locked down and contained, but the pedophilia scandal (and the hierarchy’s handling of it) ended their hopes of going back to pre-Vatican II days. In fact, the Vatican’s days as an absolute autocracy are numbered and that’s a very good thing (for the Church and the world). A different Catholic Church is emerging, has been for 50 years, and will continue.

Vatican II was like the arrival of spring — after a very long winter. Spring arrives not from the sky, which is notoriously inconsistent, but from the ground up, an irrepressible tide, a great swelling and heaving heavenward. Once it begins, nothing can stop it. Spring has been set in motion.

The emergence can be slowed by cold or accelerated by sun, rain and warmth, but nothing from above can halt this groundswell.

So it is with the Catholic Spring of Vatican II. The hierarchy believed it could control the eruption from on high. They can, and have, slowed its emergence but cannot stop it. What has been set in motion can’t be halted, contained, smothered, channeled or redirected. What is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.

It is an order of magnitude greater than the power of the institutional bureaucracy. John XXIII and Vatican II didn’t start it. Like sunshine, rain and warmth, they simply accelerated what had already begun. A long cold spell with occasional frost followed, but that has only slowed the progress.

That’s how it is with spring.

Why does any of this matter? Because it was unlike anything that had happened before. A humane and charismatic religious leader had the faith and courage to let the world’s bishops run his ecumenical council — much to the consternation of the church bureaucrats — and the results were breathtaking. An ancient, closed fortress threw open the windows, blossomed, reformed, updated and reached out to the world — not to scold or condemn as in the past, but in brotherhood. The quote at the beginning of this column captures the “spirit of Vatican II.”

Why does this matter even if you’re non-Catholic? If this could happen to the world’s largest, oldest, most-set-in-its-ways institution, it could happen anywhere, to any institution, religious or secular — and indeed it has. A new age began 50 years ago tomorrow. Vatican II theologian Yves Congar called it, “The Age of the Spirit.”

But the Holy Spirit can’t do it alone. We will have to do the heavy lifting. Fortunately, Vatican II gave us the necessary tools: openness, dialogue, ecumenism, outreach, reconciliation, freedom of conscience, collegiality, respect, dignity, balancing continuity and change, an empowered laity to hold the hierarchy accountable, and the creativity to establish structures that liberate instead of stifling the Spirit.

Vatican II has just begun, an irrepressible groundswell — and it is definitely worth celebrating.

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