Fifty years ago this week, Dec. 7, 1965 to be exact, Vatican Council II closed with a bang, not a whimper.
The final document, the Pastoral Constitution “Gaudium et spes” (“Joy and Hope”) was ratified by the Council Fathers by a vote of 2,307-75 and was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on that date and echoes down to this day.
While it is certainly not a document that represents a single nation’s world view, it is generally acknowledged that several American theologians, including John Courtney Murray, influenced the shape of “Gaudium et spes.”
The document is a powerful statement of Church teaching on societal issues such as economics, poverty, social justice, culture, science, technology and ecumenism. It was not part of the opening agenda, but arose from the floor. Fifty years after the fact, it is just as relevant as ever.
“With all the challenges we are facing in the world, it is a reminder that the Church is to be engaged in the world in all of its imperfections,” said Father Jerome Wild, pastor of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Norristown, who holds a licentiate in sacred theology from the Gregorian University in Rome. “It is one of the most important documents of the Council, and it had a profound impact on my own self and my vocation.
“It really inspired me as a young man. I saw it as an exciting sense of being the Church. It has continued to be a great source of inspiration.”
The tone of the wide-ranging document is clearly set in the opening statement, through which the Church reaches out to the entire world, not just its own flock.
“The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. United in Christ they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.”
“It is about engagement of the world in the sense that the mission of the Church is promoting the Kingdom of God and the Church is a servant of that,” Father Wild said. “It is a community of faith that acknowledges the Lordship of Jesus and what that means in our day. It is a realization that the mission of the Church, in light of the changes in society, really needs to be identified.
“The mission of the Church is very much like what Pope Francis is calling for as a ‘Church of encounter with the world, one that seeks to be a Church of inclusion and reconciliation.’ I think that Pope Francis is inspired by it and has a resolution to continue to propose that kind of vision of the Church.”
Fifty years later, “Gaudium et spes” continues to be a document that has not yet been fully realized, Father Wild believes.
“It is a guidepost for the whole Church, including bishops, priests and laity,” he said. “There are some very profound insights which need to be reflected on and lived up to within the Church itself.”
Full text: Gaudium et Spes