And the church has taken his admonition to heart.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, begun under Pope St. John XXIII and concluded under Pope Paul VI in October 1965 on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
This watershed gathering of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church saw 16 documents produced, the last one approved being Gaudium et Spes (The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), which best summarizes the critical thinking of the time and serves as the de facto mission statement for the Church in the modern era.
At a time when secular humanism was ready to put the nail in the coffin of religion, Gaudium et Spes reinvigorated the Church’s prophetic voice and set the Church’s course for the foreseeable future.
Its opening lines still provide an inspiring and powerful vision on how, as Roman Catholics, we should conduct our faith lives.
“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 hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ (GS 1).”
Attended by four of the last five popes (Popes Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI) its words seem to echo Pope Francis in his concern for all people, and in his challenge for priests to get out there and take on the “smell of the sheep.”
Gaudium et Spes declared that the Church would invoke its prophetic voice on behalf of all humanity, calling for unity and community. No longer would the Church preach isolation from its separated Christian brothers and sisters but instead encourage dialogue and reconciliation through ecumenism and the sharing of the Gospel message of God’s love and mercy by clergy, religious and laity alike.
As Catholics and Christians we are called to bring the Good News to every corner of our lives; to proclaim freedom to captives and sight to the blind.
“But do it with “gentleness and reverence,” Peter continued… “keeping your conscience clear (1 Peter 3:16).”
The Social Justice Conference at the University of Notre Dame last March identified the field of science and medicine as a significant corner of our lives in need of an on-going Catholic-Christian perspective.
Secular humanists and militant atheists, according to several speakers, are making strides to paint a false image (at the university level) that religion and science are incompatible. They argue that science is pure reasoning while religion is flawed or, worse, a virus that needs to be eradicated in order for science to ascend (as the one, true God).
Because of such a hostile attitude, many people of faith are afraid to speak up (and be ridiculed or penalized for their beliefs) while others are choosing to leave the field.
Retreating is not healthy, one speaker said. Rather, we need to educate our children on the compatibility of faith and science and send them out as missionaries, who are strong in their faith and who recognize that evolution, as Pope John Paul II once reminded reporters, is not wholly incompatible with what we believe (provided that we accept God’s divine intervention in the process).
As Roman Catholics we need to protect the dignity of all human life, from conception to natural death, and if we aren’t engaged in both the scientific and medical fields to provide a moral and ethical response, then assisted suicide, euthanasia and the like will become the law, just as abortion has because of ‘efficiency’ or perhaps financial consideration.
Let us respond to our critics with joy and hope, giving reason for our faith and inviting our young adults to revitalize our universities by their example of faith working with science, as illuminaries like Gregor Mendel (Genetics) or Hildegard of Bingen, OSB (authoress of theological, botanical, and medicinal texts).
And let us continue to be that Vatican II Church in the Modern World, willing to be prophetic, and calling all people to the singular truth that is Jesus Christ.
John Degano is a Deacon at St. Cathedrine of Alexandria Parish in Riverside.