Reflections on Vatican II – Church and the Modern World

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Reflections on Vatican II – Church and the Modern World

In preparation for the Jubilee Year of 2025, Pope Francis encouraged a return to the documents of Vatican II, refreshing awareness of the fruits of that Council. To encourage your own study of those documents, Fr Peter Wygnański here concludes a short series of articles about the four major constitutions.

Reflecting on the Constitutions of Vatican II: 4-Gaudium et Spes, The Church and the Modern World

I will be forever grateful that, shortly before the pandemic, I had the chance to see my grandmother one last time. As we digested a breakfast worthy of Polish hospitality, she said something striking: “I feel like I have been living in a time machine.” She explained how, as a child, she never would have imagined one day talking ‘face-to-face’ with her children thousands of miles away, on video calls.

Her grandparents lived and died in a world that would not have seemed that much changed. My grandmother however had seen the new reach of humanity’s triumphs and tragedies, and passed away in a world unlike the one she was born into.

Development has always been happening but, for the first time, it now happens so fast that it can be seen. When I get a new phone, I expect it to be more powerful, to be able to do new things. Through an Artificial Intelligence programme on my latest upgrade, I “made” the image accompanying this article during a simpler breakfast than the one I enjoyed with my grandmother. I simply typed “imagine a bishop doing a confirmation in space” and the image before you was instantly generated. To have such capability at my fingertips was unimaginable in my childhood, let alone my grandmother’s.

We have realised that our world is dynamic. It appears that nothing simply ‘is’ anymore, but always ‘becoming’ (§5), and so the final constitution of Vatican II asked how the Church can speak to this new, dynamic, world. The bishops taking part in the council wanted to end with something that would make a real difference, to help believers spread the Gospel amongst the hostile spirit of the modern age.

Pope Benedict XVI, who assisted at the council as a young priest, explains that the bishops realised the Church could no longer rely on the old ways of reaching out to those outside it, as these could no longer bridge the gulf between the Church and contemporary society.  A ‘positive step into the new era’ was needed so that Jesus Christ could again become the guiding star, finding new ways to express that Christ is, and always will be, the answer to the new questions that weigh on the human heart, in a way that would be meaningful ‘beyond the narrow circle of believers’. (See Ratzinger, Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 224)

The joys and the hopes (Gaudium et Spes), the griefs and the anxieties of this age are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.(§1) With this opening statement the Council acknowledged that humanity is now almost overwhelmed by its own power and questions where the world is headed and what our role in the universe really is.(§2)

The gift of Gaudium et Spes is understanding the double grace of sharing in struggles that face a humanity which extends its power in every direction but without always succeeding in subjecting it to its own welfare.(§4)

Christ’s followers can ‘both’ be God’s own hands to heal and support those struggling in the world, ‘and’ communicate the Gospel message by doing so. The power of God is powerfully revealed when, in Christ’s name, people live in deep joy, the injustice of poverty and hunger is overcome, the chains of new forms of social and psychological slavery are broken (§4), the dignity of the human person is respected, the beautiful calling to marriage and family life is generously lived out (§§46-52), and economics and politics (§§63-76) guide all peoples along the path of lasting peace and justice.(§§77-91)

When belief in God is misunderstood as a superstition which entraps believers in the past (§19), the best answer to the uncertainties of an ever-changing world is to let that world be transformed by the power of God’s love.

This core message can help correct any misunderstanding of Gaudium et Spes as a manifesto for a ‘new’ Church, that has broken away from its past and Tradition and therefore giving licence to ‘update’ teachings so that the Catholic faith can be ‘relevant’ in the modern world. Vatican II never wavered from the belief that only Christ can shed light on the mystery of the human experience and help us reach truly human solutions to the problems of our time.(§10)

Only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of humanity take on light, Christ fully revealing man to man himself and making his supreme calling clear.(§22)  

Another way to put this is that Gaudium et Spes can only be understood in the light of the other constitutions of Vatican II. Recalling the earlier articles of this series: the Church’s only answer to the challenges of our time is the Word of God, Christ himself, which we have heard through God’s speaking to us, known through Scripture and Tradition which we carefully preserve, (Dei Verbum), whose voice has called us together into the family of the Church to live in holiness (Lumen Gentium), and to worship God in spirit and truth, joining ourselves to God’s gift of himself for us (Sacrosanctum Concilium).

60 years after its publication, the challenges to which Gaudium et Spes responds have only become greater, and our role can only be to come closer still to the light of Christ. We ‘can’ share the hope of our unbelieving brothers and sisters for a better world, but in sharing that hope we do not forget that a better society is a more human one, and only Christ offers the true answer to our human condition.

Let us then tirelessly work for the common good of all people so that a world that has forgotten His light can see it anew and be transformed by His love. This is how the Church will continue to announce the good news of the Gospel in an ever-changing world, and in the unimaginable future that awaits.

Pictured above is an AI-generated image of a bishop celebrating the Sacrament of Confirmation in space.

Read the other articles in this series:

Reflections on Vatican II – Divine Revelation

Reflections on Vatican II – Light of the nations

Reflections on Vatican II – Constitution on the Liturgy