BY STEFAN GIGACZ
What happened at Vatican II. The meaning of Vatican II. Betrayal of the Council. There's a virtual flood of newly published books to welcome the approaching 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.
Yet as I learnt long ago from my Year 8 history teacher, nothing compares with going back to the "primary sources" – pictures, artefacts, oral testimonies, diaries.
Which is why the publication in English of Yves Congar's "My Journal of the Council" – to be launched in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide over the next ten days – is such an important event.
Translated from the French by members of the Australian Theological Forum (ATF), it is possibly the best, indeed the most exciting, not to say hard-hitting, introduction to the Council that exists – and by one of its key players.
Congar, of course, was the French Dominican theologian whose book Divided Christendom made such a huge impact when first published in 1937 and whose later works on the theology of the laity became and remain works of reference in the field.
It almost goes without saying that his innovative writings soon fell under suspicion from the Roman authorities with the result that he was eventually banished first to Jerusalem, where he was forbidden to teach, then in 1956 to Cambridge, where he was forbidden to be involved on ecumenical issues, before being sent to Strasbourg in France.
It was only the advent of Pope John XXIII and Congar's surprise discovery in 1960 that he had been appointed as an expert to the forthcoming Vatican II that rescued him from his theological purgatory.
Well, no need for further introduction to the book. Let Congar speak for himself. And luckily excerpts from his Journal can already be read online thanks to Google Books.
Just click here and type the word Pizzardo in the search box for a piquant taste of Congar's thoughts about a key figure of the Vatican old guard, whom one suspects, Congar regarded as one of his main tormentors.
Or enter the word Chenu – the name of his Dominican close friend and collaborator – for more insight into the machinations of the Council.
Indeed, pick any word or phrase – Schema XIII – religious freedom – ecumenism – laity – or a name – John XIII – Lienart – Ratzinger – Wojtyla – for a sharp introduction into just about any major aspect of Vatican II.
Only problem being that Google will soon tell you that you have exhausted your right to read excerpts which brings us back to buying the book itself!
In conjunction with the book launch, the ATF and the Catholic Institute of Sydney are holding a conference "Yves Congar and Vatican II" which begins today.
Vatican II historian Fr Joseph Komonchak heads an impressive list of presenters.
And this is where I am feeling the tyranny of distance. I would love to be there except for the fact that I am here in France working on Congar's archives, particularly with respect to his relations with Cardijn and the YCW.
Both Congar and Chenu were close collaborators of Cardijn. Congar described the influence of the YCW on his own theology as "decisive". And as a newly ordained priest stationed at the Dominican centre Le Saulchoir which was then located in Belgium, Congar actually preached 28 retreats to YCW leaders from 1932 to 1939.
The list with dates and subject matter - Conquest - Priesthood of the faithful - The faith - is still there in his archives. (I'm still looking for the actual notes of his talks which are no doubt also there among the as yet unclassified material in Congar's extensive papers.)
"The retreats took place in a fervent atmosphere," he told an interviewer in 1975. "I spoke to the jocists about the Gospel. They questioned me and I endeavoured to respond to their concrete difficulties.
They left on Sunday evenings raring to go. We could hear them singing from several hundred metres away in the direction of the Tournai station, which was three kilometres from the Saulchoir."
"I owe a lot to those young guys. They taught me the meaning of integrating the Gospel into humanity."
Later, in 1949, when the emerging International YCW was facing difficulties internally and from the Vatican, Cardijn called on Congar, Chenu and some Belgian theologians to assist the movement in deciding its orientation.
In 1950, in his True and False Reform in the Church, Congar even compared the emergence of the YCW to that of the movements led by St Francis and St Dominic.
"The creation of the YCW in our times is one of the most significant examples (of a local initiative welcomed by the Holy See)."
"We have a prophetic initiative from the periphery, i.e. a curate (Cardijn) from the suburbs of Brussels, who goes to Rome with a letter from his archbishop and there meets a Pope, also filled with a prophetic spirit, leading to a consecration through which the young movement became a movement of the Church itself and the prototype of the reforming creations of Catholic Action. A magnificent creation, an opening full of promise for development..."
Most important of all, however, was Congar's collaboration with Cardijn at Vatican II, the story of which is also related in his Council Journal.
"Two half days of grace" is how Congar described the time he spent with Cardijn working on preparing the three speeches that the latter would deliver in aula at the Council.
Cardijn and Congar – a great partnership extending for over 30 years, the significance of which is perhaps summed up in this quote from Fr Komonchak on the "rethinking of the relations between the Church and world in both their theoretical and practical aspects":
"One has only to mention the names of some of the men who between 1925 and 1940 began the series of breakthroughs that would make the Second Vatican Council possible: Teilhard de Chardin, Christopher Dawson, Jacques Maritain, Henri de Lubac, M.-D. Chenu, Yves Congar, Joseph Cardijn."
That just about sums it up.
Stefan Gigacz is currently working on a PhD thesis on the role of Joseph Cardijn at Vatican II with MCD University of Divinity.
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