The Church's Presence in the World Today

Author: Pope Paul VI


Pope Paul VI

The Pope’s address to the faithful gathered in the Basilica of St Peter for the General Audience, on Wednesday 5th March, was devoted to the sympathetic and loving vision that the Council offered us of the world today. The text of the exhortation is asfollows:

Beloved Sons and Daughters!

We are again meditating on the Council. It will take us a long time. We will do well to convince ourselves that this great event, withthe heritage it has left us of its memory, its experiences, itsinnovations, and especially its documents, must offer us matter for study, meditation, orientations in theology, religion and Christian education, if we do not wish to lose the fruits of its teachings. The Council must be known: who really knows it? Many people think they know it by the vague and generic idea they have of it as being an upheaval, breaking with the complicated and heavy traditions of the past, and authorizing us to assume rash attitudes of thought and of action, as if this were the spirit of the Council. Now We wish to point out some moral aspects of the Council, which we can call characteristic, new and modern aspects, therefore, which we all know more or less. Thereisno end to the literature aboutthem, but they are not yet completely absorbedin our Christian psychology and perhaps even less,in their real significance, applied to life. We must ruminate, as St. Bernardine of Siena preached, on what we have listened to and vaguely learned (cfr Bargellini, S. Bernardino da S., p 53, 62).

Teaching ofthe Council

Oneof these teachings,which modifies our way of thinking and even more our practical behaviour, concerns the vision we Catholics must have ofthe world in which we live.Howdoes the Church see the worldtoday? The Council defined this vision, studied it and widened it a great deal, so that it modifies not a little the judgment and attitude that we must have with regard to the world. And this has happened because the doctrineof the Church has been enriched by a more complete knowledge of her own being and of her mission.

An endless meditation could be made here on the Church such as the Council defined her. Let it suffice us, at this moment, to ask ourselves how the Council saw the Church in connection with the world. It defined her in so many ways, among whichwe are now interested in the one that calls her "the sacrament of salvation" (Lumen Gentium, n. 48), that is a mystical and social body, willed by God and set up by Christ, not as an end in itself, but as a Messianic people, placed in the midst of humanity with the mission "to proclaim the mystery of salvation to all men, and to restore all things in Christ" and with the duty "to be concerned with the whole of man's life, even the earthly part of it insofar as that has a bearing on his heavenly calling" (Grav. educ., introd.). So that if the Church, on the one hand, is distinguished from temporal society by the original definition of her specific religious and spiritual nature, on the other hand she realizes she is in the midst of men and for men, not to dominate them, but to evangelize them.

The concept of Church havingbeen clarified, a choice has been made among the various biblical meanings of the word "world", of the one that identifies it with humanity. It is not the world that signifies the reign of darkness, of sin and the coalition of false virtues (cfr, Jn 13, 1, Rom 5, 12; 1 Jn 4, 5; etc ); but the world that God loved and for which "Godgave his only-begotten Son" (Jn 3, 16). In this confrontation of the Church andthe world, the world means man, man in himself, man the creature made in God's image (Gen. 1, 26-27), mankind, the whole human family (Gaudium et Spes, n. 3). The Council defines the world confronting the Churchas:"the world of men, the whole human family along with the sum of those realities in the midst of which thatfamily lives; the world which is the theatre of man's history, and carries the marks of his energies, his tragedies, and his triumphs; that world whichtheChristian sees as created and sustained by its Maker's love, fallen indeed into the bondage of sin, yet emancipated now by Christ. He was crucified and rose again to break the stranglehold of personified Evil, so that this world might be fashioned anew according to God’s design and reach its fulfilment" (Gaudium et Spes. n. 2).

Evangelical confrontation

Many interesting ideas can be deduced from this. The description of this confrontation of the Church and the world remains the evangelical one, and therefore, in its fundamental theological and moral principles, the traditional one, the constitutional one of Christian mentality. But furthermore: the Church accepts, recognizes, and serves the world as it presents itself to her today. She does not regret the formulas of the Church-world synthesis of the past, nor does she dream of the formulas of a Utopian future. The Church adheres to present historical reality; she does not identify herself with it, she does not become a convert to the world (as some people today think they are authorized to do). But she recognizes in the present social reality the setting of her own life, the object of her love and service, the conditions of her language, the drama of her alluring temptations and of her pastoral attempts. In a word, the Church, in Christ and like Christ, loves the world of today and lives, speaks, operates for it, ready to understand it, attend to it, and offer herself.

New mentality

This attitude must become characteristic of the Church of today, which is awakening and drawing new apostolic energies from her heart, mobilizing every son of hers to awareness of a common duty of mission and holiness. She does not escape, she does not live estranged from the existential situation of the world, but is grafted upon it spiritually with her message, with her patient and benign charity (not revolutionary and bellicose; another deviation of the present times), but "patient, kind; ... (she) sustains, believes, hopes, endures, to the last" (cfr. 1 Cor 13, 4-7).

This entails another mentality which wecan likewise call new. The Church openlyadmits the values peculiar to temporal realities. She recognizes that the world possesses goods, carries out enterprises, expresses thoughts and arts, deserves praise, etc. in its being, in its becoming, in its own kingdom, even if the latter is not baptized, that is, profane, lay, secular. Even if it is pluralistic, that is diversified and divided in itself to the point of threatening ruin (cfr. Luke 11, 17), she recognizes under the safeguard of certain principles (which wemust not ignore and forget), its right to freedom in its individual members and in its collective expressions. "The Church, theCouncil says, recognizes that worthy elements are found in today's social movements" (Gaudium et Spes, n. 42). In fact, the Council goes on, "the Church is not bound to any political system. For she is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendence of the human person" (Gaudium at Spes, n 76).

Apostolic and missionary impulse

This does not mean that the Church withdraws within itself again and abandons laymen engaged in the promotion of "secular activity so that the world is permeated by the spirit of Christ and more effectively achieves its purpose in justice, charity and peace", andwho labour vigorously so that by human labour, technical skilland civic culture created goods may be perfected for the benefit of every last man" (Lumen Gentium, n. 36). In fact the Clergy themselves must help the lay faithful to carry out their own function in the Church and in the world, in the autonomydue to them, preventing them, however from being "driven before the wind of each new doctrine" (Eph. 4,14; cfr. Presb. Ord. n. 9)

This way, full of prudence and at the same time of boldness, with which the Churchconfronts the contemporary world today, must modify and mould our mentality as faithful Christians immersed, however, in the whirl of modern secular life. We were speaking of the apostolic and missionary impulse which a post-conciliar Catholic must feel born deep down in his conscience, dazzled by the re-awakened sense ofhis Christian vocation. We should explain, with great cautiousness and precision, how the positive vision of earthly values, offeredto her pupils by the Church today, differs, without wiping out its true aspects, from the negative vision,which such a large part of her wisdom and her asceticism preaches tous on contempt of the world. (Remember. forexample, the work of Innocent III, a Pope of great views, at the height of the Middle Ages: 1198-1216, on this very subject of contempt of the world "de contemptu mundi"). But We will conclude by adopting and recommending this optimistic vision that the Council offers us of the contemporary human world; a vision full of sympathy and love, not blind, not yielding, not amoral, of course, but such as to arouse in us a sense of respect, admiration, fair criticism, if necessary, for our modern world; the desire tosustain and promote its laborious achievements; thelonging to illuminate its paths, nay rather its heart, with the vital light of Christ (cfr. L'Eglise dans le monde de ce temps, tome III; Congar, Eglise et monde, pp. 15-41)

It is a difficult mission, it is true; but for this very reason we are dedicating our reflection to it and asking the Lord to help us not to be the deserters of our times, but rather the messengers of His kingdom; with His Blessing, which becomes Our Apostolic Blessing.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
13 March 2001, page 1

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