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Vatican 2Day: The spirit of the Second Vatican Council

FeatureDr Helen Bergin OP from Auckland University's School of Theology.

Cecily McNeill

February 28, 2013

The experience some years ago of Eucharist in an African American parish in Washington DC illustrated the workings of the Holy Spirit for the keynote speaker at last month’s Joy and Hope: Vatican 2Day Symposium.

Dominican sister Dr Helen Bergin told the almost 200 people gathered at St Patrick’s College, Kilbirnie, of the priest asking the congregation to bless and still themselves, then to stretch out their hands across the large church. Before starting the Eucharist he ‘asked us to pray for the person on either side of us because “We do not know what might have happened during the week to that person”.

‘For two minutes there was total silence and, after that, “communion” had been experienced and it lasted through the entire Eucharist.’

Dr Bergin suggested that one of the Second Vatican Council’s rich legacies was the opening up of pneumatology – the theology of the Holy Spirit.

The ‘presence and energy of God’s Spirit’ could be seen in the inspiration of John XXIII in calling the council and its continuation under Paul VI, the many proposals for renewal in the church, the tensions that were faced and resolved during conciliar discussions and the communities of people praying as well as the millions of human beings ‘who have keenly responded to the various overtures and gifts of the council’.

One of the earliest documents to be promulgated, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the document on the liturgy, best set the scene with its enthusiasm for ‘the promotion and restoration of the liturgy’ as ‘a movement of the Spirit’.

‘Such admission seems cogent as we grapple today with changes in Eucharistic texts!’

Drawing on the four main constitutions, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Lumen Gentium (The Church), Dei Verbum (Revelation) and Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the World), Dr Bergin explored signs of the presence of the Spirit.

Lumen Gentium expresses the hope that the church ‘moved by the Holy Spirit may never cease to renew herself’.

A particular sign of God’s Spirit, Dr Bergin says, ‘is often that of moving, stirring, prodding and inspiring’.

The Spirit as ‘principle of koinonia’ or communion within the Christian community shows in the coming together of disparate groups of people.

‘If we were to imagine a gift which a dying loved one might give us, might it not be that (despite their bodily absence) we could keep living with that person’s very own spirit living within us. This is what Jesus does through death and resurrection.’

When we hear people talk of someone who has died as ‘cheerful, caring or friendly, this is ‘Spirit’ language or the language of ‘communion’.

In a parish community the Spirit brings us alive and makes us one. ‘The challenge is to believe this.’ The Spirit invites us to participate in the Christian community and stretches us ‘often beyond our personal limits’.

As ‘encourager of growth’ within the community, the Spirit invites us to baptism which brings us into communion. The spirit also invites us to build on the unity that already exists among Christians of different denominations through ecumenical services, ‘So that finally God may be all in all’ – the ultimate expression of koinonia.

The Spirit is also seen as ‘assister in discernment’.

‘We are invited to know our world and to study even issues that cause us consternation … to distinguish one voice from another and to listen to human beings presenting different views. We are asked to interpret the voices and, as the document says, “judge them in the light of the divine Word”.’

The Spirit is seen working through those who proclaim the Word of God in liturgy and who teach others, perhaps introducing children to scripture or offering a reflection on the Word in groups.

‘As they reflect together they receive (in Dei Verbum’s words) “a clearer understanding” of the total Christ-event and they are taught “by the light of the Spirit of truth”.’

In a third theme, Dr Bergin spoke of the ways in which the Spirit enriches the Church with gifts or charisms.

LG 7 mentions individuals receiving from the Spirit special gifts to be used for the welfare of others. GS 38 speaks of some gifts enabling the recipients to serve other human beings in the present age while other gifts enable recipients to point human beings beyond the present age towards eternal life.’

The Church’s willingness to listen to previously silent voices was one of the greatest signs of the Spirit’s presence after the council – from outside the Roman Catholic Church the meeting of Paul VI with Patriarch Athenagoras in 1964 to rescind the mutual excommunications between the Western and Eastern Church 900 years earlier – and, within the Church, Latin American liberation theologians Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff who shortly after the Council both lived and wrote theology ‘from the underside of history’.

‘Suddenly, thanks to global communication, theology appeared that was giving voice to people living in poverty, people of colour, women as well as men, lay people as well as those in orders. Since then, theological reflection and theological praxis (action for change in the light of biblical reflection) have changed the face of theology and the lives of millions. Within a relatively short time, new areas of church life and theology changed markedly because many Christians responded to stirrings of the Spirit opened up by the Second Vatican Council.’

Dr Bergin suggested that, during the symposium, ‘we may recognise and reclaim further gifts from the Spirit-laden Second Vatican Council.

And, since we may be only midway towards actually “receiving the fruits of the Council”, we will continue to pray with eager expectation, “Holy Spirit, come”!’

The full text of Dr Bergin’s address to the symposium can be found here: HelenBerginSymposiumAddress (190.66 kB).