Gaudium et Spes – the signs of the times and the young

This is the final in our series featuring the 40-year-old document of Vatican II which has arguably the most inpact on the laity. This month Chris Duthie-Jung explores the document’s impact on young people.
I was born in the year that Gaudium et Spes

Chris Duthie-Jung

I was born in the year that Gaudium et Spes was promulgated and readily admit to taking a certain comfort in the fact that it was this ground-breaking constitution with which I share my year of birth. Indeed when those immortal opening words first gained my full attention, I was immediately caught by them even though they were by then more than two decades old.

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people 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.

Who are or were the people of this age? From my more youthful perspective it seemed that the church must actually be talking about the young; about me and my peers! Only later did it dawn on me that ‘church of the future’ was the handle most often used for the young (until recently) and the ‘people of this age’ referred to, well, anyone. And no one.

‘Anyone’, at the time of writing, because our church really was almost brazenly embracing the joys and hopes of a new world in which older things were visibly passing away. The griefs and anxieties too were to be squarely faced, the afflicted to remain central to our gospel message, but there was a new promise being detected and for the first time in a great many centuries, the Catholic Church was naming it!

‘No one’, because today these poignant opening words have found a new interpretation. More often than not the ‘griefs and anxieties’ are now lined up with almost anything attributable to ‘this age’. Joy and hope are to be found in casting backward, seeking solutions in an earlier age viewed with rose tinted lenses.

To be afflicted today would appear for many Catholic leaders to mean to suffer from the contemporary maladies of secularism, consumerism, liberalism and subjectivism. These are the things which seem to occupy our energies despite the somewhat ironic fact that the poor are with us still.

Signs of the Spirit

As an advocate for the newer generations, (we are hardly ‘new’), I find it is my constant task today to focus again on what is good in these times. All is not lost. In fact in my reading of the ‘signs of the times’ what is happening today is the work of the Spirit; that same Spirit that right through history has forced the followers of Jesus to occasionally uproot and move on.

It is interesting to note that no one who has any memory of the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council can today lay claim to the state of being young! So what does this Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World have to offer to the generations who never knew the world in which it was written?

Plenty! As has been repeatedly stated, this is the document that, more than any other of the Second Vatican Council, engages with the world and simply demands of the People of God that they do the same. From the unbelievably strong outlawing of discrimination (#29) to the acknowledgement that, ‘the church requires the special help of those who live in the world’ (#44) to make the gospel understandable today, Gaudium et Spes treads a new path.

For thus the ability to express Christ’s message in its own way is developed in each nation, and at the same time there is fostered a living exchange between the church and the diverse cultures of people.(#44)

Calling theologians to the task of context, the constitution differentiates carefully between what we believe and how it is to be expressed in a new age. ‘…for the deposit of faith or the truths are one thing and the manner in which they are enunciated, in the same meaning and understanding, is another.’ (#62)

Here too we find recognition of the good in the ‘other’ as the council fathers note the contemporary need to include and welcome that which is new and therefore different.

The church acknowledges also new forms of art which are adapted to our age and are in keeping with the characteristics of various nations and regions. They may be brought into the sanctuary since they raise the mind to God, once the manner of expression is adapted and they are conformed to liturgical requirements. (#62)

These are not words that arise from a defensive posture. In them we can sense the spirit of the opened windows to which Pope John referred at the council’s outset.

And yet, today they need to go further. The inculturation that is so needed today is one which the council fathers could probably not have foreseen. The vast gulf that has emerged between the experience of older and younger people, often makes cultural difference greater between generations than between nations and peoples.

The ‘other’, the new that as church we struggle to adequately address today, is the young. The signs of these times point us more towards the need for greater generational understanding than cross-cultural understanding.

Nevertheless, with respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, colour, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent. (#29)

A doubt-filled present

As the decades have passed since the council, we have watched a church lose confidence in the decisions of the bishops who participated. We have felt the growing uncertainty about the things of this age and we have witnessed the increasing determination to find solutions in the things of other eras.

As the young, now reaching their 50s, have quietly vacated our churches we have increasingly refused to ask and answer the real questions but instead have sought and found scapegoats in the old adversary, modernism. Today’s modernist is young, technologically fluent, demandingly choosey and unshakeably unthreatened by the fear-talk of past ages.

Today’s modernist goes where the action is, senses (and sometimes finds) God in the world and has no time for an institution that claims authority by right. Yet today’s modernist loves his or her art, thrives on image and music, and will discuss anything with you, if you dare.

Today’s discrimination is the description of everything in this young modernist’s world in pejorative terms. Secular, consumerist, liberal, subjective…error. At least this is the impression they all too often receive from our church.

Today’s signs of the times are more often U2 than Beethoven, ipods than icons, lore than law. In a time that cannot get enough of Lord of the Rings imagery, is there room for a re-reading of Gaudium et Spes?

I read somewhere recently, for the life of me I cannot remember where, that when our people are not in our churches on Sunday, we kid ourselves if we think they are sitting at home feeling resentful about the church.

They are sleeping-in after a big night out; playing golf, netball, or touch; shopping at the mall or the garden centre; driving to see parents or children in another town…

They want a kingdom not a church.

That is what Gaudium et Spes promised and promises still.