Looking forward with a Vatican II perspective

The image of “the pilgrim People of God” used at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was intended to be a biblically-rich vision to replace the vision of the Church as an “unequal hierarchical society” (societas inaequalis hierarchica).

Yet few organizations have such hierarchically clear levels.

The clue is in the name: the Church claims to be hierarchical (in the original sense of its having a divinely-appointed government and in the popular sense of ranks in a pyramid); other power pyramids are only “hierarchical” by analogy.

Vatican II used the image of the Church as the People of God to emphasize that it is all the baptized, as one community, that witnesses, preaches, works, suffers, and prays.

Put another way, the basis of the Church would be centred around baptism, not ordination.

A pilgrim Church

A Vatican II Church would also be a pilgrim Church; it has not yet reached its goal, so it cannot think of itself as a societas perfecta.

In the older church understanding, the Church was the perfect beacon that not only other religious organisations, but all other societies, should imitate.

Vatican II saw the community of the baptized as serving the larger human family, growing, learning, and humbly aware of its incompleteness.

But after several centuries of triumphalism, taking the pilgrim image on board has been just too much for many of us.

Many of the divisions within contemporary Catholicism can be seen in terms of a willingness, on the one hand, and a reluctance, on the other, to take this image of the Church as a “pilgrim people” to heart.

This is the background to Pope Francis’ repeated calls for a “synodal Church”.

His hope is that synodality will give flesh to Vatican II’s vision.

When we are faced with new images of the Church, our instinct is to look backwards to “the early Church”, to see if we can draw lessons or inspiration from there.

This longing to recover the golden age of the first Christians is not new.

Already in the early second century, when writing the Acts of the Apostles, Luke presents us with this vision of unity, harmony, and dedication:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-7).

Luke raises some important questions.

How accurate is his picture of the first Christian communities?

Does looking backwards reflect a Christian vision? And while it is rhetorically powerful, is it pastorally effective?

The goal of the pilgrimage of faith lies ahead, not behind us (Photo by Thomas O’Loughlin).

However, if it were not for the conflicts in the Aegean churches, at least a generation before Luke’s time, we might never have had the letters of Paul.

There were disputes over religious practices and an unwillingness to welcome one another as equals (1 Corinthians) and about what was to be believed and expected (1 Thessalonians).

We know of arguments between followers of Jesus who were Jews and those who were Gentiles, over circumcision and the sharing of resources.

Abuses over hospitality and support for the “apostles and prophets” generated the first internal Church regulations, and it wasn’t long before the term “christmonger” was coined for ministers greedy for money.

There were “clergy on the make” within a few decades of the crucifixion and several centuries before “clergy” formally emerged.

Also, far from holding all in common, the wealthy kept their slaves. And most did not like practices that challenged the social status quo, such as sharing at the Eucharistic table.

It was not all ‘sweetness and light’ in the early churches

In other words, the first Christians were as challenged by the Word as we are today.

Far from being plaster-cast saints, it was their willingness to keep trying to live the Gospel in a culture which saw them as fools and odd-balls that was their claim to being “among the saints” (Eph 5:3).

Graeco-Roman civilization looked back to “a golden age” since when things had been going downhill. Christians were different.

They looked to the future: to the coming of the Son of Man.

At the heavenly banquet – to which they looked forward ­– people would be gathered from north, south, east and west (Lk 13:29). They were on a journey.

This colours our thinking about the Church, and about synodality.

We do not imagine that there was a perfect time which we are seeking to re-create, but we, confident in God’s help, ask what we should become. The Gospel of Matthew puts it this way:

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me (Mt 25:34-6).

We are not engaged in a restoration project.

We have to restore our church buildings periodically, but living the life of faith must not be confused with a restoration project. (Photo by Thomas O’Loughlin).

Nostalgia is not a Christian virtue

Luke’s device of imagining a perfect past as a blueprint – a technique he borrowed from Greek history writing – engages the human propensity for nostalgia: “We shall not see their like again!”

But the sense that it was somehow easier for the first Christians — that they belonged to the “age of the saints”, to “the springtime” — disempowers us.

Inherent in this is a lack of faith that our moment is as beloved of the Creator who holds it in being as that of those called to witness in the first days.

The times have changed, but the call to follow and witness – amid the particular difficulties of our age – is always the same.

Those early Aegean churches and our churches today are one in hearing: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20:29).

Nostalgia is, in many ways, the antithesis of the courage of faith.

This was the point Pope Francis wanted make last June when he lampooned seminarians who love wearing lace.

The past always seems to be a safe place to run to and take refuge, but faith requires that we push out into the future, trusting in God’s grace being with us.

We are, as we claim to believe, more valuable than many sparrows! (Lk 12:7).

Diagnosing deeper problems in the Catholic Church

That said, we should not just criticize the seminarians who want to wear lace surplices and whose nostalgia is for an imaginary past where they were not seen as odd-balls but as “valuable people”.

We should study in detail – a task that will need sociologists and psychologists – what it is that makes presbyteral ministry (as currently configured) so attractive to these young men so intent on the past rather than the present.

Such a study might reveal important illnesses besetting the Catholic Church today.

We should look on this nostalgia as the presenting-problem that might reveal some of the problems the up-coming synod needs to address.

If we are attracting un-suitable candidates for ministry, perhaps the problem lies in our forms of ministry. Perhaps, we need to change the ecclesial structures of that ministry.


Something else distinguishes the pilgrim people from the societas perfecta: discipleship.

Until the 1930s most mainstream Churches were united in thinking of belonging in terms of identification and the acceptance of specific beliefs.

The matter of identification was seen in their desire to be recognized within legal frameworks: ideally, establishment, but at least giving their leaders a say in education or social policy.

Likewise, individual belonging was presented as assent to certain propositions. Churches and denominations had their “truths to be accepted” (the credenda).

There was a list of boxes to be ticked.

Then came movements such as Fascism, Nazism and Communism. Identification and assent to propositions were no longer enough to “belong” – as was recognized by theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

One had to become a disciple.

The disciple – more an “apprentice” than a “student” – knows that one does not just talk the talk. but must also walk the walk.

And this is the walk of the pilgrim.

Discipleship costs. Or as our formal memory (Mark 10:38) presents the desire of disciples looking towards their destination: “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

The “synodal Church” is not an exercise in nostalgia, an attempt to recreate an illusory early Church without disagreement or dissent.

Pope Francis’ dream seems to be that synodality will bring about Vatican II’s vision of a pilgrim Church of disciples “among the saints” — not because they are perfect, but because they are humble witnesses to the Gospel of mercy.

  • Thomas O’Loughlin is a presbyter of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor-emeritus of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is Discipleship and Society in the Early Churches.
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.

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