I admit I did not understand what Pope John XXIII meant.
In announcing his intention to call an ecumenical council, he said that the Church must "read the signs of the times." I initially rejected such an idea on the grounds that the Church could not learn anything from the world.
Only later did I remember that Jesus had reprimanded his contemporaries for failing to judge the signs of the times, a failure which kept them from recognizing who he was (cf. Matthew 16:3).
Pope John, however, did read the signs. He saw the aftermath of two world wars, the fragmentation which came from technology and science, and the struggle between materialism and spiritual values. He believed the Church could bring hope, peace and unity.
But before it could fulfill its God-given mission, the Church had to humbly read the signs of the times and re-assess how it could best respond with Christ's message and ministry. The Second Vatican Council was to be that re-assessment.
"The Church," as John often reminded the bishops, "is not a museum." It is a servant, responsive to the needs of those it serves. The Second Vatican Council gave us a wake-up call.
The Church is alive, and therefore subject to change. The Spirit breathes where it will, and we are by divine commission sent into the world. Consequently we have a divine mandate "to interpret the present time" (cf. Luke 12:56).
In the quest to read and respond the Church must not dilute the Gospel or compromise its mission. Jesus Christ is the same today, yesterday and forever. The Church has been given testimony from Christ and may not part from it.
At the same time the Church may not divorce itself from the cry of the poor, nor condemn the evils of the world from some ivory tower. Though its dogma does not change, the lanuage used to express it may have to. Practices appropriate to one age may have to be altered to meet the needs of another.
Jesus' admonition applies to us. To be authentic and loyal, we must determine the signs of our times. I offer some suggestions and questions.
1) Church membership is splintered. Some members boast that they are "traditionalists" wanting to return to Tridentine liturgy, put the brakes on "the spirit of Vatican II," and promote papal monarchy. Others are proud to be known as "progressives" wanting to develop multiplicity of liturgical styles, push forward with the Vatican II agenda, and promote collegiality in Church government. And statistics indicate still another group whom we might call "inactive Catholics." How long can a divided house stand?
2) The clergy are choosing sides too. "Vatican II priests" generally support the social teaching and spirit of the Council and want to promote lay involvement and eschew clericalism. "John Paul II priests" are skeptical about "the spirit of Vatican II" and focus on liturgy, clerical status, and a return to the Catholicism of the past four hundred years. What would Jesus do?
3) An explosion of electronic communication is an obvious characteristic of our day. Should evangelization, catechesis and preaching adapt to cyberspace, You-Tube, and Kindle? How?
4) Church scandals such as pedophilia and homosexuality among priests, cover-ups by the hierarchy, and mishandling of Church funds have affected the Church's image and undermined Church credibility among members and non-members alike. How do we restore confidence?
5) The shortage of priests continues to impact dioceses and parishes. Is ordaining married men a solution? Is it Eucharist versus celibacy?
6) There seems to be a growing schism --not so much a public or formal revolt against the pope and bishops but rather "a schism of indifference" in which Church members find Church leaders to be irrelevant, insensitive, ill-suited to serve. Who has drifted?
The handwriting is on the wall. We must not turn a blind eye. If we are too proud to listen and learn from the world, we jeoparadize the very mission we have received. And yet, having read the signs, we need the Spirit to guide our response. Let us pray for a new Pentecost in our time so that we correctly read the signs and then speak the languages of a multifacted world.