Fifty years ago today, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council with a speech that promoted both the updating and renewal in the Roman Catholic Church. Many theologians, sociologists, and historians say that the calling of the Council helped make the Catholic Church a more global institution. The Council produced 16 documents, commenting on a plethora of issues from Ecumenism, liturgy and revelation, to mass media, religious freedom and the laity.
Half of a century later, a gathering of theologians, reporters and other listeners came to John Carroll’s own Donahue Auditorium to discuss how the Church has developed since the opening of the council. The gathering took shape as a conference from Oct. 7-9, and was titled; “A New Cloud of Witnesses: The Laity 50 Years After Vatican II.” The hosts of the event were John Carroll’s Doris Donnelly and Edward Hahnenberg, of the JCU department of theology and religious studies.
Just as the meeting 50 years ago was opened with a speech by a man named John, so was “The Cloud of Witnesses;” John Allen was the first speaker. His task however, was not to encourage change, but to report on it. Allen’s qualifications to report on the current state of the church are numerous, including holding the positions of senior Vatican reporter for CNN, NPR and the National Catholic Reporter.
Allen was quick to establish the criteria for which people should judge the state of the Church today. His criteria consisted of main points: Think globally, look to the grass roots, remember to hope and get past ideologies.
Thinking globally refers to thinking outside of what Americans know about the Catholic Church. With the sexual abuse scandal still haunting the Catholic Church and an increasing rate of decline in numbers, Allen pointed out how the church in other countries is growing. For example, in the year 1900, there were an estimated 1.9 million Catholics in Africa. In the year 2000, that number increased to approximately 130 million Catholics. “Do not be seduced by the narrative of decline,” said Allen.
His next point, “Look to the grass roots,” could best be explained through a simile he offered: “Rome works like a crock pot.” Allen went on to report that the hierarchy of the Church, located primarily in Rome, is not a good example of where the Church truly stands and moves slowly in addressing the world. He claimed that the Church within the world was racing and growing in new encouraging ideas and theologies as it engaged new cultures and environments.
Concerning hope, Allen made an important observation. “I think if we had one of those wall charts with 2,000 years of church history and we put it up against this wall, and then we put on a blindfold, and just randomly tossed a dart at it,” Allen explained, “no matter where that dart fell on the time line, weather it was the ninth century or the 19th century, I believe at that moment in time you could have made a case for hope about where the Church is going, and you could have made a case for despair.”
He concluded that in the time line of the Church, the Church has prevailed, and that itself is a good reason to have hope.
Allen also looked to the empowerment of the laity of the Church. As a shortage of priests is continuing, especially in Africa and Latin America, the laity of the church will have an increasing roll in administering pastoral fellowship and friendship. For every one priest in America, there are about 1,300, people to whom minister whereas in Africa, for every priest, there are 5,500 people. Allen thought the ratio of laity to priests in the church clearly called for an increased roll in the laity’s leadership.
Finally, Allen urged people to get past ideologies. “In principle, diversity is a marvelous thing. The Church describes itself as a community of communities. Diversity is what makes us a church. But the shallow side of this tribalization is when these tribes stop communicating with on another.” Allen called for all Catholics of any type to work together to progress in a post-Vatican II world.
John Allen’s four points on understanding Catholicism in the world was received by a loud applause from those attending the conference. Just as Pope John XXIII started off the council with excitement, so did John Allen.