Congar’s call: “a prophetic awareness of what it means to be human”

The Pray Tell blog has recently been featuring select passages from My Journal of the Council, the remarkable personal journal kept by theologian (and later cardinal) Yves Congar throughout the Second Vatican Council. Congar played a key role in the council’s proceedings; in fact, it might be true to say that he had more influence on what went on there and the documents the council produced than any other single person.

In the passage posted yesterday, Congar mused on a comment made to him by another participant at the council, that “one of the results of the Council, he believes, will be the emergence of a new kind of bishop.” This led Congar to observe that such a possibility would depend upon a new kind of “presence of the Church to the world.” That presence, Congar wrote, would need to come “not in the form of clerical authority but in the form of a prophetic awareness of what it means to be human.” (You can read the whole passage here.)

I love Congar’s phrase there, so pregnant with meaning: a church that possesses “a prophetic awareness of what it means to be human.” It’s a lofty calling.

It occurred to me that the phrase would have had great appeal to Pope John Paul II. He would surely have nodded vigorously and he would have commented that the church receives such an awareness only from Jesus Christ who — in a conciliar phrase that JP2 never tired of quoting — “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes 22). It is this awareness that Papa Wojtyla spent decades proclaiming to humanity with great urgency, reminding us of the moral courage and goodness, even the sanctity, to which it calls us.

And then I thought, Pope Francis would love the very same phrase, that call to “a prophetic awareness of what it means to be human.” And yet it would move his soul in a slightly different direction. Hearing it, Francis’s mind would turn immediately to what the Council called “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted” (Gaudium et Spes 1). Papa Bergoglio has indeed made these realities his own, especially as they regard those on society’s or the church’s peripheries, those who have borne with difficulty the burdens of life and perhaps known more failure than success in their struggle for sanctity — determined to extend Christ’s compassion, welcome, and solidarity as far as it might go.

Different personalities, different instincts, different pastoral priorities — both desperately needed by all of us.

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