Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Precedent of Council

Today the Mass readings begin to cover the story of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.  We see that when a dispute arose in the early Church they gathered in council so they could compare the Tradition they had received.  At this stage most of the apostles were still alive and able to relate how they understood the Gospel entrusted to them by our Lord.  This incident set the precedent, followed ever after by the Church, of calling a council of the leaders of the Church when a dispute arises that has not been settled at a lower level. 

This whole story reminds me that as Catholics we look to the Church to guide us as we believe that the Holy Spirit was given for just this purpose and that when we hear the voice of the Church, we are hearing the voice of our Lord (cf. Luke 10:16).  Unlike our Protestant brothers and sisters who ask, "What does the Bible say?" we ask, "What does the Church say?"  Protestants find this terribly unnerving to say the least, but it is as it should be.  The Church is the author of the Sacred Scriptures and has been given the authority to interpret them.  When we listen to the Church we understand both what She has taught in writing (Sacred Scripture) and by word of mouth (Tradition) (see 2 Thess. 2:15).  When the apostles and presbyters met in council in Jerusalem we do not find them asking what does Scripture say, but rather we hear them discussing the Tradition as it was handed downt to them by our Lord.  Each person who testifies is telling of how he understands that Tradition. 

The last time the Church gathered in such a council was in the early 1960's at the Second Vatican Council.  Unlike most councils, there was no major issue of dispute.  Rather, the fathers of the Council recognized that things in the modern world were rapidly changing and the Church needed to keep up without compromising any of Her teaching.  I began reading the first document they released which deals with the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium).  I've read this document on other occasions.  But this time I wanted to take it slowly and prayerfully.  I was not disappointed.  There is so much beauty in the depth of thought with which the document opens.  The various teachings of the Church are all interwoven to such an extent that they cannot be separated.  Salvation history comes alive as the Church discusses the need to make certain changes to the liturgy while retaining the essence of what it has always been. 

One thing that might be surprising to many people when they begin reading Vatican II documents is what they don't say.  So many people think everything changed with this Council.  But that's not true.  To read the documents themselves rather than to listen to what people say is very helpful.  If you haven't already done so, and you want to know what the Council actually said, I encourage you to read the documents themselves.  You will hear a great deal of wisdom and see the continuity between this Council and those that have preceded it. 

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