LETTER FROM FR ALBAN MITCHELL OFM
NATIONAL SPIRITUAL ASSISTANT, OCEANIA
SECULAR FRANCISCANS AND VATICAN II
As St. Francis followed the insights of Lateran IV, so today's Catholics follow those of Vatican II. The deposit of Faith never changes; our understanding of the Faith matures. As St. Augustine said; "Fides quaarens itellectum" – "Faith seeking understanding". That has been forgotten in today's theological wrangling. Our "understanding" of Divine Revelation obviously is limited.
Three elements of Vatican II, very positive elements or insights, have had an important impact on Catholic life and on the SFO Rule and Way of Life. They are: (1) Anti-Legalism, (2) Gospel Initiative, (3) Return to the Founding Spirit of Religious Orders. In this I am adapting an address given to the assembled Novice Masters OFM, at Portiuncula, 1988 (106 of us) by Fr. Fernando Uribe, OFM. Principally it applied to the OFM Rule, but it can be adapted to the SFO Pauline Rule of 1968.
(1) Anti-Legalism of Vatican II
or rather, a return to the spirit of the Law, not the letter of the Law, a Gospel initiative. This freeing of Catholic Conscience from myriad infractions of the Law allowed a movement from love of Law to a law of love (Agape); a movement from sin-centred to Grace-centred; as St. Paul said: "Where sin abounds, Grace does more abound".
But there is a negative side to this coin; the abandonment of Law and the declassifying of sin, so to speak; "Love is ail you need" quoth the Beatles. The Greeks had four words for love; Sexual, Family, Friendly and Agape - love for all humans even enemies. (Agape is this Christian love). One needs to know precisely what "love" is meant. For Love (Agape] has its laws: "If you love me, keep my commandments…" said Jesus. Another side-effect of anti-legalism is the down-grading or rejection of the RULE as a way of life (OFM & SFO). Whereas Vatican II should have freed us to seek the spirit of the Gospel in the Rule.
(2) Gospel Initiative
Vatican II (Perfectai Caritatis, No. 2) stated: "the final norm of the religious life is the following of Christ as it is put before us in the Gospel…" This we know from the Rule: Franciscan life is "to observe the holy Gospel of Our Lord, Jesus Christ". Even St. Francis, early on, asked: "You have the Gospel: what more do you need?" Harsh human experience proved otherwise: human frailty. For Christians pick and chose as they see fit, from the Gospels and Epistles. Not so St. Francis and St. Clare.
Nevertheless, many use the "Gospel is central" truth to ignore the Rule, or to deny its relevance. Yet for Franciscans, the Rule is "the marrow of the Gospel". We have been freed from the letter of the Law in both the OFM and SFO redefining of our respective Rules. Compare the SFO Rule before the Pauline Rule of Paul VI 20 years ago. Gospel to life and Life to Gospel! The new Rule seeks the spirit of the Gospel, whereas reductionist evangelism: denies any need for a Rule. Life should be so simple! … but it's usually not.
(3) Return to the Founder's Spirit
Once again, a positive, spirit directed initiative. For us, this has meant a renewal of interest in the writings of St. Francis & Clare: and later Franciscan writings. This began before Vatican II, but was accelerated by it. "Nothing like it has been seen before in the whole history of Franciscanism" (Fr. Uribe). The spread of the Franciscan Missionary Charism Course all over the world is one recent example. Much emphasis has been placed, correctly, on the Earlier Rule (1221), the Testament, and the letters of Francis & Clare. These are a MUST for Franciscans.
But the other side of the coin: some say that the Rule is just one of many Franciscan writings, no more important than the others, which thus undervalues the Rule. It might have been hoped that the other writings would underline the value of the rule.
Evaluation: These three developments are from the Holy Spirit and healthy results of Vatican II. The negative side-effects come from the exaggerated emphasis, just as the strengths of a human character, pushed too far, can become weaknesses, as psychologists have observed. The same applies to many other positives of Vatican II.
But these negatives can actually help us to weigh up and re-define our own reactions to these developments, and create in us a new spirit in evaluating "the spirit of the Lord and His holy way of acting". This means to seek the spirit of the Law (& the Rule) and not its removal; to see the Gospel as central to every fraternity meeting at every level; and its way of life; to see the insights that Franciscan reading, especially the Rule, bring to the Gospel. Thus, the new On-Going Formation (’92) Book sought to integrate these three elements, so that each throws light on the others, then allowing us to interpret these in today's milieu, reflecting on our own (and others') experiences.
This is not a return to medievalism, though the Holy Spirit speaks in every age: the Church did not begin at Vatican II, as some would have it! In this approach, we follow John XXIII when he spoke of an "aggiornamento" (bring up to date), and an "approfondamento" (deepening of our spirituality) in introducing Vatican II. This lies behind the new Formation programme (White Book ‘92) which National Executive hopes will be the approach of subsequent formation material.
The same positives - and negatives side effects - can be seen in the Church at large. One hears of left-wing and right-wing Catholics. How many birds do you know that can fly with one wing? Franciscans can bring sanity, unity and peace to this debate. "Accentuate the positive eliminate the negative" as the old song has it. Better still, consult St. John Ch. 17 ("… That they, Father may be ONE as You and I are ONE …") quoted by St. Francis (in Ch. XXIII of the Rule of 1221) ... the very centre and mystical height of Franciscanism. This is the Mystical meeting that should underlie every fraternity meeting at every level.
Franciscans seek to bring peace and unity: Pax et Bonum. Where they do not find it, let them "wipe the dust off their feet" as St. Francis said and depart in peace, with "peaceable tongues …". "The peace which you proclaim with words must dwell even more abundantly in your hearts. Do not provoke others to anger or give scandal. Rather let your gentleness draw them to peace, goodness and concord. This is your vocation: to heal wounds, to bind what is broken, to bring home those who are lost. And remember that many who may now seem to be of the devil can one day become disciples of Christ." (St. Francis: Legend of the three Companions). This is what makes us, as St. Francis asked, "Disciples of the Gospel".
(1) "St. Paul's Pocket Edition of the Catholic Catechism" know what Vatican II says, not what others think it says!
(2) Fr. R.E. Brown "Responses to 101 Questions on the Bible" know what faith and tradition say.
Shalom, Pax et Bonum,
Alban Mitchell O.F.M.