Editorial: Engaging with Society

Michael McCabe
Issue 13, August 2004

"Economic, technological, systemic and medical realities are not enemies. Rather it is to them that we bring our ministry of Christian hope."

--Cardinal Joseph Bernardin

On 14 September 1965 the fourth session of the Second Vatican Council opened in Rome. In the three months that followed the Council Fathers finished their work on Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). This landmark document was to change the way in which the Church related to the world. It is as relevant forty years later as it was when it was first made public.

The first few lines of Gaudium et Spes are its most oft-quoted passage: "The joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are in any way afflicted, these are the joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Nothing that is human fails to find an echo in their hearts."

With these words the Council Fathers dispelled any lingering echoes of the "fortress Catholic" approach which had dominated the decades preceding the Council. The follower of Christ is to be found among the people not apart from them, engaged with the people and the culture as insider and participant, not as a critical and dissociated outsider.

This new orientation was a profound change for the Church and for its individual members. It has taken time to percolate through the multiple layers of the Church's life. The words of Cardinal Joseph Bernadin in 1995 were another reminder that the realities of the lives of people are the context for our engagement. Those realities are not enemies. We find our fellow human beings in these realities, and this is the place where we are called to be also, engaged in a ministry of hope, highlighting that which is good, acting as a leaven for transformation, reaching out to build bridges.

Our engagement with society and with the culture is determined to some extent by where we choose to stand in initiating that engagement. If we wish to bring about change then we need to stand beside people at their point of need, and be prepared to accompany them to the place where their lives will be lived in a manner more in accord with their human dignity. Accompaniment requires presence at a most personal level.

In this edition of The Nathaniel Report we highlight the fact that this year marks the 25th anniversary of hospice care in New Zealand. Hospice has transformed the care of the dying primarily by being fully attentive to the needs of the dying as they are portrayed in one patient and in one family at a time. Rather than lamenting the abandonment of the dying, the hospice movement meets and answers their needs in a profoundly fresh and creative way. Accompaniment is at the core of its philosophy. It is utterly engaged with the realities of people's lives, in a way which is profoundly in tune with both Gaudiem et Spes and the words of Cardinal Bernardin.

Rev Michael McCabe, PhD
The Nathaniel Centre