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Yves Congar and the New Evangelisation

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John Francis Collins

Yves Congar was born in 1904…. Following a three-year university course in philosophy in Paris and a year in military service, Congar joined the Dominican friars in 1925. After novitiate in 1926 Congar was sent to a house of studies in Belgium, as all religious had been expelled from France at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In 1928 Congar reports that he experienced what he interpreted to be a call from God to dedicate his life’s work to studying his beloved Church, with a particular mission to work for the unity of all who believe in Jesus Christ. Beginning in 1932 Congar taught ecclesiology (study of the Church) and as part of his research he attended many meetings with non-Catholics. Reflecting on this work he was to write: “To the extent to which … we ourselves have a responsibility for unbelief, it seemed to me that this was due to the fact that the Church was showing to the world a face that betrayed rather than expressed, its true nature, in accordance with the gospel and its own profound tradition.”

As Congar’s thought developed “he no longer thought of the reunion of the Churches simply in terms of the return of non-Catholic Christians to the fold, but as the possibility of a qualitative development of Catholicity, the other churches having managed at times better than his own, to preserve or develop certain values.”

During World War II Congar, then an army chaplain, was captured and held in a German prison camp until 1945. Following the war Catholicism in France experienced a period of intense vitality, “marked by biblical, patristic and liturgical research and by varied community and apostolic initiatives.” In the midst of this ferment Congar’s work reasserted the value of the mission of lay people in the Catholic Church and reflected a desire to reach out to non-Catholic Christians. While this is not something that would raise eyebrows today, at that time Congar came under the suspicion of the Roman Church authorities and was forbidden to write and teach. He was to later write, “from the beginning of 1947 until the end of 1956, I have never known anything from that quarter (referring to the Roman authorities) except an uninterrupted stream of denunciations, warnings, restrictive or discriminatory measures and distrustful interventions.”

In October 1958 Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was elected Pope, taking the name John XXIII. It is told that on becoming pope Roncalli noted that his name was on a list that had been prepared by some curial staff as ‘one to watch’ in terms of ideas. It was in this context that ‘Good Pope John,’ as he became known, now Blessed John XXIII, called the Second Vatican Council. From outsider to insider, Congar was then invited to be on the committee that was charged to set the agenda for the Council…. Congar was very influential during the life of the Council as a theological advisor and as one of the theologians who drafted the text of the documents.

In 1994 Pope John Paul II formally recognised Congar’s lifelong dedication and contribution to the Church by appointing him as a Cardinal. Congar had an abiding interest in the theology of the Holy Spirit and his theological vision would eventually significantly influence the documents of Vatican II….

Congar was dedicated to restoring the laity to their rightful place in the Church and to reaching out in fraternal dialogue with non-Catholic Christians in the service of making the Catholic Church truly catholic. These are all marks of the new evangelisation. Perhaps Congar’s greatest quality, and this is also one of his abiding gifts, is his patience. The Church he loved at first rejected his ideas and he felt that pain very deeply. Undeterred by small mindedness and inspired, enriched and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, Yves Congar stands as an example of the best of what we mean by New Evangelisation.