When school ends professors go on the road. The conference season kicks into gear, and for teachers of theology it has all begun this year at Georgetown University with the 9th Ecclesiological Investigations Network International Conference, also including half a day at Marymount University across the Potomac in Arlington. Today we are wrapping up four days of talks and conversations on “Vatican II—Remembering the Future: Ecumenical, Interfaith and Secular Perspectives on the Council’s Impact and Promise.” Organized by the tireless Gerard Mannion of Georgetown University’s Theology faculty, about 250 of us from many Christian traditions have talked and listened a lot, including to three, count ‘em, three Cardinals. We began with Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, whom you may remember as the slight figure who announced the election of Pope Francis from the balcony of the Vatican. Cardinal Walter Kasper was also much in evidence, delivering a major address at Washington’s National Cathedral, but it was actually the third of the trio, Cardinal Luis Tagle, who aroused most interest. If we are focused on remembering the future, the 57 year old papabile Archbishop of Manila was obviously the best fit with the conference theme. He comes across very much as an Asian version of Pope Francis. He is very unassuming and equally charming, not at all the shy and retiring figure that the media saw him as when they were handicapping the potential replacements for Pope Benedict. But while Francis’s context is the still overwhelmingly Catholic poor of Latin America, Tagle is very conscious that Asian Catholics exist as a small minority in the midst of countless millions of adherents of the ancient religious traditions of Asia. So, he has very little time for those European Catholics who bemoan the exhaustion of their continent’s Catholicism. “When they tell me they are tired,” he said, “I ask them what they are tired of.” Here in Asia, he added, “we have no time to lament and we never had anything to lose anyway.”
Before he became a leading ecclesiologist, the great Yves Congar wanted to spend his life in ecumenical work. He wrote the first serious 20th century book on ecumenism back in the 1930s but was forbidden to attend ecumenical conferences. This kind of suspicion is now thankfully long gone, though Protestants do reasonably still wonder why the Roman Church chooses not to become a full member of the World Council of Churches. As the Ecclesiological Investigations conferences show, there’s not much difference between ecumenism and ecclesiology, at least since Vatican II. You just cannot talk about the church any more and mean only the Roman Catholic Church. But it is quite wonderful to have three cardinals putting their collective approval on what, without them, would probably just be dismissed as what professors do with their long summers to keep themselves occupied.