Blessed Joachim Fiore was an eleventh century Cistercian abbot who believed that history, like the Holy Trinity, could be expressed in three basic stages: The Age of the Father, corresponding to the Old Testament, when mankind was under the Law; The Age of the Son, represented by the New Testament when believers would come to reckon with the awesome significance of the Son of God’s presence in history; and The Age of the Holy Spirit, a new dispensation of universal love which would bring the Gospel of Christ to its fulfillment. While Joachim was never censured during his lifetime, a number of his disciples were later faulted for suggesting that in this final era the organized Church would be replaced by a collective sense of good will that would permeate and unite all mankind. Some later churchmen even thought that the Franciscan Order was the harbinger of this era of worldwide fellowship. Much of Joachim’s theory was refuted by Thomas Aquinas a century later, but two centuries later the poet Dante Alighieri situated Joachim in the heavenly paradise of his Divine Comedy.
At the risk of my being burned at the stake in Cathedral Square for unorthodox speculation, Abbot Fiore’s triple proposal might merit some renewed consideration. Certainly the Old Testament was indeed the Age of the Father. The accounts of Creation, the covenants with Noah, Abraham and Moses, the saga of the Jewish nation, the prophecies and wisdom of the Ancients all revealed God as the Father Almighty. The centuries of the ensuing Christian era were clearly the Age of the Son. The Church was busy first to decide who the Son was. Christ’s Divinity, his humanity, his personality, his will, his origins, his mission, and even his mother were the very stuff of all the great ecumenical councils of the Church. Catholic devotional life over the past two thousand years rightly held Christ to be central. Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, Holy Hours, The Stations of the Cross, the centrality of the Tabernacle, the Mysteries of the Rosary, devotions to the Sacred Heart and lately to the Divine Mercy, and the major holy days like Christmas and Easter rightly fostered a piety focused on Christ. This era was even labelled Christianity and Christendom.
The Second Vatican Council however might have been the catalyst that ushered in the new Age of the Holy Spirit. As Pope St. John XXIII spoke at the Council’s opening: Present indications are that the human family is on the threshold of a new era. We must recognize here the hand of God, who, as the years roll by, is ever directing men’s efforts, whether they realize it or not, towards the fulfillment of the inscrutable designs of His providence, wisely arranging everything, even adverse human fortune, for the Church’s good. Unlike previous councils Vatican II focused on pastoral needs rather than doctrinal issues. No beliefs were codified; no heresies laid to rest. Rather the Council Fathers focused, broadly speaking, on the activity of the Church within human society. The pastoral activities of bishops, priestly training, priestly ministry and life, religious life, the lay apostolate, Catholic education, social communication, activity with Easter Rite Catholics, ecumenism with other Christians, dialogue with non-Christians, religious freedom, and missionary activity all focused on insuring and increasing the outreach of the Church to the modern world.
The most celebrated documents of Vatican II — Sacrosanctum concilium, On the Sacred Liturgy; Lumen Gentium, On the Church; Dei Verbum, On Divine Revelation; and Gaudium et Spes, On the Church in the Modern World – all developed the Church’s appreciation of its role in society. The openness of the renewed liturgy employing the vernacular and welcoming diverse ministries certainly invites a wider participation of the faithful in this central action of the Church. The “universal call to holiness” highlighted in Lumen Gentium certainly envisions a Church spiritually active on all levels. These Council insights are clearly bearing fruit in Pope Francis’ call for synodality within the Church. Echoing Pope St. John XXIII, Pope Francis has remarked, “There is no need to create another church, but to create a different church. Keep us from becoming a ‘museum church,’ beautiful but mute, with much past and little future. May we be pilgrims in love with the Gospel and open to the surprises of the Spirit.” The world’s many assorted Catholic communities — Catholic families, parishes, dioceses, religious orders and congregations — are asked to discern the Spirit of God active within themselves and share those enthused intuitions with their fellow believers.
All believers, on all levels of Church membership, have a contribution to make to the life of the Church. Authentic synodality as envisioned by the Holy Father will be respectful of the old but open to the new and will be realized by the reliance of all on the Spirit of God, ushering in a broadened experience, the Age of the Holy Spirit.