Above: Yves Congar
Image in the Public Domain
YVES MARIE-JOSEPH CONGAR (MARCH 13, 1904-JUNE 22, 1995)
Roman Catholic Priest and Theologian
Father Yves Congar comes to my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days via Robert Ellsberg, author of All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (1997). Ellsberg lists Congar’s birth month as March and assigns his feast to March 13. Some other sources, however, list Congar’s birth date as April 13. Either way, his feast day on my Ecumenical Calendar is March 13.
To add Congar to an ecumenical calendar of saints is appropriate, for he was an ecumenist. Our saint, the author of more than 15,000 articles and books, entered the world at Sedan, France, in 1904. At the age of 17 years he decided to become a priest. Congar went on to join the Order of Preachers, or the Dominicans. He took holy orders in 1930. From the 1930s forward he was an active ecumenist, presaging Vatican II’s definition of non-Roman Catholic Christians as “separated brethren,” not as heretics. For his ecumenical activity Congar received much criticism from traditional Roman Catholics.
Congar, a military chaplain in 1939 and a prisoner of war for most of World War II, was ahead of his time theologically prior to Vatican II. He respected tradition yet was not a traditionalist. Tradition, for him, was living and flexible, but traditionalism was an inflexible commitment to the past. Our saint favored returning to the sources of traditions and evaluating traditions in the context of these sources. Thus he supported ecclesiastical reform, which he understood as both necessary and proper to allow the Church to resist the tendency toward institutionalism. Congar also opposed hyper-clericism. He understood the role of the laity not to be to obey, but to help to transform the world into something closer to the Kingdom of God.
The Holy Office (an ironically named institution) had been concerned about Congar since the 1930s. Another red flag regarding our saint was his involvement in the worker-priest movement, in which priests worked in factories and led the lives of industrial workers. In the 1950s it forbade him to teach and write.
Congar’s reputation vis-a-vis the Vatican improved in the 1960s. Pope John XXIII invited him to serve on the committee that planned the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II). Congar did that and more. He influenced the proceedings of Vatican II, shaping the documents on ecumenism, mission, revelation, the Church, and the Church in the world. The definitions of the Church as “the people of God” and of non-Roman Catholic Christians not as heretics but as “separated brethren” owed much to him. Furthermore, his influence was evident in the statement that the Church was “at once holy and always in need of reformation.”
Pope John Paul II elevated Congar to the College of Cardinals in 1985.
Congar died at Paris, France, on June 22, 1995. He was 91 years old. Our saint’s health had been failing since the 1980s.
One can recognize the influence of Congar in modern Roman Catholicism. Whenever one finds “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” in a Roman Catholic hymnal or reads of Pope Francis making positive statements about Martin Luther, one encounters evidence of the thawing of old interdenominational tensions. Other evidence includes ecumenical dialogues involving the Roman Catholic Church.
Congar helped to shape his times for the better. His influence persists, fortunately.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
JANUARY 14, 2017 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF SAINT MACRINA THE ELDER, HER FAMILY, AND SAINT GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS THE YOUNGER
THE FEAST OF CIVIL RIGHTS MARTYRS AND ACTIVISTS
THE FEAST OF KRISTEN KVAMME, NORWEGIAN-AMERICAN HYMN WRITER AND TRANSLATOR
THE FEAST OF SAINT SAVA I, FOUNDER OF THE SERBIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH AND FIRST ARCHBISHOP OF SERBS
Almighty God, we praise you for your servant Yves Congar,
through whom you have called the church to its tasks and renewed its life.
Raise up in our own day teachers and prophets inspired by your Spirit,
whose voices will give strength to your church and proclaim the reality of your reign,
through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 3:11-23
–Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 60