Remembering… Fr Yves Congar, O.P. (1904-1995)
By Br. Vincent Antony Löning, OP | Br. Vincent Antony reflects upon the life of eminent theologian Cardinal Yves Congar, peritus of the Second Vatican Council who at one time lived at our priory in Cambridge.
Quick-witted, quick-tempered, immensely kind, certainly one of the greatest theologians of his generation… There are many ways to describe Yves Congar, the French Dominican who is perhaps best known for his role as a peritus during the Second Vatican Council. He certainly lived through a lot. Two World Wars, for a start. Though he was too young to know action during WWI, he was enlisted as a military chaplain during WWII, during which he spent many years as a prisoner of war in Germany. So close to Remembrance Day, it may be worth remembering also in our prayers all those who served soldiers spiritually, had to celebrate funerals for the fallen, had to console their friends, and many of whom fell themselves in the course of conflict. Congar certainly knew reality outside the Dominican Order, which he had joined in his early twenties as Br. Marie-Joseph.
He also knew persecution. Silenced for his ideas, which some in Rome took to be dangerous at the time, he was even sent for some years to England, where he lived in Cambridge, in the house which is now the novitiate for our province! Barred from teaching or engaging in ecumenical work with the local Anglicans, he was mainly remembered in the house for exercising in the garden. His situation rapidly changed, though, with his involvement in the Council, and his life’s work, his contribution to Church unity and theology, were recognised by Pope St. John Paul II who made him a cardinal shortly before his death.
When I ask some of the older brothers who remember him what was most remarkable about him, his kindness is always among the first things mentioned. Though very reserved, and perceived as somewhat distant by his younger contemporaries who felt the need to move radically beyond Congar’s theology after the Council, his love for his brethren was nonetheless evident. As was his love for the Church. That love was what drew him in the first place to promote Catholic ecumenism. “For the Church,” he said, “to be truly ecumenical means to be truly Catholic.” (Which should be read both ways.) He also gave much theological thought to the role of the laity within the Church.
His impatience was also notable, especially after being treated as suspect by the CDF, and he does not mince his words in his Diaries of the Second Vatican Council. Yet all acknowledged him as a remarkable scholar—one brother here in Oxford remembers the piles of books and reference material that he would bring with him when giving a lecture or a seminar!
The thirty last years of his life were marked by illness, though he kept working and publishing throughout this period. Due to sclerosis, he was fairly quickly wheelchair-bound, and eventually hospital-bound during his last decade. Our brother died there, in Paris, in 1995. May he rest in peace.
Other posts in the series:
- Fr Geoffrey Preston, O.P., by Br Bede Mullens, O.P.
- Fr Laurentius Siemer, O.P., by Br Gabriel Theis, O.P.
- Fr Bruno Hussar, O.P., by Br Joseph Bailham, O.P.
- Fr Victor White, O.P., by Br Pablo Rodríguez Jordá, O.P.
- Fr John Malachy Clune, O.P., by Br Albert Elias Robertson, O.P.