In the early twentieth century, Yves Congar helped lay the theological groundwork that contributed to the great accomplishments of the Second Vatican Council, particularly with regard to the theology of the church. In the early twenty-first century, Paul Lakeland has compiled a selection of Congarís writings that continue to resonate today in establishing a theological foundation for understanding the life of the church. The book is organized around five dimensions of Congarís work: ecumenism, ecclesiology, the laity, the spiritual life and the Holy Spirit, providing a selection of texts on each topic. Lakelandís affection for Congar as a herald of reform is reflected in his selection of texts, nearly all of which are taken from his pre-Vatican II writings.
One of the strengths of this collection of writings is that it provides a brief, accessible guided tour to a number of themes characteristic of Congarís theology. Many of his major monographs are represented (Divided Christendom, Lay People in the Church, Vraie et fausse rťforme dans lí…glise, Dialogue Between Christians and I Believe in the Holy Spirit), although most of the excerpts come from his smaller works. Some of the selections may surprise Congar scholars. For example, Lakeland relies extensively on the addresses published as Laity, Church and World in presenting Congarís theology of the laity, giving only a short passage from Lay People in the Church, generally considered one of his most influential texts. Likewise, Congarís pneumatology is represented by articles taken from Les voies du Dieu vivant, with only a short excerpt from I Believe in the Holy Spirit.
The structure of the book may present a danger Ė perhaps inescapable in an introductory anthology Ė that themes found in Congarís writings will be appreciated more for their distinction than for their integration. An imposition of divisions between dimensions of his ecclesiology masks the integral relationship amongst those dimensions that fundamentally shaped Congarís theology of the church. Thus, the deconstruction of ecclesiology into questions of ecumenism, ecclesial reform and the laity, as well as the segregation of his pneumatology from ecclesiology, risks fostering a misinterpretation of Congarís entire theological project. Lakeland appears to be aware of the danger Ė for example, he includes excerpts that demonstrate the complexity of Congarís ecclesiological synthesis Ė but the reader would be well-advised to acknowledge that the structure of the text masks Congarís great talent for integration and synthesis.
For readers already familiar with Congarís theological writings, Chapter 4, ďCongar and the Spiritual Life,Ē offers an unexpected gem. Lakeland includes six texts that reflect Congarís ďsimple piety and a commitment to traditional practices and devotionsĒ (p. 124). The texts reflect Congarís approach to Christian spirituality as a young theologian Ė five of the six date from 1933 to 1936 Ė and so are interesting more as a snapshot of a particular stage than as a comprehensive account of his thought. They are nonetheless significant in that they illuminate the engagement with the spiritual and pastoral life of the laity from which Congarís theology of the laity ultimately developed.
As a whole, Essential Writings offers something for everybody: a well-supported initial encounter with the breadth of Congarís theological work for novices, and a new lens through which to understand his theology for more veteran scholars.