By Sergio Centofanti
This year 8 December will mark the 55th anniversary of the end of the Second Vatican Council. It is an important moment in this period since a new debate has been provoked in the ecclesial community, a debate in which some are increasingly distancing themselves from the Council, and others seek to diminish its scope and significance.
A new Pentecost
Benedict XVI has used a strong word: he has spoken of a “new Pentecost.” He was a direct witness of the Council, participating as an expert assisting Cardinal Josef Frings, and later as an official peritus (theological expert). “We were hoping that all would be renewed, that there would truly be a new Pentecost, a new era of the Church,” he told the priests of Rome on 14 February 2013. “There was a feeling that the Church was not moving forward, that it was declining, that it seemed more a thing of the past and not the herald of the future. And at that moment, we were hoping that this relation would be renewed, that it would change; that the Church might once again be a force for tomorrow and a force for today.”
And quoting John Paul II in the General Audience of 10 October 2012, Benedict XVI made his own the definition of the Council as “the great grace bestowed on the Church in the 20th century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning (citing Apostolic Letter, Novo millennio ineunte, n. 57)”. The “true driving force” of the Council, he added, was the Holy Spirit. A new Pentecost therefore: not to create a new Church, but “a new era of the Church.”
Fidelity consists in movement
What the Council has shown more clearly is that the authentic development of the doctrine that has been transmitted from generation to generation is realized in a people walking together, guided by the Holy Spirit. This is at the heart of the celebrated discourse of Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia on 22 December 2005. Pope Benedict speaks about two hermeneutics: a hermeneutic of rupture and another of renewal in continuity. The “correct interpretation” is that which sees the Church as “a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.” Pope Benedict speaks of a “synthesis of fidelity and dynamism.” Fidelity consists in movement, it is not static, it is a journey that advances along the same path, a seed that develops and becomes a tree that spreads its branches ever further, that flowers and bears fruit, like a living plant, which on the one hand grows, and on the other has roots that cannot be cut.
Continuity and discontinuity in the Church's history
But how can a renewal in continuity be justified in the face of certain dramatic changes that have taken place in the Church's history? One can begin with Peter, when he baptised the first Gentiles, upon whom the Holy Spirit had been poured out. Peter said, “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:34-35). The circumcised criticised him, but when Peter explained what had happened, they all glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18).
It is the Spirit that shows us what to do and makes us move, makes us advance. In 2000 years of history there have been many changes in the Church: the doctrine on the salvation of the non-baptised; the use of violence in the name of truth; the question of women and laity; the relationship between faith and science; the interpretation of the Bible; the relationship with non-Catholics, Jews, and followers of other religions; religious liberty; the distinction between the civil and religious spheres, to name just a few. In that same speech to the Curia, Benedict XVI recognises this: on certain issues, a “de facto discontinuity had been revealed.” For example, if one sets aside philosophical, theological or historical contextualization that demonstrates a certain continuity, at one point freedom of worship for non-Catholics was not allowed, and later it was. There was, therefore, a very different approach in practice.
The scandal of a Church that learns
Benedict’s words are telling: “We must learn to understand more practically than before,” a “great openmindedness” is required, “it was necessary to learn to recognize”… Like Peter who, even after Pentecost, still had to learn new things, still had to say, “Truly I perceive…” We don’t have the truth in our pockets, we do not “possess” the truth as a thing, but rather belong to the Truth. Furthermore, Christian Truth is not a concept, it is the living God who continues to speak. And referring to the conciliar Declaration on Religious Freedom, Benedict XVI affirms, “The Second Vatican Council, recognizing and making its own an essential principle of the modern State with the Decree on Religious Freedom, has recovered the deepest patrimony of the Church. By so doing she can be conscious of being in full harmony with the teaching of Jesus Himself (cf. Mt 22: 21), as well as with the Church of the martyrs of all time.” And he adds, “The Second Vatican Council … has reviewed or even corrected certain historical decisions, but in this apparent discontinuity it has actually preserved and deepened her inmost nature and true identity. The Church, both before and after the Council, was and is the same Church, one, holy, catholic and apostolic, journeying on through time.”
A spiritual continuity
We are better able to see, then, that continuity is not simply a logical, rational or historical perspective; it is much more. It is a spiritual continuity in which the same, one and only People of God walk together, docile to the indications of the Holy Spirit. The hermeneutic of rupture is embraced by those who separate themselves from the community, who break that unity, whether because they stop short or go too far in advance. Benedict speaks of two extremes: the extreme of “anachronistic nostalgia” and that of “running too far ahead” (Mass for the Opening of the Year of Faith, 11 October 2012). They no longer listen to the Spirit, who calls for dynamic fidelity, but follow their own ideas, attaching themselves either only to what is old, or only to what is new, no longer knowing how to bring together old things and new, as the disciple of the kingdom of heaven does.
The newness of Pope Francis
After the great Popes who preceded him, Francis arrived on the scene. He is following in the footsteps of his predecessors – it is the seed that develops and grows. The Church goes forward. A lot of distorted or false news about Pope Francis has been circulated, as happened with his predecessor Benedict and with so many other Successors of Peter. Dogmas and commandments; the sacraments; the principles concerning the defense of life, the family, education: none of these have changed. Nor have the theological and cardinal virtues, or the seven deadly sins. In order to better understand the newness in continuity of Pope Francis, and to get past the distortions and outright falsehoods, it is necessary to read the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, the paradigmatic text of his pontificate. It begins: “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.” The very first thing is the joy of the encounter with Jesus, our Saviour.
A style of closeness and affectionate welcome that does not condemn
The Pope invites us “to recover the original freshness of the Gospel,” and to transmit it to all. He asks us to focus on the essential — love of God and of neighbour — avoiding a manner of proclamation “obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed.” “In this basic core,” he says, “what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead.” He calls for the first proclamation to “ring out over and over”: “Jesus Christ loves you; He gave His life to save you; and now He is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” The Pope calls for a style of “approachability, readiness for dialogue, patience, a warmth and welcome which is non-judgmental.” He points to an “‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” which must see with a “compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life.”
The Eucharist: Not a reward for the perfect, but nourishment for the weak
Pope Francis desires a Church with open doors: “Nor should the doors of the Sacraments be closed for simply any reason.” Thus, the Eucharist, “although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.” Hence the suggestion ndicated in the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia to open up paths of discernment, on a case-by-case basis, to consider the possible re-admission to the Sacraments for those who live in irregular situations. It is a step intended to draw people in and accompany them, by seeking the salvation of persons and the mercy of Jesus.
Norms can become stones, as happened with the woman caught in adultery. Certain questions today recall those asked of Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees two thousand years ago: “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” We all know Jesus’s answer.
John Paul II: The Council will continue to bear fruit
Pope Francis is doing nothing more than continuing along the path of the Council. There is a spiritual continuity, because the Spirit continues to speak. “The ‘little seed’ which John XXIII planted … has grown and become a tree which now spreads its majestic and mighty branches in the Vineyard of the Lord,” said St John Paul II on 27 February 2000. "It has already produced many fruits … and it will produce many more in the years to come. A new season is dawning before our eyes … The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council was truly a prophetic message for the Church's life; it will continue to be so for many years in the third millennium which has just begun.”
John XXIII: The Church uses the medicine of mercy
It is the same today as yesterday. Opening the Council on 11 October 1962, St John XXIII affirmed, “It sometimes happens that We hear certain opinions which disturb Us—opinions expressed by people who, though fired with a commendable zeal for religion, are lacking in sufficient prudence and judgment in their evaluation of events. They can see nothing but calamity and disaster in the present state of the world. They say over and over that this modern age of ours, in comparison with past ages, is definitely deteriorating. One would think from their attitude that history, that great teacher of life, had taught them nothing. They seem to imagine that in the days of the earlier councils everything was as it should be so far as doctrine and morality and the Church's rightful liberty were concerned. We feel that We must disagree with these prophets of doom, who are always forecasting worse disasters, as though the end of the world were at hand.”
Speaking of errors of a doctrinal nature, he added, “The Church has always opposed these errors, and often condemned them with the utmost severity. Today, however, Christ's Bride prefers the balm of mercy to the arm of severity. She believes that, present needs are best served by explaining more fully the purport of her doctrines, rather than by publishing condemnations.”
Paul VI: For the Church
At the close of the Council, on 8 December 1965, St Paul VI, in his “universal” greeting, affirmed, “For the Catholic Church, no one is a stranger, no one is excluded, no one is far away… Our universal greeting goes out to you, men who do not know us, men who do not understand us, men who do not regard us as useful, necessary or friendly. This greeting goes also to you, men who, while perhaps thinking they are doing good, are opposed to us. A sincere greeting, and unassuming greeting but one filled with hope and, today, please believe that it is filled with esteem and love… Behold, this is our greeting. May it rise as a new spark of divine charity in our hearts, a spark which may enkindle the principles, doctrine and proposals which the council has organized and which, thus inflamed by charity, may really produce in the Church and in the world that renewal of thoughts, activities, conduct, moral force and hope and joy which was the very scope of the Council.”
Good words in difficult times
At this time, in which the Catholic Church is particularly affected by conflicts and division, we would do well to remember St Paul’s exhortations to the first Christian communities. He reminds the Galatians that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” But, he continues, “if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal 5:14-16). And to the Ephesians he adds, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph 4:29-32).
What would happen if we were to put this Word into practice without trying to explain it away?
This is a working translation from the Italian original.