Cardinal Piacenza on the Year of Faith

Clergy Congregation Prefect Speaks of the 50th Anniversary of Vatican II

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By Antonio Gaspari

ROME, SEPT. 10, 2012 (Zenit.org).- The prefect of the Congregation for Clergy considers himself a son of Vatican II.

In this interview with ZENIT, he offers some recommendations for marking the 50th anniversary of the Council in the upcoming Year of Faith.

ZENIT: Your Eminence, ZENIT intends to inaugurate a series of contributions for the Year of Faith, focussing attention on the Second Vatican Council, during the 50th anniversary year. Why is there so much debate about this ecclesiastical event?

Cardinal Piacenza: Debate is always a positive element, because it indicates vitality and the desire for more profound understanding; the subject of debate is not exclusively human, instead it is an Ecumenical Council, an occurrence both human and supernatural, because the Holy Spirit guides the Church to a progressive, full understanding of the one revealed truth. Therefore one should not be in the least astounded that understandings of Conciliar pronouncements should have occasioned decades of analysis and sometimes even debates, always following along the path of listening to that which the Holy Spirit has desired to say to the Church during that extraordinary assembly. 

ZENIT: What would you say would be the right attitude in analyzing the Council? 

Cardinal Piacenza: An attitude of listening! The Second Ecumenical Vatican Council was, in fact, the first "media" Council, whose dynamic physiology of analysis and whose texts were immediately publicized through modern means of communication, which did not always capture the important actual facts and, not infrequently, orientated their understanding in a secular way. I believe it is particularly interesting, and perhaps even necessary, to return, or better, to proceed toward an attentive listening to that which, really, the Holy Spirit desired to say to the entire Church by means of the Conciliar Fathers. Such a dynamic of seeking a profound understanding, such a "right attitude" is realized by means of a direct reading of the tests, by which one may evince an authentic spirit of the Council, and their exact place within the entirety of Church history and editorial revision. 

ZENIT: At times some choices, even by the Magisterium, appear to go "against" the Council. Is this possible? 

Cardinal Piacenza: To respond that this has never happened, it is sufficient to examine the post Conciliar pronouncements of the Authentic Magisterium at the universal level. How much better it is to foster a proper reception of Conciliar decisions, clarify the importance of determined statements, sometimes duly correcting unilateral interpretations, or even mistaken, artificially induced ones. These interpret Spirit filled ecclesiastical events through a lens which is exclusively human or historic. The ecclesial service of the Magisterium is rooted in explicit Divine Will. It prepares Ecumenical Councils, acts through them in its fullest expression and, through successive actions, obeys them and fosters their proper reception. 

ZENIT: What truly is the "hermeneutic of continuity" spoken of so often by the Holy Father?

Cardinal Piacenza: It is, according to what has been explicitly indicated by the same Pontiff, the only correct way to read and interpret each Ecumenical Council and, therefore, the Second Vatican Council. The continuity of the one Body of the Church, prior to being a hermeneutic criterion, that is a manner by which to interpret texts, is a theological reality, which is deeply rooted in the selfsame act of faith which prompts us to profess "I believe in One Church." For such a reason, some sort of dichotomy between pre and post Vatican II is unthinkable, and certainly one must refute both the positions of those who see in the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council a "new beginning" of the Church as well as those who discern the "true Church" only prior to this historical Council. No one can arbitrarily decide whether and when the "true Church" started. Sprung forth from the side of Christ, and fortified by the effusion of the Spirit at Pentecost, the Church is One and Only, until the consummation of history, and within the communion by means of which will come to be actualized in eternity. 

Some people sustain that the hermeneutic of reform within that of continuity is only one of the possible hermeneutics, along with those of discontinuity and rupture. The Holy Father has recently defined as "unacceptable" the hermeneutic of discontinuity (Audience with the General Assembly of the Italian Conference of Bishops, May 24, 2012). This is obviously true: otherwise it would not be Catholic, and the germ of infection and of progressive decomposition would be injected into the Church; also causing great damage to ecumenism. 

ZENIT: Is it possible that it could be that complex to understand this reality? 

Cardinal Piacenza: You know better than I do that understanding, even of self evident realities, can be conditioned, not infrequently, by emotional, biographical, cultural and even ideological aspects. It is humanly understandable that someone who has lived the years of his youth during the time of legitimate enthusiasm for the Conciliar Assembly, understanding the desire of clearing away of some of the "encrustations," which were necessarily and urgently removed from the countenance of the Church, might interpret as dangerous the "betrayal" of the Council which he sees in every manifestation which his own "emotional state" does not share. All must necessarily take a drastic quantum leap in approaching the Conciliar texts in order to understand, half a century after this extraordinary event, what the Spirit proposed to the Church, and what He proposes. To crystallize the Council within its necessary, but not sufficient, "enthusiastic dimension" is equivalent to not serving the reception of the Council well, as then it remains paralyzed, since, with time, an analysis and shared evaluation must take place of the objective texts, not certainly blemished by emotional approaches and historical enthusiasm. 

ZENIT: It is known that you have always spoken with great enthusiasm of Vatican II. What does the Council represent for you? 

Cardinal Piacenza: How could one not be enthusiastic for such an extraordinary event as an Ecumenical Council! In these the Church shines forth in all her beauty. Peter and all the Bishops in communion with him prepare themselves to hear the Holy Spirit, to that which God wishes to say to His Spouse. They came together to articulate, according to the predictions of Blessed John XXIII, immutable revealed truth and reading the signs from God in the signs of the times, for the historical present, and the signs of the times under the light of God!. This same Pontiff said in his solemn allocution at the opening of the Council, on October 11, 1962 "To transmit doctrine purely and integrally, without alteration or misrepresentation […] this certain and immutable doctrine which must be faithfully respected as well as elaborated and presented in a way which corresponds to the exigencies of our times." 

During the years of the Council, I was a young student and then seminarian, and my priestly ministry, from the first moments, was carried out entirely in light of the Council and her reforms. In fact, I was ordained a priest in 1969. I cannot do otherwise but call myself, then, a son of the Council. I am grateful also to my own teachers, because I have understood, from the start, Conciliar teachings according to the natural hermeneutic of unity and continuity. This reform within continuity I have always personally felt, lived, and also as a professor, taught. 

ZENIT: As Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, do you think that priests have accepted the Council well?

Cardinal Piacenza: Certainly, insofar as an elect portion of the People of God, priests are those who, within the Church, know better and have developed a more profound understanding of Conciliar teaching. It seems to me that, as of now, the same problems which we have referred to before are not absent among priests. Whether those be with reference to the correct hermeneutic of reform within continuity, or a necessary approach to the Council which is not predominantly emotional. If, during this Year of Faith, we would all have the humility and good will to pick up the texts of the Council, discovering what they truly said, and not that which is in the "common" understanding, which had its own freelance proponents, we will discover how the Second Vatican Council was truly prophetic and how many of the matters it highlighted still remain before us, as a horizon toward which we look, and as a goal to reach, with the help of grace. Certainly, to accomplish this, a great dose of humility is necessary, along with a certain capacity to suspend pre-established judgements, to be able to reacquire the truth which, perhaps, for too much time, has appeared to be different. 

ZENIT: Upon which points must the reception of Conciliar documents be focused? 

Cardinal Piacenza: I must refer to a matter of particular tension, which is represented by the liturgical reform, also because this constitutes the element which is most highly visible in the Church herself. Again and again the Servant of God Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II and the Holy Father, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI have emphasized the importance of the Liturgy, as the place in which the selfsame being of the Church is fully realized. It does, unfortunately, catch everyone’s attention, as, in not a few cases in its regard, we are still far from a shared balanced understanding. Certainly a desacralized liturgy, or that reduced to a "human representation," in which the Christological and theological dimensions vanish until they are displaced, is not what the letter and spirit of Sacrosanctum Concilium intended. This does not justify, nonetheless, the position of those who in their own turn have also wed themselves to the hermeneutic of discontinuity, denying Conciliar reform, considering them as betrayals of a longed for "true Church."  

ZENIT: Are there some innovations which are more important than liturgical ones?

Cardinal Piacenza: Given the centrality of the liturgy, "source and summit" of the Church’s life itself (cf. SC,10) I would not speak of "greater" importance. Certainly the Council desired to emphasize some evangelical truths, which today represent the shared patrimony of all of Catholicism. We might only think of the felicitous emphasis of the universal call of all the baptized to holiness. This has fostered the birth and development of so many new experiences. One might make reference also to openness toward Christians belonging to other confessions, which has caused the preciousness of unity to re-emerge, in all its beauty, as a necessary attribute of the Church, and as a gift, freely offered by Christ, of being ever welcoming, by means of a continuous purification of those who belong to Him. Of equal importance is the importance of Episcopal collegiality, which is among the most effective expressions of Ecclesial Communion and demonstrates to the world that the Church is necessarily a unified body. The same organic comprehension of Ordained Ministry, in service of the baptismal priesthood, and ultimately, which sees priests and deacons closely united to their own Bishop, as an expression of sacramental communion in service of the Church and of humanity, has embodied a felicitous development of the understanding of the countenance of the Church, as Our Lord desired to define it. 

ZENIT: Your Eminence, in this moment the Church prepares to begin the Synod for the New Evangelization and the Year of Faith. If you could say a concise word to priests, what would you say?

Cardinal Piacenza: Under the light of faith: Priest, become every day that which you are! 

[Translation of original text]