On the 50th Anniversary of the Second Vatican Council

"An Event of Light That Shines Forth Even Until Today"

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VATICAN, OCTOBER 10, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today in St. Peter’s Square. On this Eve of the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, the Holy Father dedicated his reflection to the importance of rediscovering the conciliar documents.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

We have arrived at the eve of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and the beginning of the Year of Faith. With this catechesis, I would like to begin to reflect - with a few brief thoughts - on the great ecclesial event of the Council, an event I witnessed firsthand. It appears to us, as it were, as a magnificent fresco, painted in its great multiplicity and variety under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And as if standing before a great painting, so we continue even today to take in the extraordinary richness of that moment of grace, and to rediscover its particular passages, features and parts.

On the threshold of the third millennium, Blessed John Paul II wrote: “I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning” (Apostolic Letter Novo millennio ineunte, 57). I think this image is quite eloquent: the documents of the Second Vatican Council, to which we must return by freeing them from a mass of publications that often hid them rather than making them known, are also in our own day a compass that allows the ship of the Church to proceed on the open seas, amid storms or on calm and tranquil waves, to navigate safely and to reach her destination.

I remember the time well: I was a young professor of fundamental theology at the University of Bonn, and it was the archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Frings - for me a model of human and priestly life - who brought me with him to Rome as his theological advisor. I was then also appointed as a peritus for the Council. For me it was a unique experience: following all the fervor and enthusiasm of the preparations, I was able to see a Church that was alive – nearly three thousand Council Fathers from every part of the world gathered together under the guidance of the Successor of the Apostle Peter – who placed himself in the school of the Holy Spirit, the true driving force of the Council. It was a unique moment in history when one could as it were concretely “touch” the universality of the Church, in a moment of great achievement in her mission of carrying the Gospel to every age and to the ends of the earth.  During these days, if you see the images of the opening of this great meeting on television or the other means of communication, you too will be able to perceive the joy, the hope and the encouragement that taking part in this event gave to us all - an event of light that shines forth even until today.

In the history of the Church, as I think you know, various Councils preceded Vatican II. Usually these great ecclesial assemblies were convened in order to define fundamental elements of the faith, especially by correcting the errors that imperiled it. We think of the Council of Nicea in 325, which met to counter the Arian heresy and to reaffirm clearly the divinity of Jesus, the Only Begotten Son of God the Father; or of Ephesus in 431, which defined Mary as the Mother of God; of Chalcedon in 451, which affirmed the One Person of Christ in two natures, the divine nature and the human. Closer to our own day, we should mention the Council of Trent in the 16thcentury, which clarified essential points of Catholic doctrine in the face of the Protestant Reformation; or Vatican I, which began to reflect on various topics, but which only had time to produce two documents, one on the knowledge of God, revelation, and faith and their relationships with reason, and the other on the primacy of the Pope and his infallibility, since it was interrupted by the occupation of Rome in September 1870.

If we look at the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council we see that, in that moment of the Church’s journey, there were no particular errors of faith to correct or to condemn, nor were there any specific questions of doctrine or discipline to clarify. One may then understand the surprise of the small group of cardinals present in the chapter room of the Benedictine Monastery at St. Paul Outside the Walls when, on the 25thof January 1959, Blessed John XXIII announced the diocesan Synod for Rome and the Council for the Universal Church. The first question posed during the preparations for this great event was precisely how it was to begin, and what specific task it was to be assigned. In his opening address on October 11thfifty years ago, Blessed John XXIII provided a general guideline: the faith had to speak in a “renewed” and more penetrating way - for the world was rapidly changing - all the while keeping intact its perennial content, without caving in or compromise.  

The Pope desired the Church to reflect on her faith, and on the truths that guide her.  But the relationship between the Church and the modern age, between Christianity and certain essential elements of modern thought had to be considered on the basis of this serious, in-depth reflection. Such reflection was not aimed at conforming the Church to these elements of modernity but rather at presenting to our world, which tends to distance itself from God, the requirements of the Gospel in its full greatness and purity (cf. Address to the Roman Curia to Offer Christmas Greetings, 22 December 2005).

The Servant of God Paul VI explained it well in his homily at the end of the closing session of the Council – on December 7, 1965 – with extraordinarily timely words, when he stated that, in order to evaluate this event properly, “it is necessary to remember the time in which it occurred.” In fact, the Pope said, “it occurred at a time, as everyone admits, in which men are intent on the kingdom of earth rather than on the kingdom of heaven; a time, we might add, in which forgetfulness of God has become habitual, and seems, quite wrongly, to be prompted by the progress of science; a time in which the fundamental act of the human person, more conscious now of himself and of his liberty, tends to pronounce in favor of his own absolute autonomy, in emancipation from every transcendent law; a time in which secularism is considered the legitimate consequence of modern thought and the highest wisdom in the temporal ordering of society … It was at such a time as this that our council was held to the honor of God, in the name of Christ and under the impulse of the Spirit.” Such were the words of Paul VI, and he concluded by pointing to the question of God as the central point of the Council, that God who “truly exists, lives, a personal, provident God, infinitely good; and not only good in Himself, but also immeasurably good to us. He is Our Creator, our truth, our happiness; so much so that when man seeks to fix his mind and heart on God in contemplation, he fulfills the highest, most perfect act of his soul, the act which even today can and must be the apex of the innumerable fields of human activity, from which they receive their dignity” (AAS 58 [1966], 52-53).

We see how the time in which we live continues to be marked by a forgetfulness and deafness in relation to God. I believe, then, that we must learn the simplest and most fundamental lessons of the Council, and that is that Christianity in its essence consists in faith in God, who is Trinitarian Love, and in a personal and communal encounter with Christ who orients and guides our lives. Everything else follows from this. The important thing today, as was the desire of the Council Fathers, is that we see clearly and anew that God is present, that he is watching over us, that he responds to us, and that by contrast, when faith in God is found wanting, all that is essential crumbles, because man loses his profound dignity and what makes his humanity great in the face of every form of reductionism. The Council reminds us that the Church, in all her members, has the task, the mandate, of transmitting the word of God’s saving love, so that the divine call that holds within itself our eternal beatitude may be heard and welcomed.

Looking in this light at the riches contained in the documents of Vatican II, I wish only to name the four Constitutions, the four cardinal points on our guiding compass. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium tells us that at the Church’s beginning there is worship, there is God, there is the centrality of the mystery of the presence of Christ. And the Church’s most fundamental task, as the body of Christ and a people on pilgrimage through time, is to glorify God, as expressed in the dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium. The third document I wish to cite is the Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. The living Word of God calls the Church together and enlivens her along her journey through history. And the subject at the heart of the pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes is the manner in which the Church is to carry the light she has received from God to the whole world, so that He may be glorified.

The Second Vatican Council is a powerful appeal to us to rediscover each day the beauty of our faith, to know it deeply so as to enter into a more intense relationship with the Lord, and to live out our Christian vocation to the very end. May the Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ and of all the Church, help us to realize and to bring to completion what the Council Fathers, animated by the Holy Spirit, kept alive in their hearts: the desire that all people might come to know the Gospel and encounter the Lord Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. Thank you.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]

[In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Today marks the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. I remember well the enthusiasm, the hope and the joy, not only of the bishops, but of the whole Church during that period. As we begin tomorrow the Year of Faith, it is more necessary than ever to return to the documents of this great Council, which was convoked, in the words of Blessed John the twenty-third, to proclaim the truths of the faith in a "renewed" way, all the while keeping intact their perennial content. Our own era, which has forgotten God, needs to be reminded of the profound message of the Council, that Christianity consists of faith in the triune God and in a personal and communal encounter with Christ who orients and gives meaning to life. Everything else flows from this. As in the time of the Council, may we in our time recognize with clarity that God is present, he is watching over us, he responds to us, and that when man forgets God, he forgets what is essential to his own human dignity. The fiftieth anniversary of the Council thus reminds us that the Church, in all its members, has the task of transmitting the message of God’s love which saves and which leads us to eternal beatitude.

I greet all the English-speaking pilgrims, visitors and groups present today, including those from England, Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Ghana, Australia, India, Japan, Malaysia, Canada and the United States. Upon all of you, I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace!

© Copyright 2012 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[In Italian, he said:]

I warmly greet young people, the sick and newlyweds, by inviting them to direct their thoughts to Mary, who is invoked in this month of October as Queen of the Holy Rosary. May you look to her, dear young people, especially those of you who are students at the Schools of the Daughters of Mary, Help of Campania and of the Basilicata, and may you be ready to renew your “yes” to God’s plan of love for each one of you. Dear sick, may you share your sufferings with Mary, by offering them as a give of salvation for your brothers and sisters. May you persevere in prayer, together with her in prayer, dear newlyweds, like the Apostles in the Upper Room, and may your families experience the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]