The Pope affirmed this in a March 10 letter to bishops of the world made public by the Vatican today, in which he considers the situation with the Society of St. Pius X.
The Holy Father began the letter by acknowledging that January's lifting of the 1988 excommunication of the four Society prelates caused a "discussion more heated than any we have seen for a long time."
He mentioned the "avalanche of protests" that was unleashed, "whose bitterness laid bare wounds deeper than those of the present moment."
And the Pontiff acknowledged that part of the reaction was due to mistakes by the Vatican.
He explained: "An unforeseen mishap for me was the fact that the Williamson case came on top of the remission of the excommunication. The discreet gesture of mercy toward four bishops ordained validly but not legitimately suddenly appeared as something completely different: as the repudiation of reconciliation between Christians and Jews, and thus as the reversal of what the council had laid down in this regard to guide the Church’s path. […]
"I have been told that consulting the information available on the Internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on. I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news."
Benedict XVI admitted that the reaction of some Catholics caused him sadness, those who "after all, might have had a better knowledge of the situation, thought they had to attack me with open hostility."
"Another mistake, which I deeply regret," he continued, "is the fact that the extent and limits of the provision of Jan. 21, 2009, were not clearly and adequately explained at the moment of its publication."
In that regard, the Pope goes on to explain in the letter the implications of the lifting of the excommunication, both for the individuals involved and for the Society of St. Pius X as an institution.
Despite the turmoil caused by the lifting of the excommunication, the Holy Father made clear that seeking unity is a papal priority.
"Was this measure needed? Was it really a priority? Aren’t other things perhaps more important?" he asked.
And he answered that "there are more important and urgent matters." However, he continued, "I believe that I set forth clearly the priorities of my pontificate in the addresses which I gave at its beginning. Everything that I said then continues unchanged as my plan of action. The first priority for the Successor of Peter was laid down by the Lord in the Upper Room in the clearest of terms: 'You … strengthen your brothers.'"
The Pontiff went on to explain why this priority is needed: "In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God. […] The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.
"Leading men and women to God, to the God who speaks in the Bible: this is the supreme and fundamental priority of the Church and of the Successor of Peter at the present time. A logical consequence of this is that we must have at heart the unity of all believers," he affirmed.
Acts of reconciliation, "small and not so small," are thus part of the Church's real priority, the Pope stated.
He continued: "That the quiet gesture of extending a hand gave rise to a huge uproar, and thus became exactly the opposite of a gesture of reconciliation, is a fact which we must accept. But I ask now: Was it, and is it, truly wrong in this case to meet half-way the brother who 'has something against you' and to seek reconciliation? […] Can it be completely mistaken to work to break down obstinacy and narrowness, and to make space for what is positive and retrievable for the whole?"
The Pope said that he had personally seen "in the years after 1988, how the return of communities which had been separated from Rome changed their interior attitudes; I saw how returning to the bigger and broader Church enabled them to move beyond one-sided positions and broke down rigidity so that positive energies could emerge for the whole."
And, the Bishop of Rome asked, can we be "totally indifferent about a community which has 491 priests, 215 seminarians, six seminaries, 88 schools, two university-level institutes, 117 religious brothers, 164 religious sisters and thousands of lay faithful? Should we casually let them drift farther from the Church?"
"I think for example of the 491 priests," he added. "We cannot know how mixed their motives may be. All the same, I do not think that they would have chosen the priesthood if, alongside various distorted and unhealthy elements, they did not have a love for Christ and a desire to proclaim him and, with him, the living God. Can we simply exclude them, as representatives of a radical fringe, from our pursuit of reconciliation and unity? What would then become of them?"
Benedict XVI concluded his letter reflecting that Mary teaches us trust. "She leads us to her Son, in whom all of us can put our trust," he said. "He will be our guide -- even in turbulent times."
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On ZENIT's Web page:
Full text of letter: www.zenit.org/article-25341?l=english