Pope's Reflection on Vatican II (Part 1)

"So off we went to the Council not just with joy but with enthusiasm"

Vatican City, (Zenit.org) | 5394 hits

Here is a first part of a Vatican translation of the reflection Benedict XVI gave last Thursday when he met with the clergy of Rome. The Holy Father delivered the reflection extemporaneously, recounting some of his memories of the Second Vatican Council.

ZENIT will publish the reflection in parts throughout this week.

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Your Eminence,
Dear Brother Bishops and Priests,

For me it is a particular gift of Providence that, before leaving the Petrine ministry, I can once more see my clergy, the clergy of Rome. It is always a great joy to see the living Church, to see how the Church in Rome is alive; there are shepherds here who guide the Lord’s flock in the spirit of the supreme Shepherd. It is a body of clergy that is truly Catholic, universal, in accordance with the essence of the Church of Rome: to bear within itself the universality, the catholicity of all nations, all races, all cultures. At the same time, I am very grateful to the Cardinal Vicar who helps to reawaken, to rediscover vocations in Rome itself, because if Rome, on the one hand, has to be the city of universality, it must also be a city with a strong and robust faith of its own, from which vocations are also born. And I am convinced that, with the Lord’s help, we can find the vocations that he himself gives us, we can guide them, help them to mature, so as to be of service for work in the Lord’s vineyard.

Today you have professed the Creed before the tomb of Saint Peter: in the Year of Faith, this seems to me to be a most appropriate act, a necessary one, perhaps, that the clergy of Rome should gather around the tomb of the Apostle to whom the Lord said: "To you I entrust my Church. Upon you I will build my Church" (cf. Mt 16:18-19). Before the Lord, together with Peter, you have professed: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Mt 16:16). Thus the Church grows: together with Peter, professing Christ, following Christ. And we do this always. I am very grateful for your prayers, which I have sensed, as I said on Wednesday – almost palpably. And although I am about to withdraw, I remain close to all of you in prayer, and I am sure that you too will be close to me, even if I am hidden from the world.

For today, given the conditions brought on by my age, I have not been able to prepare an extended discourse, as might have been expected; but rather what I have in mind are a few thoughts on the Second Vatican Council, as I saw it. I shall begin with an anecdote: in 1959 I was appointed a professor at the University of Bonn, where the students included the seminarians of the diocese of Cologne and the other dioceses in the area. Thus I came into contact with the Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Frings. Cardinal Siri of Genoa, in 1961 if I remember rightly, had organized a series of talks on the Council given by various European Cardinals, and he had invited the Archbishop of Cologne to give one of them, entitled: the Council and the world of modern thought.

The Cardinal asked me – the youngest of the professors – to write a draft for him. He liked the draft, and to the people in Genoa he delivered the text just as I had written it. Soon afterwards, Pope John invited him to come and see him, and the Cardinal was anxious that he might have said something incorrect, something false, and that he was being summoned for a rebuke, perhaps even to be deprived of the cardinalate. Indeed, when his secretary vested him for the audience, the Cardinal said: "Perhaps I am now wearing these robes for the last time". Then he went in, Pope John came to meet him, embraced him, and said: "Thank you, Your Eminence, you said the very things I wanted to say myself, but I could not find the words". So the Cardinal knew that he was on the right track and he invited me to go with him to the Council, firstly as his personal advisor; and then, during the first session – I think it was in November 1962 – I was also named an official peritus of the Council.

So off we went to the Council not just with joy but with enthusiasm. There was an incredible sense of expectation. We were hoping that all would be renewed, that there would truly be a new Pentecost, a new era of the Church, because the Church was still fairly robust at that time – Sunday Mass attendance was still good, vocations to the priesthood and to religious life were already slightly reduced, but still sufficient. However, 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 we knew that the relationship between the Church and the modern period, right from the outset, had been slightly fraught, beginning with the Church’s error in the case of Galileo Galilei; we were looking to correct this mistaken start and to rediscover the union between the Church and the best forces of the world, so as to open up humanity’s future, to open up true progress. Thus we were full of hope, full of enthusiasm, and also eager to play our own part in this process. I remember that the Roman Synod was thought of as a negative model. It was said – I don’t know whether this was true – that they had read out prepared texts in the Basilica of Saint John, and that the members of the Synod had acclaimed, approved with applause, and that the Synod had been conducted thus. The bishops said: no, let’s not do that. We are bishops, we ourselves are the subject of the Synod; we do not simply want to approve what has already been done, but we ourselves want to be the subject, the protagonists of the Council. So too Cardinal Frings, who was famous for his absolute fidelity – almost to the point of scrupulosity – to the Holy Father, said in this case: we are here in a different role. The Pope has called us together to be like Fathers, to be an Ecumenical Council, a subject that renews the Church. So we want to assume this new role of ours.

The first occasion when this attitude was demonstrated was on the very first day. On the programme for this first day were the elections of the Commissions, and lists of names had been prepared, in what was intended to be an impartial manner, and these lists were put to the vote. But straight away the Fathers said: No, we do not simply want to vote for pre-prepared lists. We are the subject. Then, it was necessary to postpone the elections, because the Fathers themselves wanted to begin to get to know each other, they wanted to prepare the lists themselves. And so it was. Cardinal Liénart of Lille and Cardinal Frings of Cologne had said publicly: no, not this way. We want to make our own lists and elect our own candidates. It was not a revolutionary act, but an act of conscience, an act of responsibility on the part of the Council Fathers.

And so began an intense period of actively getting to know our counterparts, something which did not happen by chance. At the Collegio dell’Anima, where I was staying, we had many visits: the Cardinal was very well known, and we saw cardinals from all over the world. I well remember the tall slim figure of Monsignor Etchegaray, the Secretary of the French Episcopal Conference, I remember meetings with Cardinals, and so on. And this continued throughout the Council: small-scale meetings with peers from other countries. Thus I came to know great figures like Father de Lubac, Daniélou, Congar, and so on. We came to know various bishops; I remember particularly Bishop Elchinger of Strasbourg, and so on. And this was already an experience of the universality of the Church and of the concrete reality of the Church, which does not simply receive instructions from on high, but grows together and moves forward, always under the guidance – naturally – of the Successor of Peter.

Everyone, as I said, came with great expectations; there had never been a Council on such a scale, but not everyone knew what to do. The most prepared, let us say, those with the clearest ideas, were the French, German, Belgian and Dutch episcopates, the so-called "Rhine alliance". And in the first part of the Council it was they who pointed out the path; then the activity rapidly broadened, and everyone took part more and more in the creativity of the Council. The French and the Germans had various interests in common, albeit with quite different nuances. The first, initial, simple – or apparently simple – intention was the reform of the liturgy, which had begun with Pius XII, who had already reformed the Holy Week liturgy; the second was ecclesiology; the third was the word of God, revelation; and finally ecumenism. The French, much more than the Germans, were also keen to explore the question of the relationship between the Church and the world.

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