CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING
Pope Benedict`s reflection praised and criticized Second Vatican Council`s documents.
In an article marking the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict both praised and criticized some of the council's most consequential documents.
"It was a moment of extraordinary expectation," the pope writes of the procession of more than 2,000 bishops into St. Peter's Basilica Oct. 11, 1962. "Great things were about to happen."
"Christianity, which had built and formed the Western world, seemed more and more to be losing its power to shape society," he writes.
"So that it might once again be a force to shape the future, (Blessed) John XXIII had convoked the council without indicating to it any specific problems or programs."
The essay, published in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, is the introduction to a forthcoming collection of previously unpublished council-era writings by Father Joseph Ratzinger.
The article was one of four interventions the pope made in the few days surrounding the anniversary.
In the essay, the pope recalls his presence at the opening of Vatican II, which he attended as a theological adviser.
A crucial question for the council fathers, Pope Benedict writes, was the "relationship between the Church and the modern world. From the 19th century onward," the Church had "visibly entered into a negative relationship with the modern era." Did it have to remain so?"
Pope Benedict concludes that one of the council's best-known documents, Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, failed to offer an adequate definition of the "essential features that constitute the modern era."
Instead, he writes, the "encounter with the great themes of the modern epoch" happened in "two minor documents, whose importance has only gradually come to light."
The Declaration on Religious Liberty was "urgently requested, and also drafted, by the American bishops in particular," he writes. The declaration clarified the Church's affirmation of the "freedom to choose and practise religion and the freedom to change it, as fundamental human rights and freedoms."
That declaration lent itself to troubling interpretations, the pope writes, since it might seem to imply the "inaccessibility of the truth to man," which would make religion a merely subjective matter.
But he writes that the 1978 election of Blessed John Paul II, from a country where the state denied religious freedom, revealed the "inner orientation of the faith toward the theme of freedom, and especially freedom of religion and worship."
The pope also praises Nostra Aetate, the council's declaration that the "spiritual, moral, and socio-cultural values (of non-Christian religions) were to be respected, protected and encouraged."
But the pope writes that a "weakness of this otherwise extraordinary text has gradually emerged: It speaks of religion solely in a positive way, and it disregards the sick and distorted forms of religion."
Meanwhile, at his Oct. 10 weekly audience, Pope Benedict said the council's teachings need to be "liberated" from a deluge of publications that have hidden the council's documents.
The council's teachings can still be "a compass that guides the vessel of the Church for sailing the open seas – in the middle of storms or calm and peaceful waves – to safely reach its destination," said the pope. The council's 16 documents are indispensable for helping today's Christians navigate their way in a stormy world, he said.
When Blessed John XXIII opened the council Oct. 11, 1962, he underlined the council fathers' true task: to speak to a world that was rapidly changing about the faith in a "renewed" and more incisive manner, Pope Benedict said.
However, Pope John emphasized the Church's perennial truths were to remain intact "without any weakening or compromise," he said.
The Church was to open up to the modern world, "not to conform to it, but to present our world, which tends to turn away from God, with the necessity of the Gospel in all of its greatness and purity," he said.
The world today is still showing signs of forgetting God or being blind to his presence, he said. Therefore "we have to learn the simplest and key lesson 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."
Then, at an Oct. 11 Mass marking the anniversary itself, the pope called on Catholics to revive the "authentic spirit" of Vatican II by re-proposing the Church's ancient teachings to an increasingly Godless modern world.
Vatican II, Pope Benedict said, had been "animated by a desire . . . to immerse itself anew in the Christian mystery so as to re-propose it fruitfully to contemporary man."
Pope Benedict's homily celebrated Vatican II but deplored much of what followed in its wake.
Many Catholics misunderstood or ignored the council's teachings under the influence of secular culture, he said. They "embraced uncritically the dominant mentality, placing in doubt the very foundations of the deposit of faith, which they sadly no longer felt able to accept as truths. Recent decades have seen the advance of a spiritual 'desertification.'"
Fifty years ago, history offered glimpses of a "life or a world without God," he said. "Now we see it every day around us. This void has spread."
Yet, the pope said, a "thirst for God, for the ultimate meaning of life" is still evident in "innumerable signs," including the growing popularity of religious pilgrimages."How come so many people today feel the need to make these journeys?" he said. "Is it not because they find there, or at least intuit, the meaning of our existence in the world?"
Pope Benedict called for a revival in the Church of the "yearning to announce Christ again to contemporary man." Any new evangelization "needs to be built on a concrete and precise basis, and this basis is the documents of the Second Vatican Council."
Finally, the pope spoke Oct. 12 with 15 bishops who participated in Vatican II.
The council's call for "renewal" did not mark a break with tradition or a watering down of the faith, but reflected Christianity's lasting vitality and God's eternal presence, he told them. Christianity is always young and in "perpetual bloom."
Pope Benedict praised Blessed John XXIII's usage of the term "aggiornamento" or "renewal" for the Church, even though, he said, it's still a topic of heated and endless debate.
"Christianity must never be seen as something from the past, nor lived with one's gaze always looking back, because Jesus is yesterday, today and for all eternity," the pope said.
Renewal doesn't mean watering down the faith, lowering it to fit modern fads or trends, or fashioning it to fit public opinion or one's own desires, he said.
"Exactly as the council fathers did, we have to make the times in which we live fit the Christian event; we have to bring the 'today' of our time into the 'today' of God," which is eternal, he said.
Remembering the past is important, he said, but the best way to honour Vatican II is to return to the living Gospel and bring Christ's presence and love to today's world.