Skip over navigation
Second sermons for Advent.
1. The Council: the hermeneutic of rupture and of continuity
In this meditation I would like to reflect on the second great cause for celebration this year: the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council.
In recent decades, the attempts to assess the results of Vatican II have multiplied[i]. This is not the occasion to pursue this line of thought, nor would time permit it. From the time of the Council, alongside these analytic interpretations there have also been attempts made to provide a synthetic evaluation – a search, in other words, for a key to interpreting the conciliar event. I would like to include myself in this endeavor and try to offer a reading of the various keys to its interpretation.
There were essentially three: aggiornamento, rupture, and renewal in continuity. In announcing the Council to the world, John XXIII repeatedly used the word “aggiornamento,” which to his merit has entered into the universal vocabulary. In the opening address of the Council he offered a first explanation of what he meant by this term:
“The twenty-first Ecumenical Council […] wishes to transmit the Catholic doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion […]. However, our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but also to dedicate ourselves promptly and without fear to that work which our era demands of us, pursuing the path which the Church has travelled for almost twenty centuries […]. It is necessary that this certain and unchanging doctrine, to which our faithful assent is due, be studied and expounded in the manner required by our times”[ii].
Gradually, however, as the Council’s work and sessions progressed, two opposing fronts formed, depending on whether, of the two purposes mentioned, the first or the second was being emphasized: i.e., continuity with the past or innovation with respect thereto. For the latter front, the word ‘aggiornamento’ came to be replaced by the word ‘rupture’, but it bore within it a very different spirit and very different intentions. For the so-called progressivists, it was an achievement to be greeted with enthusiasm. For the opposing front, it was a tragedy for the entire Church.
Standing between these two fronts – which agreed on the statement of the fact but were opposed in their judgment regarding it – we find the position of the papal Magisterium, which speaks of “renewal in continuity”. In Ecclesiam suam, Paul VI returns to John XXIII’s word “aggiornamento” and states that he wishes it to be regarded as a “guiding principle”[iii]. John Paul II reiterated the judgment of his predecessor at the beginning of his pontificate,[iv] and on several occasions he expressed himself in the same vein. Above all, however, it has been the current Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI who has explained what the Magisterium of the Church means by “renewal in continuity”. He did so a few months after his election, in the address delivered to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005. Let us listen to several passages:
“The question arises: Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult? Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or – as we would say today – on its proper hermeneutic, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face-to-face and quarreled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit. On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call ‘a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture’; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the ‘hermeneutic of reform’”.
The Pope acknowledges that a certain discontinuity and rupture did in fact occur. However, it did not pertain to the basic principles and truths of the Christian faith but rather to several historical decisions. Numbered among them was the conflict that had arisen between the Church and the modern world, culminating in the wholesale condemnation of modernism under Pius IX. However, it also regarded more recent situations, such as that created by developments in science and by the new relationship among religions, with the implications this holds for the problem of freedom of conscience. Not last was the tragedy of the Holocaust, which required a rethinking of attitudes toward the Jewish people. The Pope writes:
“It is clear that in all these sectors, which all together form a single problem, some kind of discontinuity might emerge. Indeed, a discontinuity had been revealed but in which, after the various distinctions between concrete historical situations and their requirements had been made, the continuity of principles proved not to have been abandoned. It is easy to miss this fact at a first glance. It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists”.
If we move from the axiological level, i.e. of principles and values, to the chronological level, we could say that the Council represents a discontinuity with the Church’s recent past and instead represents a continuity with respect to the remote past. On many points, especially on the central point of the idea of the Church, the Council wanted to bring about a return to her origins, to the biblical and patristic sources of the faith.
The interpretation of the Council offered by the Magisterium; i.e., of renewal in continuity, had a distinguished precursor in Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Newman, who has often been called “the absent Father of Vatican II”, demonstrates that when we are dealing with a great philosophical idea or religious belief, such as Christianity:
“Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities, nor of its scope. […] In time … dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”.[v]
St. Gregory the Great anticipated this conviction in some way when he stated that Scripture “cum legentibus crescit”, “grows with those who read it”[vi]; that is, it grows by constantly being read and lived, to the extent that new questions and new challenges in history arise. The doctrine of faith changes, then, but only in order to remain true to itself; it changes as regards historical contingencies, in order to remain the same in substance, as Benedict XVI has said.
A somewhat banal but nonetheless indicative example may be found in language. Jesus spoke the language of his time; not Hebrew, which was the noble language of the Scriptures (the Latin of his day!), but rather the Aramaic spoken by the people. Fidelity to this initial fact could not consist, nor did it consist, in continuing to speak in Aramaic to all the future hearers of the Gospel, but in speaking Greek to the Greeks, Latin to the Latins, Armenian to the Armenians, Coptic to the Coptics, and so forth right up until our own day. As Newman said, it is precisely by changing that it remains true to itself.
2. The letter kills, the Spirit gives life
With all due respect and admiration for Cardinal Newman’s immense and pioneering contribution, now at a century and a half’s distance away from his essay – and with all that Christianity has experienced since then – still we cannot fail to detect a lacuna in the unfolding of his argument: the almost total absence of the Holy Spirit. In the dynamic of the development of Christian doctrine, he does not take sufficient account of the preeminent role which Jesus reserved to the Paraclete in revealing to the disciples those truths which they couldn’t yet “bear”, and in guiding them “into all the truth” (Jn. 16:12-13).
What is it, in fact, that allows us to resolve the paradox and to talk about renewal in continuity, about permanence in change, if not the Holy Spirit’s action in the Church? St. Irenaeus understood it perfectly when he stated that revelation is like a “a precious deposit held in an excellent vessel which always, by the Spirit of God, renewing its youth, causes the vessel itself containing it to renew its youth also”[vii]. The Holy Spirit doesn’t speak new words. He doesn’t create new sacraments and new institutions. Rather, he renews and perennially enlivens the words, the sacraments and the institutions which Jesus created. He doesn’t do new things, but makes all things new!
The insufficient attention paid to the role of the Holy Spirit explains many of the difficulties that arose in the reception of the Second Vatican Council. The Tradition in whose name some have rejected the Council was a Tradition wherein the Holy Spirit played no role at all. It was a collection of beliefs and practices fixed once and for all, not the wave of apostolic preaching, which advances and sweeps through the centuries and, like every wave, cannot be grasped except in movement. To freeze the Tradition by making it begin, or end, at a certain fixed moment means making it a dead tradition, unlike that which St. Irenaeus describes as a “living Tradition”. Charles Péguy explained this great theological truth with a poet’s pen:
“Jesus didn’t give us dead words either
For us to seal up into little boxes
(Or even big ones.)
And for us to preserve in rancid oil …
Like the Egyptian mummies.
Jesus Christ, my child, didn’t give us canned words
Rather, he gave us living words
To nourish …
He depends on us, weak and carnal,
To bring to life and to nourish and to keep alive in time
These words pronounced alive in time”[viii].
However, it must immediately be said that, on the opposing front of extremism, things were not going any better. Here there was willing talk of the “spirit of the Council”, but unfortunately it was not the Holy Spirit. “Spirit of the Council” denoted that greater impulse toward the new, that greater innovative courage that wasn’t able to be part of the Council texts due to the resistance of some, and to the compromises it was necessary to make between parties to reach unanimity.
I would now like to attempt to illustrate what seems to me to be the true key to a pneumatic interpretation of the Council; in other words, what the true role of the Holy Spirit is in the implementation of the Council. Drawing upon St. Augustine’s bold and daring thought regarding the Pauline saying on the letter and the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:6), St. Thomas Aquinas writes:
“The letter denotes any writing that is external to man, even that of the moral precepts such as are contained in the Gospel. Wherefore the letter, even of the Gospel, would kill, unless there were the inward presence of the healing grace of faith”[ix].
Within the same context, the holy Doctor states: “The New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Ghost, which is given to those who believe in Christ”[x]. The precepts of the Gospel are also the New Law, but in a material sense, as regards the content; the grace of the Holy Spirit is the New Law in the formal sense, for it gives us the strength to put these same Gospel precepts into practice. It is what Paul calls “the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:2).
This is a universal principle that applies to every law. If even the Gospel precepts, without the grace of the Holy Spirit, would be “a letter that kills”, what shall be said of the precepts of the Church? And what shall we say, in the case before us, about the decrees of Vatican II? The “implementation” or carrying out of the Council is not a simple straightforward matter of applying its decrees in a literal and almost mechanical way. Rather, we must seek to apply them “in the Spirit”, meaning by this the Holy Spirit, and not some vague “spirit of the Council” which is open to every whim. The papal Magisterium was the first to recognize this need. In 1981, John Paul II wrote:
“The whole work of renewal in the Church, so providentially set forth and initiated by the Second Vatican Council – a renewal that must be both an updating and a consolidation of what is eternal and constitutive of the Church’s mission – can be carried out only in the Holy Spirit, that is to say, with the aid of His light and His power”[xi].
3. Where to look for the fruits of Vatican II
Did this eagerly awaited “new Pentecost” really occur? One well-known Newman scholar, Ian Ker, highlighted the contribution Newman can offer to our understanding of not only the unfolding of the Council itself, but also of the post-conciliar era[xii]. Following the definition of papal infallibility at Vatican I in 1870, Cardinal Newman was led to make a general reflection on the councils and the meaning of their definitions. His conclusion was that Councils can often have effects which are not intended at the time by those who participated in them. They can see much more, or much less, than what such decisions will produce thereafter.
Thus, Newman was doing nothing more than applying to conciliar definitions the same principle of development, which he had illustrated in regard to Christian doctrine in general. A dogma, like every great idea, cannot duly be understood until its consequences and historical developments have been seen. To use his image, it is only after the stream moves away from the rugged soil whence it arises that its bed at last becomes deep, and broad, and full[xiii]. This is what happened with the definition of papal infallibility, which in the heated climate of the time, seemed to many to contain much more than what the Church and the Pope himself actually drew from it. It did not make further Ecumenical Councils redundant as some at the time had feared, and as others had hoped. Vatican II confirms this[xiv].
This all finds a singular confirmation in Gadamer’s hermeneutic principle of the “history of effects” (Wirkungsgeschichte). According to this principle, in order to understand a text, it is necessary to consider the effects it has produced in history by becoming part of the same history and entering into dialogue with it[xv]. This is what occurs in an exemplary way in the spiritual interpretation of Sacred Scripture. It not only explains the text in light of what has preceded it – as the historical-philological interpretation does through research into sources – but also in light of what has followed thereafter. It explains prophecy in light of its realization in Christ, the Old Testament in light of the New.
All this sheds a unique light on the post-conciliar era. Perhaps here, too, the true realizations of the Council lay in places other than where we were looking. We were looking at changes in structures and institutions, at a different distribution of power, at the language that was to be used in the liturgy, while we failed to realize how small these changes were compared to the work that the Holy Spirit was accomplishing. We imagined we would break the old wineskins with our own hands, while God was offering us his own method of breaking old wineskins – by filling them with new wine.
When asked whether there was a new Pentecost, we should respond without hesitation: Yes! What is the most convincing sign of this? The renewal of the quality of Christian life wherever this Pentecost was received. The key doctrinal event of Vatican II can be found in the first two chapters of Lumen Gentium, in which the Church is defined as a sacrament and as the people of God journeying under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, animated by his charisms, under the guidance of the hierarchy. In short, the Church as mystery and institution; as koinonia before gerarchia. John Paul II reinforced this vision and made its implementation a priority as the Church entered into the new millennium[xvi].
We wonder: where has this image of the Church passed from the documents to life? Where has it assumed “flesh and blood”[xvii]? Where is the Christian life being lived out according to the “law of the Spirit” with joy and conviction, by attraction and not by constraint? Where is God’s Word held in highest honor? Where is it that the charisms are being manifest? Where is the eager concern for a new evangelization and for the unity of Christians being felt?
Since we are dealing with an interior reality that takes place in human hearts, the ultimate answer to these questions is known to God alone. Concerning the new Pentecost, we should repeat what Jesus said about the Kingdom of God: “No one will say: ‘Lo it is here!’ or ‘Lo it is there!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Lk 17:21). And yet, we can perceive some of the signs, also with the help of religious sociology, which deals in these matters. From this point of view, the answer given in many quarters to this question is: in the ecclesial movements!
One thing, however, should immediately be pointed out. Belonging to the ecclesial movements are also those renewed parishes, associations of the faithful and new communities in which the same koinonia and the same quality of Christian life are being lived out. From this perspective, movements and parishes should not be seen in opposition to or in competition with each other, but united in the realization, in different ways, of the same model of Christian life. Some of the so-called “basic communities” are also to be numbered among these realities; those at least, in which the political element has not taken precedence over the religious.
We must insist on the correct name: “ecclesial” movements and not “lay” movements. The majority of these movements are formed not by one, but by all ecclesial components: laity, to be sure, but also bishops, priests, and men and women religious. They represent all charisms, the “people of God” described in Lumen Gentium. It is only for practical reasons (because the Congregations for Clergy and for Religious already exist) that the “Pontifical Council for Laity” oversees these movements.
John Paul II saw in these living movements and parish communities “the signs of a new springtime of the Church”[xviii]. On various occasions Pope Benedict XVI has expressed the same sentiments[xix]. In his homily for the Chrism Mass of Holy Thursday 2012, he stated:
“Anyone who considers the history of the post-conciliar era can recognize the process of true renewal, which often took unexpected forms in living movements and made almost tangible the inexhaustible vitality of holy Church, the presence and effectiveness of the Holy Spirit”.
In speaking of the signs of a new Pentecost, we cannot fail to mention – if for no other reason than the sheer vastness of the phenomenon – the charismatic Renewal, or Renewal in the Spirit. Properly speaking it is not an ecclesial movement in the sociological sense of the word (it has no founder, structure, or spirituality or its own); rather, it is a current of grace destined to disperse itself throughout the Church, like an electrical charge in the mass, and then eventually disappear as a distinct reality.
When, for the first time, in 1973, one of the great architects of Vatican II, Cardinal Suenens, heard talk of the phenomenon, he was writing a book entitled The Holy Spirit – Source of all our Hopes, and here is what he recounts in his memoires:
“I gave up writing the book; I thought it was a matter of the most basic courtesy to pay attention to the possible action of the Holy Spirit, however surprising it might be. I was especially interested in the talk of the awakening of charisms; at the Council, I had pleaded the cause of such an awakening”.
And here is what he wrote after having personally verified and lived from within this experience now shared by tens of millions of Catholics:
“Suddenly, St. Paul and the Acts of the Apostles seemed to come alive and become part of the present; what was authentically true in the past seems to be happening once again before our very eyes. It is a discovery of the true action of the Holy Spirit, who is always at work, as Jesus himself promised. He kept and keeps his “word”. It is once more an explosion of the Spirit of Pentecost, a jubilation that had become foreign to the Church”.[xx]
The ecclesial movements and new communities certainly do not exhaust the full potential and the expected renewal of the Council, but they do respond to the most important of these, at least in the eyes of God. They are not without weaknesses and at times partial drifts. But what other great renewal has appeared in the history of the Church without human flaws? Did not the same thing occur when the mendicant orders appeared at the beginning of the thirteenth century? At that time as well, it was the Roman popes, especially Pope Innocent III, who first recognized and embraced the grace of the moment, and encouraged the rest of the episcopate to do the same.
4. A promise fulfilled
What, then, we wonder, is the meaning of the Council, understood as the collection of the documents it produced: Dei Verbum, Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et spes, Nostra aetate, etc.? Are we to leave them aside and expect everything from the Spirit? The answer is contained in the phrase with which Augustine sums up the relationship between the law and grace: “The law was given that grace might be sought, and grace was given that the law might be kept”[xxi]. The Spirit does not dispense us, then, from making use of the letter; i.e. the decrees of Vatican II. On the contrary, it is he who urges us on to study them and to put them into practice. And actually, outside of scholastic and academic spheres where these decrees serve as material for discussion and study, it is precisely within the ecclesial movements mentioned above that they are held in high regard.
I have experienced this in my own life. I got rid of the prejudices against the Jews and against the Protestants, which I had taken in during my years of formation, not by reading Nostra aetate, but by having experienced the new Pentecost in my own small way, thanks to the encouragement of some brothers. Afterward I felt the need to reread Nostra aetate, as I had likewise reread Dei Verbum after the Spirit aroused in me a new love for the word of God and for evangelization. However, this movement may occur in two alternate directions. Some – to borrow the language of Augustine – are led from the letter to seek the Spirit, while others are moved by the Spirit to observe the letter.
The poet T.S. Eliot penned several verses, which may enlighten us regarding the meaning of the celebrations currently underway for the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time”[xxii]
After so many explorations and controversies, we have arrived where we started; that is, at the event of the Council itself. All of the intrigue, however, has not been in vain for, in the deepest sense, only now are we able to “know the place for the first time”, that is, to evaluate its true significance, which was unknown even to the Council Fathers themselves.
This allows us to say that the tree that has grown since the Council is consistent with the seed from which it came. What, in fact, gave rise to the event of Vatican II? The words with which John XXIII describes the emotion that accompanied “the sudden flowering in his heart and on his lips at the simple word Council”[xxiii] bear all the signs of a prophetic inspiration. In the closing address of the first session, he spoke about the Council as a “new and dearly desired Pentecost, which will enrich the Church abundantly with spiritual energies”.[xxiv]
Fifty years later, we cannot but note the fulfillment of the promise made by God to the Church through the mouth of his humble servant, blessed John XXIII. If to talk of a new Pentecost seems an exaggeration, given all the problems and controversies that arose in the Church after and on account of the Council, we need only to reread the Acts of the Apostles and to note that problems and controversies were all but lacking after the first Pentecost. And they were no less heated than today’s!
[Translation by Diane Montagna]
[i] Cf. Il Concilio Vaticano II. Recezione e attualità alla luce del Giubileo, edited by R. Fisichella, Ed. San Paolo 2000.
[ii] John XXIII, Opening Address of the Council, 11 October 1962, n.6,5.
[iii] Paul VI, Encyclical Ecclesiam suam, n. 50.
[iv] John Paul II, General Audience of August 1, 1979.
[v] J.H. Newman, The Development of Christian Doctrine, London, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909, sec.17.
[vi] St. Gregory the Great, Commentary on Job XX, 1 (CC 143 A, p.1003)
[vii] St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III, 24, 1.
[viii] Ch. Péguy, Le Porche du mystère de la deuxième vertu, La Pléiade, Paris 1975, pp. 588 s. (English title: Portal of the Mystery of Hope, London, Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., pp.54-55).
[ix] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-IIae, q. 106, a.2
[x] Ibid. q. 106, a.1; cf. Augustine, De Spiritu et littera, 21,36.
[xi] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter A Concilio Constantinopolitano I, 25 marzo 1981, in AAS 73 (1981) 515-527.
[xii] I. Ker, Newman, the Councils, and Vatican II, in “Communio”. International Catholic Review, 2001, pp. 708-728.
[xiii] Newman, op. cit. p. 46
[xiv] An even clearer example can be seen in what occurred at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. The definition of Mary as the Theotokos, Mother of God, according to the intentions of the Council and, above all, in those of its great promoter Cyril of Alexandria, had solely to affirm the unity of Christ’s person. In fact, it paved the way for an immense flowering of devotion to the Virgin, and to the building of the first basilicas in her honor, including the basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. The unity of Christ’s person was later defined in another context and in a more balanced way by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
[xv] Cf H.G. Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode, Tübingen 1960
[xvi] Novo millennio ineunte, 42.
[xvii] I. Ker, art. cit. p.727.
[xviii] John Paul II, Novo millennio ineunte, 46.
[xix] Cf. his address to ecclesial movements on the vigil of Pentecost 2006 in: The Beauty of Being a Christian. Movements in the Church. Proceedings of the Second World Congress on the Ecclesial Movements and New Communities (Frascati 31 May – 1 June 2006), Rome, Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2007.
[xx] Card. L.-J. Suenens, Memories and Hopes, Dublin, Veritas 1992, p. 267.
[xxi] Augustine, De Spiritu et littera ,19,34.
[xxii] T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets V, The Complete Poems and Plays, Faber & Faber, London 1969, p.197:
[xxiii] John XXIII, Opening address of the Second Vatican Council, 11 October 1962, n. 3,1.
[xxiv] John XXIII, Closing address of the first period of the Council, 8 December 1962, nr. 3,6.