I first met Sioux City, Iowa, Bishop Walker Nickless a month ago at the Serra International gathering in Omaha, Neb. Little did I know then that he was working on his bold first pastoral letter since his installation as bishop four years ago.
Ecclesia Semper Reformanda (The Church Is Always in Need of Renewal), released yesterday, takes a look at the impact of the Second Vatican Council and sets forth a plan for the people of Sioux City and beyond. In many ways, it’s a pastoral letter unlike one we’ve yet seen.
Forty-four years after the close of the council, Bishop Nickless says there are many questions that still need to be asked and answered.
“Have we understood the council within the context of the entire history of the Church? Have we understood the documents well? Have we truly appropriated and implemented them? Is the current state of the Church what the council intended? What went right? What went wrong? Where is the promised “New Pentecost”?
Quoting from Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the Roman Curia in December 2005, Bishop Nickless draws attention to the two contrary hermeneutics that arose from the council — one which caused confusion (“a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”), and the other which has borne fruit (“hermeneutic of reform”).
“The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church,” said Pope Benedict.
Bishop Nickless says that these two rival interpretations have weakened the Church’s identity and mission.
The consequence, says Bishop Nickless, has been a sort of dualism — “an either/or mentality and insistence in various areas of the Church’s life: either fidelity to doctrine or social justice work, either Latin or English, either personal conscience or the authority of the Church, either chant or contemporary music, either tradition or progress, either liturgy or popular piety, either conservative or liberal, either Mass or adoration, either the magisterium or theologians, either ecumenism or evangelization, either rubrics or personalization, either the Baltimore Catechism or ‘experience’ ...”
For a clear example of this type of dualistic thinking, read through America magazine’s “Confessions of a Modern Nun,” by Ilia Delio. There, quoting Dominican Timothy Radcliffe, Delio describes American nuns as being either Concilium Catholics or Communio Catholics.
“Members of the Leadership Conference embrace modernity and the work of the council as the Holy Spirit breathing new life in the Church,” writes Delio. “They fall under what Father Radcliffe identifies as the Concilium group, who focus on the Incarnation as the central point of renewal. Members of the Conference of Major Superiors, by contrast, are Communio Catholics, who emphasize communion through proclamation of the faith, a clear Catholic identity and the centrality of the cross. Members of the Conference of Major Superiors, by contrast, are Communio Catholics, who emphasize communion through proclamation of the faith, a clear Catholic identity and the centrality of the cross. (Concilium and Communio are the names of two periodicals founded in the postconciliar era. The first stressed conciliar reforms; the second stressed the continuity of the council documents with the community of the faithful through past centuries.) Thus, one group focuses on doxology and adoration (Communio), the other on practice and experience (Concilium). One sees Christ as gathering people into community (Communio); the other sees Christ as traversing boundaries (Concilium). The C.M.S.W.R. recently held its eucharistic congress under the title ‘Sacrifice of Enduring Love,’ while the L.C.W.R. continues to work on systemic change. The former sees religious life as divine espousal with Christ; the latter sees Christ in solidarity with the poor and justice for the oppressed.”
“There can be no split, however, between the Church and her faith before and after the council,” writes Bishop Nickless. “We must stop speaking of the ‘Pre-Vatican II’ and ‘Post-Vatican II’ Church, and stop seeing various characteristics of the Church as ‘pre’ and ‘post’ Vatican II. Only the ‘hermeneutic of reform,’ he says, is valid and “has borne and is bearing fruit.”
“The ‘spirit of Vatican II’ must be found only in the letter of the documents themselves,” writes Bishop Nickless. “The so-called ‘spirit’ of the council … is a ghost or demon that must be exorcised if we are to proceed with the Lord’s work.”
Bishop Nickless goes on to state that, “we have sometimes lost sight of who we are and what we believe, and therefore have little to offer the world that so desperately needs the Gospel.”
“Our urgent need at this time is to reclaim and strengthen our understanding of the deposit of faith,” writes Nickless. He adds that our mission is twofold — both within the Church (ad intra) and to the world (ad extra). He then sets forth a plan for “reclaiming and strengthening our faith, identity and culture as Catholics.”
That plan includes the following:
1. A renewal of reverence, love, adoration and devotion to the Most Blessed Sacrament within and outside of Mass, regular reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
2. Strengthening catechesis on every level, beginning with and focusing on adults, with Sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church as the primary sources of formation.
3. The protection and building up of holy families.
4. Fostering a culture where young people can more readily respond to the radical calls of ministerial priesthood and the consecrated life.
5. Acknowledging and embracing the missionary character of the Catholic Faith and the vocation of all Catholics to be, not only disciples, but also apostles.
Above all, Bishop Nickless calls the faithful to “great acts of renunciation.”
“In order to strengthen our devotion to Christ in the holy Eucharist and worship God rightly, we need to renounce any attachment to how we worship currently. To improve the spiritual depth of how we perform the Church’s liturgy, we will need to renounce attachment to worldly expectations and long-standing habits. To spend more time adoring Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, we need to renounce attachments to how we currently use our time,” he writes. “To deepen our intimate love for God in our hearts and heads, we need to renounce attachments to whatever is not God that is filling our hearts and heads. To live in more intentional and holy Catholic families, we need to renounce attachment to distractions, sins, and imperfections that harm our domestic churches. To accept the divine plan god has for each of us, we need to renounce attachment to our own plans. To change the world for Christ, we need to renounce attachment to how we want the world to be for ourselves.”
It’s a fantastic read. You’ll find the pastoral letter in its entirety here.