As the Church celebrates 50 years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the Register spoke with a man who, like Pope Benedict XVI, knows Vatican II from firsthand experience — Cardinal Francis Arinze, the youngest bishop, at age 33, to take part in the Council’s final session in 1965.
The Nigerian cardinal, who served as president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue from 1985-2002 and as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments from 2002 until his retirement in 2008, discussed the Council's highlights, the problems that followed it and his hopes for the Year of Faith.
Cardinal Arinze, who turns 80 next month, spoke with Rome correspondent Edward Pentin Oct. 9 at the cardinal’s Vatican apartment.
Your Eminence, what, to you, were the highlights of the Council, and what was the general mood like when you took part?
The general mood was positive; one can say optimistic. The Council presented the Church as a sacrament that helps us in our union with God and in the union between ourselves, between peoples.
Then the Council regarded the liturgy as having priority, placing it as the first major document and, within that, the Holy Eucharist. The Council also highlighted the people’s participation. That is very important and, in that context, admitted local languages, not without limitation, but admitted the principle.
Holy Scripture was given major attention by the Second Vatican Council; not only was it a major document (about divine Revelation), but it asked people to read [holy Scripture] every day. It incorporated a good measure of Bible texts in the celebrations, especially the Mass, much more than before.
Then the Council showed the Church as concerned in the world today — the joys, the sorrows, the projects, the hopes. The Church isn’t living in the sacristy of St. Peter’s Basilica.
It also encouraged ecumenism, Catholics to meet other Christians; and interreligious dialogue — it encouraged Catholics to meet others who are not Christians. It’s not a new doctrine, but the emphasis is fresh.
Also, it encouraged each person’s apostolate in the Church, so attention was paid to each group: priests, one group; lay people, another; and, of course, bishops.
No longer was the Church to be perceived by some people as being simply about bishops and priests; it’s for all of us baptized. It presented a dynamic vision.
Many Catholics today don’t remember what the Church was like before the Council. Did it seem very closed to the world?
It was never a doctrine, but, still, the appearance was that when we said “Church” we mean “Pope, bishops, priests” — that is, clergy. It wasn’t Church doctrine, but it was the appearance. In the Church today, the emphasis is on all the baptized, so that’s very important — that this doctrine was emphasized.
So there was never any real change in doctrine?
No, the Church would never change the doctrine, but the emphasis can change according to the times, the needs of the moment.
Why did the Council need to take place at that time?
Circumstances change. The world is bigger; there’s the global village, contact, communications. There was much greater contact between peoples in 1960 than in 1550.
In 1550, the Council of Trent was concerned with the situation in Europe. So you see the world has much more contact; now you have a presence in Latin America, Asia and Africa. The Church lives in the world of today.
What do you say to those who argue that the Council went too far in its emphasis on the people of God, becoming a “horizontal” Church of community and humanity, and losing the “vertical” dimension of putting God first?
It is people’s perception, not the fault of the Council. It is true that the Second Vatican Council spoke much of the Church as the people of God, but it is also true that the Second Vatican Council had Christ at the center and worship of God as “vertical” first.
It is then horizontal, because if you love God, you love your neighbor; but it is God who comes first.
Many have argued that the Council was misinterpreted, leading to abuses. How can we resolve any abuses?
In several ways. First, we must be willing to take the documents of the Council and read them slowly, meditatively, not pushing our opinion, not using the Council to justify what we personally think, not urging for a Third Vatican Council whenever we want something, but giving the opportunity for the Council documents to be understood and read.
And then, if people want to do more research, there will be scholars who study how various documents were worked out. Not everyone can do that, but at least people can read the 16 documents, and some don’t do that. They just criticize and make big statements — but you find out they have not studied the documents themselves. So that must be the first thing to do.
Then realize that it is the same Catholic Church that was there when Christ instituted it, and it has been growing. It was not a separate Church after the Council, so it’s not right to talk of a post-Vatican II Church, as if there were a pre-Vatican II Church — it is the same thing. A young man grows, but he is the same person.
Also, people have their fixed categories. They have them in their mind and force them onto the Council. They then read the 16 Vatican documents, but they will only see one sentence which seems to justify what they want. But that is a partial reading, also an “impassioned” reading.
How can abuses in the liturgy be prevented?
Firstly, people must be willing to read the documents of the Council. The one on the liturgy is very rich and well balanced.
Also, people must realize that in the liturgy we are not putting ourselves in the middle, but placing Christ in the middle. Then there has to be faith in the priest, who is the celebrant, and in the people who come, not to celebrate themselves, but Christ in his mysteries.
If all that is done, and people are humble, and there is silence, through gradual personal prayer, the best wishes of the Council will be seen translated into practice, as many communities have done.
You were also prefect of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, which many Catholics see as another fruit of the Council. What has the dialogue achieved over the past 50 years?
Much, much. The [inspiration] the Council gave on contact between Christians and other believers has encouraged the whole idea of working together, meeting other people, listening to them — not because we doubt our faith, but because we respect the human person.
The other person with a different religious belief is a human person for whom Christ died, so whatever religion that person has our attitude should be listening, understanding and respect. Then, if the other person reciprocates, we can begin to understand one another better.
We don’t need to debate and argue, but we can do some things together on justice, peace and development. Notice that in dioceses around the world now they have offices for justice, development and peace, which they didn’t have 60 years ago. So that’s one aspect.
Then there’s contact with the other religions in the area, and this is not a duty of the Vatican offices, but the local Church and the whole area of culture, because religion and culture often touch one another.
All that is encouraged, so that areas of Africa, Asia especially, and Latin America are encouraged to understand the background culture of religion, and that helps us to deepen Christian commitment.
But it’s argued that there’s a great danger in this, as it might give the impression of relativism — I’m okay; you’re okay — and religious indifferentism. What is your response to this?
It is a risk, it is a possibility, but it can be avoided. If you drive a car, it’s possible to wrap it around the nearest tree. If you ride a bicycle, you can fall off it. You know what can happen, but it need not happen if you are meeting other believers.
The first condition is to know your faith and be firm in it and at peace in it. If your faith is not a problem to you, then you can meet other people. You are not doubting.
Collaboration with a Muslim or a Buddhist does not mean that I must now become a Muslim or a Buddhist or that I put my Christianity in parentheses for a moment. No, I don’t do that; I must be genuine. A good, genuine Muslim appreciates a good, genuine Christian. I have seen that.
Much of the focus of the Council and its effects has been on the West. But what has been its influence on Nigeria and on Africa in general?
In many ways, it encouraged the Church to be open to society, as I mentioned, so the whole area of justice, peace, development of the country — that is part of our Christianity.
Then there is the major message of Gaudium et Spes, which is that the Church is present to the modern world and open to understand it and evangelize it. There is also inculturation: not that each person does his own thing, concocting theories overnight and forcing them on the people, but elements of culture carefully prepared by a multidisciplinary Council set up by the bishops and studied carefully, discussed even with passion and finally adopted by the bishops and ratified by Rome. It can mean that elements of local culture come into Christian worship.
So that’s one fruit, and it’s good. It has also created an association of Catholic bishops at the national level.
Can the great explosion of vocations in Africa be attributed to the Council?
The Council contributed, but other events have also been taking place. Missionary activity has been taking place with or without the Council, but the Council encouraged missionary activity and encouraged respect for people’s identity.
Also, there’s the whole area of African traditional religion, the natural religion the people had before Christianity came. This was a providential preparation for Christianity.
So Christianity was like midday sunshine to those looking for light at 4 o’clock in the morning.
And Africa already had and still has a great sense of community?
Very much so, and that is part of African culture — a sense of community, desire for celebration, love for children and the family, the individual never alone, but with others in joy and in sorrow, and also respect for the sacred — all that came before Christianity.
What are your hopes for the Year of Faith?
The Year of Faith is wider than this, of course, but with the Year of Faith we have the whole Church showing more joy in our faith. Our faith is good news and not bad news: about having Christ at the center, not me, not the bishop or Pope even, but Christ at the center.
Therefore, it’s about showing greater readiness to show the faith. If you believe and are joyful in it, you like to share the knowledge, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church becomes a most powerful instrument because it’s the best articulation of our Catholic faith in our times. In its four parts, it shows what we believe: the mysteries we celebrate, the life we live and our prayer.
So all of this would be strengthened by a careful celebration of the Year of Faith.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.