Print Edition: March 8, 2015
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Vatican II and its proper implementation is the subject of a new pastoral letter by the bishop of a Midwestern diocese.
BY Tim DrakeRegister Senior Writer
CITY, Iowa — More than 50 years after Pope John XXIII called for a worldwide
meeting of bishops to update the Church, the Second Vatican Council is far from
the bishop of a small diocese in the American Midwest, it’s time to get beyond
the divisions that have sprung up since then and allow the true “spirit” of
Vatican II to drive the New Evangelization.
“spirit” is to be found in the “letter” of the council documents, not in the
various misinterpretations that have evolved, Bishop R. Walker Nickless of
Sioux City, Iowa, says in Ecclesia
Semper Reformanda (The Church Is
Always in Need of Renewal), a pastoral letter released Oct. 15.
Bishop Nickless characterizes the false “spirit” of the council as “a ghost or
demon that must be exorcised if we are to proceed with the Lord’s work.”
Nickless says Catholics must stop seeing the Church as divided between
pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II faith, mentality and practices.
letter, which can be read at CatholicGlobe.org, details a five-point plan for
“reclaiming and strengthening our faith, identity and culture as Catholics.”
The five points cover the areas of liturgy, catechesis, family life, vocations
Nickless said that he has received both positive and negative feedback on the
letter, most of it from outside the rural Iowa diocese. Some laypeople in the
diocese have e-mailed saying, “I’ll do anything I can to help. What can I do?”
a practical level, the bishop wants to see what can be done to bring Eucharistic
adoration to more parishes in the diocese. Currently, only one of the diocese’s
130 parishes has Eucharistic adoration.
In addition, Bishop Nickless sees
ongoing clergy formation as crucial.
“There are differences in liturgical
style and ecclesiology,” said Bishop Nickless. “I’ve asked our continuing
education committee to come up with a plan for ongoing formation in the area of
liturgy, and I try to model good liturgy at the cathedral.”
Furthermore, the diocese has hired a
new director of family life and religious education. It is the bishop’s hope
that the director will focus on better marriage preparation and how to
implement another of the pastoral’s initiatives: adult catechesis.
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?” he asks in the letter. “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’?”
He speaks of two “hermeneutics”
(interpretations) of Vatican II, as described by Pope Benedict XVI in an
address to the Roman Curia in December 2005. “Why has the implementation of the
council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult?” Pope
Benedict asked. “Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the
council. … 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
Evangelizing Inward and Outward
Bishop Nickless says the division
occasioned by these two rival interpretations — a misguided “hermeneutic of
discontinuity and rupture” and an authentic “hermeneutic of reform” in
continuity with the Church’s tradition — have weakened the Church’s identity and
mission. The consequence, he adds, has been a sort of dualism — “an either/or
mentality and insistence in various areas of the Church’s life.”
“It is crucial that we all grasp
that the hermeneutic or interpretation of discontinuity or rupture, which many
think is the settled and even official position, is not the true meaning of the
council,” Bishop Nickless writes. “This interpretation sees the pre-conciliar
and post-conciliar Church almost as two different churches. It sees the Second
Vatican Council as a radical break with the past. There can be no split,
however, between the Church and her faith before and after the council. 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.
Instead, we must evaluate them according to their intrinsic value and pastoral
effectiveness in this day and age.”
Bishop Nickless calls for Catholics
in his diocese to adapt the Vatican II model of the Church evangelizing itself
first and then spreading the Gospel to the greater society.
urgent need at this time is to reclaim and strengthen our understanding of the
deposit of faith,” he writes. “We must have a distinctive identity and culture
as Catholics, if we would effectively communicate the Gospel to the people of
this day and diocese. This is our mission.”
“Notice that this mission is
twofold, like the Second Vatican Council’s purpose,” he continues. “It is
toward ourselves within the Church (ad intra), and it is
to the world (ad extra). The first is primary and
necessary for the second; the second flows from the first. This is why we have
not been as successful as we should be in bringing the world to Jesus Christ
and Jesus Christ to the world. We cannot give what we do not have; we cannot
fulfill our mission to evangelize if we ourselves are not evangelized.”
One area he focuses on is divine
worship. Bishop Nickless urges adherence to recent Vatican directives
concerning liturgical renewal, including Liturgiam Authenticam
(Authentic Liturgy), which calls for translations of the Roman Missal that are
faithful to the original Latin, and Summorum Pontificum,
in which Pope Benedict promotes the form of the Mass in use before the Second Vatican
Council (the Mass of Pope John XXIII or the “extraordinary form” of the Latin
“Since, in the Church’s liturgy, we
meet God in a unique way, how we worship — the external rites, gestures,
vessels, music, indeed, the building itself — should reflect the grandeur of
the heavenly liturgy,” the bishop writes. “Liturgy is mystical; it is our
mysterious encounter with the transcendent God, who comes to sanctify us
through the sacrifice of Christ made present in the Eucharist and received in
holy Communion. It should radiate heavenly truth and goodness. This radiance,
the splendor of truth, is called beauty. Our liturgy should radiate true
beauty, reflecting the beauty of God himself and what he does for us in Christ
Jesus. It should lift up our soul — first through our intellect and will, but
also through our senses and emotions — to adore God as we share already in
heaven’s eternal worship. In this vale of tears, the liturgy should be a
lodestar, a transcending place of wonder and comfort in the midst of our
day-to-day lives, a place of light and high beauty beyond the reach of worldly
He argues that since Sunday Mass is
the only connection many Catholics have with the Church, “should we not offer
an experience of beauty and transcendence, compellingly different from our
The bishop says it is “imperative”
to recover the “wonder, awe, reverence and love for the liturgy and the
“To do this, we must feel and think
with the whole Church in ‘reforming the reform’ of the Second Vatican Council,”
Bishop Nickless’ letter seems to
have struck a chord among other bishops and Vatican II experts.
“We have come into a time of perhaps
a more mature understanding of the Second Vatican Council,” said Bishop Robert
Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo. “Many of us have felt that we have to go
back to the texts of the documents. ... Studying the documents at this moment
in time has helped us to see that they say very profound things that are not
always grasped or proposed by people who are quick to speak of the ‘Spirit of
“One of the obstacles to the
implementation of the council has been the polarization,” said Alan Schreck,
professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville and author of Vatican
II: The Crisis and the Promise. “If we could be aware of what
Vatican II is telling us about our identity and mission, and come to some
agreement on that, that would be a great achievement,” he said.
Added Bishop Michael Sheridan of
Colorado Springs, Colo., “There has been a growing sense that so many wonderful
things from the council were either being set aside or twisted to fit other
“Most ecumenical councils have been
followed by confusion,” said Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted. “We began to be
able to respond once we had a Catechism of the Catholic Church and important
documents such as Fides et Ratio, Evangelium
Vitae and Veritatis Splendor.
They have helped us to have confidence and are good tools for proclaiming the
Gospel and teaching the faith.”
Perhaps Catholics will now add
Bishop Nickless’ pastoral letter to that list.
Drake is based in
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