If we date the Age of the Council to 1958, as we have in this series, then it is remarkable that 50 years later we are still living it.
We are now entering the final years of that era, as Pope Benedict XVI is the last sitting bishop who was deeply formed by Vatican II.
In April 2005, after the extraordinary days of grace that marked the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II, it was oft-remarked that because John Paul had appointed almost all the cardinal electors, he had chosen his successor. As it turned out, in electing Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the cardinals chose the only plausible candidate who wasn’t created a cardinal by John Paul. Why?
The enormous crowds that came to Rome for John Paul’s funeral, and the global audience that followed those days with great intensity, shaped the deliberations of cardinal electors.
Continuity with John Paul now became highly desirable, and who was closer to John Paul among the cardinals than his chief lieutenant for more than 20 years?
Yet, in choosing Ratzinger, there was a deeper continuity at work, too.
By 2005, Ratzinger was the last man standing who was a force at Vatican II, and whose career had been definitively shaped by the experience. It was as though the cardinals wanted to go back one last time to the conciliar experience, and extend for another pontificate the implementation of Vatican II.
Certainly, the newly-elected Pope Benedict was thinking along these lines when he addressed the cardinals on the day after his election.
“I have before my eyes, in particular, the testimony of Pope John Paul II,” Benedict said. “He leaves a Church that is more courageous, freer, more youthful. She is a Church that, in accordance with his teaching and example, looks serenely at the past and is not afraid of the future. With the Great Jubilee she entered the new millennium, bearing the Gospel, applied to today’s world through the authoritative re-reading of the Second Vatican Council. Pope John Paul II rightly pointed out the Council as a ‘compass’ by which to take our bearings in the vast ocean of the third millennium.”
The Church’s life in the decade 1998-2008 was dominated by two great events: the Great Jubilee and the death of John Paul II.
The year 2000 was not merely an extended celebration; it continued the work of conciliar implementation. There was the great request for forgiveness for sins of the past — a gesture, as explained by Cardinal Ratzinger and the International Theological Commission, that proceeded from the heart of the mystery of the Church’s identity as both holy and sinful.
There was the epic visit to the Holy Land, with its signature moments of reconciliation and fraternity with the Jewish people. There was the declaration Dominus Iesus (The Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church), signed by Cardinal Ratzinger, clarifying the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and its implications for ecumenism.
More than that, the Great Jubilee recaptured something of the ethos of the Council itself — a great gathering of the Church, universal in the spirit of a new springtime. The enduring moments of that year — the opening of the Holy Door, the papal pilgrimage to Fatima, Portugal, and the revelation of the third secret, the enormous World Youth Day in Rome — highlighted the sense of the Church as a pilgrim in history, providentially being guided to the New Evangelization.
The confidence and joy of the Great Jubilee was an indication that the post-conciliar internecine battles were waning, if not concluded.
“In his spiritual testament, John Paul noted that ‘I am convinced that it will long be granted to the new generations to draw from the treasures that this 20th-century Council has lavished upon us,’” Benedict said upon his election, precisely looking ahead to the new millennium. “Thus, as I prepare myself for the service that is proper to the Successor of Peter, I also wish to confirm my determination to continue to put the Second Vatican Council into practice, following in the footsteps of my predecessors and in faithful continuity with the 2,000-year tradition of the Church. This very year marks the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Council [Dec. 8, 1965]. As the years have passed, the conciliar documents have lost none of their timeliness; indeed, their teachings are proving particularly relevant to the new situation of the Church and the current globalized society.”
Thus, Benedict set himself the task of attending to those matters still left over from the conciliar period that he judged unfinished. Primary among them is the liturgy, where by personal example and his decree on the “extraordinary form” of the Mass, Benedict is trying to correct some of the mistakes that were made in the immediate post-conciliar period.
After the massive magisterial offensive of the late 1980s and 1990s, John Paul turned his attention to the foundations of Catholic life. At the end of the Jubilee Year, he published Novo Millennio Ineunte, which included an extended personal meditation on seeking the face of Christ.
Apostolic letters on the Rosary and the Eucharist followed, marking special years dedicated to each. Benedict has picked up that same approach, devoting time to his two-volume work on the scriptural portrait of Jesus Christ, and choosing love and hope as the subjects for his first two encyclicals.
When Benedict meets with his collaborators in the Roman Curia, or with bishops from around the world, he is working with those who have no direct experience of Vatican II.
During the Council, he was the young man in a hurry; now he is the elder who keeps alive those heady days, clarified by decades of sometimes difficult experiences. He is the one who remembers, and extends in the Church’s lived memory, both the “joys and hopes” as well as the “griefs and anxieties” of the Age of the Council.
With his service, the Age of Vatican II will conclude, having shaped whatever it is that will come next.
Father Raymond J. de Souza
was the Register’s
from 1999 to 2003.