I recently came across a speech by Pope Saint Paul VI on the implementation of the Second Vatican Council. The speech is from 1966, but I am struck by the fact that the themes Paul VI articulated here remain relevant today. It was given to the assembly of Italian bishops.
Readers of Pray Tell will notice that Paul VI urges his listeners to embrace the liturgical reform ardently and in a unified manner. This is very much like what Pope Francis has done in Traditionis custodes. There is also an element of teaching and mission in Paul VI’s vision. Again, Pope Francis pursues the same direction through his ministry, which is outward-directed and apostolic, and deeply influenced by listening to the teachings of the Council. Paul VI refers to the Council as a “patrimony” and “the great catechism” of our time, to be studied and lived out with apostolic zeal.
Do we still regard the patrimony of the Council as our source of inspiration today? One might say “Oh, this is so long ago” or “Too much has changed to take this seriously anymore.” Yet I suspect Paul VI’s words are precisely what we need to hear right now. After Traditionis custodes, it is a more urgent task than ever to recover the spirit of the Council, and to embrace its ideas and vision as gifts for our time, without the cynicism or hardened skepticism of “been there, done that.” If the reformed liturgy is the sole lex orandi, we need to understand it deeply and know where it is coming from.
Historians have noted that every Council has a backlash. We have been through such a backlash in recent years. Yet the floodwaters may be receding. The question is “Where do we go now?”
Pope Francis is clearly not saying we have to “get beyond the Council” or conjure up a Vatican III, though some Catholics would obviously like to do that, just as others would like to consign Vatican II to the dustbin of history as a terrible mistake and go back to pre-conciliar norms and expectations.
What I believe Pope Francis is saying, instead, is that we need to ground ourselves in Vatican II principles and really understand them. Only by doing so will we be able to rediscover the liturgical reform as a gift, coherent and inspiring in its own right.
For example, Vatican II rediscovered the Church as the people of God, and presented the liturgy as, first and foremost, the action of the people of God. This is part of the precious heritage of the Council and it was written into every one of the liturgical rites that were revised in the reform.
I do believe that if we want to be grounded in the Council, it helps to read Pope Saint Paul VI. And when we read him in conjunction with Pope Francis, some connections leap to the eye.
See what you think. [I’ve highlighted some words and phrases that I think are important.]
(The translation is from Google, so imperfect, but you can get the idea. Click through to the original Italian if you like.)
A word about the judgment that we must have and profess on the Council, because it will be good for this judgment to be clear, unambiguous, positive and efficient. When the construction of a large building is started, the work appears full of difficulties and uncertainties, both in the idea and in the execution, indeed full of deficiencies and fatigue; the nascent structures do not yet allow us to glimpse the definitive lines. When the work is finished, the scaffolding removed, the architectural design, which presided over the work, reveals itself in its beauty and balance. So it was with the Ecumenical Council.
It is an event of secular importance. It cannot be considered a closed and finished episode. The Council gives the Church a “tome”, a volume of doctrines and decrees, which can mark its new spring. It is not inertia, nor criticism, nor revision, nor is it rejection of the conciliar work that can benefit the Church. It is the knowledge, the study, the application of the inheritance of the Council, which must engage theological study on the one hand, and pastoral governance on the other, so that this new patrimony is inserted in the “deposit”, in the broad framework of truths already acquired by the Church. We must look to the Council with gratitude to God and with confidence for the future of the Church; it will be the great catechism of the new times. It certainly does not authorize, on the contrary, it contains and corrects the doctrinal and disciplinary arbitrators, which some restless spirit would like to derive from it; but [it] exhorts us to deepen our meditation on the mystery of truth, which the Church carries with her, and to dare with confidence the new apostolic effort so that this mystery may become more and more the light of the world.
In this regard, we still want to vote for a wise, unanimous, effective application of the liturgical reform. We know well that the Episcopate of Italy has already given many opportune dispositions and has already undertaken many good initiatives, so that this great conciliar novelty will sign for the Italian people a true rebirth of religious sentiment, an opportune reference to authentic religious forms, a principle new spiritual education, a better process of Catholic community formation, a life-giving impulse to the indispensable and always urgent effort for the religious education of your peoples. Let us not spend any other words, but express Our complacency for the work begun and Our encouragement for the much that still remains to be done.