As sections of the Catholic Church - including Australia - continue to suffer from excesses perpetrated in the "spirit of Vatican II", the recent congress in Rome on the proper implementation of the Second Vatican Council was timely. Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger each gave addresses.
At the concluding session of the three-day international congress on 27 February, Pope John Paul II told 250 theologians, historians and Church leaders that the Council was "a true prophecy for the life of the Church," adding that its teachings would continue to furnish a guide for the Church "for many years" into the new millennium.
In order to mine those riches, the Pope cautioned, it was essential to avoid the "preconceived and partial interpretations" that have often obscured the true intent of the Council. Among the misinterpretations that have caused confusion within the Church, he mentioned the tendency "to read the Council as if it involved a break with the past." He described this view as "clearly erroneous."
"The Council Fathers were faced with a real challenge," the Holy Father continued, to "understand more intimately, in a period of rapid changes, the nature of the Church and its relation with the world in order to effect an opportune 'updating'." Recalling that he was also among the participants at the Council, he said: "We accepted that challenge and responded by searching for a more coherent understanding of the faith."
The continuity of Vatican II with 2,000 years of Church history was emphasised by the Holy Father, when he referred to the four fundamental Council Constitutions. In Dei Verbum, the centrality of the Word of God in the life of the Church "asks each one of us to assume our own responsibility at the moment of conserving it intact in the process of transmission." Sacrosanctum Concilium illustrated "the premises for a liturgical life that renders to God the authentic worship owed to him by the people." Lumen Gentium expressed the principle of communion in the Church, which becomes "evident in the various institutional forms in which the ecclesial ministry is carried out and in the function of Peter's successor as visible sign of the unity of all believers." Finally, Gaudium et Spes showed that the Church "is conscious of possessing a message that fruitfully summarises the hope of every man and the response God gives him."
Prior to the Holy Father's address, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, spoke on the "Ecclesiology of the Constitution Lumen Gentium." He stressed the need to emphasise God, as the crisis being experienced by Christianity, especially in Europe, was a "crisis of God."
Cardinal Ratzinger focused on what the Pope called the foundation on which the reality of the Church rests: communion. In "communion" the reality of God and of the Church are united. When the Church is seen as communion, then the universal call to holiness can be understood. Such sanctity is nothing other than living for God. Consequently, the Church's primary objective must be to make space for God in the world; that he may live in it and that the world may turn to his Kingdom. The Church exists as God's dwelling on earth.
From this perspective, Cardinal Ratzinger addressed the thorny topic of the Council's application, which frequently has gone down erroneous paths. The Cardinal felt too much emphasis was placed on striking words, rather than on the extraordinary ideas expressed by the Council Fathers. For example, the concept of "communion" was reduced to the relation between the local Church and the universal, at times identified with the Roman Church, the Pope and the Curia. From this resulted the criticisms of a return to Roman centralism.
Although there are cases of centralism, which can be "individuated and purified", Cardinal Ratzinger referred to the Christian community of the early years in Jerusalem, to demonstrate the Church's universality from the earliest times. From the very beginning "the Church was generated by the one Spirit for all peoples. From the first instant it was oriented to express itself in all cultures and to be the only people of God."
Auxiliary Bishop Rino Fisichella of Rome, principal organiser of the congress, which had been proposed by the Holy Father in preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 and who, until recently, was a professor of Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, explained that "the final judgment on the Congress is extremely positive, as we have achieved the objectives posed by the Holy Father; in other words, this was not about judging all the teachings of Vatican II, but about concentrating on the four fundamental principles on which the Council was based: the primacy of the Word of God in the life of the Church, the ecclesiology of communion, liturgical renewal, and the relation of the Church with the world."
Referring to liturgical renewal, he showed how the reform was developed in continuity with Tradition, although evidently the change of language was not enough to understand that liturgical movement must always be an action of man directed to God and not just a simple expression of the context in which prayer and the liturgy take place. It emerged from the reports presented by the study groups that the best in liturgical reform is yet to come and, as happens with all important renewal movements, there have been some mistaken applications.