The Miracle of Trent
Walter Brandmüller

Pope Francis' envoy to the 450th anniversary of the closing session of the Council

When on 4 December in the year 1563 in the Cathedral of Trent, Cardinal Morone, Principle Legate of the Council, intoned the Te Deum and then cried out "Domini, ite in pace" to all who were present, they had come to the end of a very long journey marked by hardship, peril and disappointment. Deeply moved and amid tears, the Fathers embraced, filled with joy and gratitude for the work that had been accomplished. Today we remember that great moment; for with that Domini, ite in pace, there began what the Council historian and honorary citizen of this city, Hubert Jedin, called the "miracle of Trent".

Only in retrospect are we able to perceive the power with which the Spirit of God intervened in the future of the Church — and indeed in that of the world — through this Council. He did so with such effect that subsequent centuries would be defined 'post-tridentine'.

Therefore, if today after 450 years we Christians of the third millennium intone the same Te Deum, we cannot and we must not do so solely with our gaze turned nostalgically to the past. Instead, let us celebrate this jubilee with our gaze turned to the Church and to the world of the here and now. What message — we ask — reaches us across the centuries? Is it possible that an answer to the questions we pose still lies hidden in the treasure bequeathed to us by the great Council? Or were those who celebrated the Second Vatican Council as a "departure from Trent" correct? And yet: its own Constitution Lumen Gentium, which expounds the teaching on the Church, in 16 passages cites doctrinal documents of the Council of Trent. Therefore, even after 450 years, it is still present in the doctrine and life of the Church.

Recently the Year of Faith called by Benedict XVI concluded, and it served as the occasion for Pope Francis to publish the first Encyclical of his Pontificate, Lumen Fidei. A Year of Faith and an Encyclical on faith: they in fact point to the heart of the problems of the present time, a time which mostly no longer wonders about the truth of the faith, or about truth in general. What good is it? What can it do? These are the questions that modern society asks. 'What is the truth?', many ask like Pontius Pilate. And again, if it exists, can truth satisfy us? We, on the other hand, ask: can human life exist without truth? And where do we find this truth?

The Fathers of Trent answered this question — already a pressing one some 450 years ago — by approving as the first Conciliar Decree, that which deals with Sacred Scripture and Tradition. In Scripture and Tradition we find the Gospel, which — as we read in this Decree — was "promised through the prophets in the holy Scriptures, Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with his own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by his Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of every saving truth, and moral discipline".

Therefore, neither philosophical speculation nor human self-awareness, nor other similar things are the contexts wherein the truth that saves man can be found, but rather in the texts whereby God communicates himself to his human creature. This
happened once and for all in time and space, i.e., in history. The voice of the Council of Trent is very relevant in today's cultural context, where many people regard the Sacred Scriptures as a highly venerable work, and yet one of human origin tracing back to the culture of the ancient Near East. Trent forcefully reminds us that the author of the Sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as well as of Sacred Tradition, is the Triune God, who spoke to us first through the mouth of the prophets, but then also through his Son, the eternal Logos made man. God's saving address to man, his creature and image — that can be heard in the human word of Sacred Scripture and of the Apostolic Tradition — can alone satisfy man's desire for truth and offer him a solid foundation for his life.

"Every man who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock", says the Lord.

Now, the teaching of the Council is addressed to man, to whom the message of the Gospel was and is addressed. "What is man that thou art mindful of him?", the Psalmist asks. Indeed, now as never before, modern man has become a question to himself. The terrible and bloody experiences of the 20th century just ended and the present one make us understand with anguish the drama of the question regarding man. What is man? Is he the superman as Nietzsche saw him, who sets his own parameters of true and false, of good and evil, or, as someone else said, is only a naked monkey who lacks a coat only through a whim of evolution?

Is man a mere cog in the mass production of objects, lacking soul and face, or is he a Promethean master of the world? Man has become an enigma to himself, dragged hither and thither between the obsession with grandeur and despair.

How and what ought we to think about ourselves? Unlike today, people of the age of the Council of Trent posed themselves this question looking to God.

Has man — like all creation — been rendered so corrupt and evil in his inmost depths by Adam's sin as to be struck by all of God's wrath, which can be placated only by the blood and by the death of Christ? Is man truly able to do nothing else but sin? The darkness of these questions is pierced through by the resplendent light of the Council's Doctrine. The response it offers also holds true today and always.

An ancient prayer, which in the past was said during the Mass, as the wine and water were mixed, contains, with classical significance, the Council's message: Deus qui dignitatem humanae substantiae mirabiliter condidisti et merabilius reformasti, i.e., God who marvelously created human dignity and wondrously — through Christ — has redeemed it.
This Conciliar Doctrine responds negatively to that dark pessimism which viewed human nature, indeed the whole of creation, as profoundly corrupt due to the sin of our first parents and did not wish to accept the fact that, through the grace of redemption, man is healed in his innermost depths, that he is even created anew and accepted as a beloved son of God.
It was this awareness of not being left defenseless before evil, notwithstanding all the temptations, but rather of having been redeemed and called to eternal glory that freed the faithful's spirit and the heart's best forces. It was man's new self awareness, inspired by faith in redemption, that produced the extraordinary religious impetus and missionary commitment to Asia and America, the growth of the manifold works of love of neighbour, of the arts and sciences which characterized the period following the Council of Trent.

Even today, could not a believing, indepth vision of the dignity of human nature, that was wonderfully created and even more wonderfully renewed after so much sin, unleash those same spiritual forces and indicate which paths lead towards a bright future that is pleasing to God and for this very reason good for man?

Sacred Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition, the foundations of the Faith, and the relationship between God and man, determined by original sin and by redemption: these were the great and pressing subjects which the Fathers of the Council wanted first to clarify.

The third subject which they addressed was that of the Church. It too concerns the faithful today no less than it did those of the 16th century. At that time, its opponents had mistakenly identified Church by identifying it as an invisible, purely spiritual entity. Today, on the contrary, not a few risk as Pope Francis has emphasized numerous times — seeing the Church as a purely human, temporal institution, a kind of "non-governmental organization" for making the world a better place. Her true nature — as often happens even today — thus remains hidden.

In order to respond to a these misconceptions, the Fathers of Trent at the time made the seven holy Sacraments the object of their doctrinal pronouncements, thus placing the true nature of the Church at the centre of attention. In the Sacraments it is the external sign perceptible to the senses — for example, for the Eucharist the consecration of the bread and wine — which defines and mysteriously produces divine grace. In a similar way, the human and historical figure of the Church is a visible sign of its invisible nature as the mysterious Body of the Risen Christ, as Christ's instrument for the redemption of the world.

Could not understanding in a new and deeper way the divine reality of the Church — which is also present in the world of the third millennium — that is, rediscovering in her earthly and human figure the presence of the divine, bring about the end of the Church's worldliness, which is a presupposition for her effectively carrying out her mission for the eternal salvation of men?

To conclude let us look once more at the past. When the Concilium Tridentinum was inaugurated on 13 December 1545, there were only around 100 bishops who entered the Cathedral in procession. None came from Germany, the homeland of the schism. Those bishops came from a Europe where the Church was bleeding from the wounds inflicted by the mass departure of the faithful in many countries. Dejection and confusion paralyzed many of those who had remained faithful, leaving them looking, without hope, to a dark future. "Do not fear little flock", the Lord had said to his Apostles, and so also to their successors who were gathered at Trent. Thus, straight away they dedicated themselves to the work of clarifying and distinguishing the truth of faith from error, and to the work of reform. Their sowing in tears — as the Psalmist says — brought forth a rich harvest which extended even to the continents of Asia and America: a period in the history of the Church and culture to which the Council of Trent gave its name. In fact, the Spirit of God inspires and guides his Church throughout the centuries, until the Lord's return. Therefore, today we should not only be filled with gratitude for this, but also with hope that the Second Vatican Council, which the eldest among us experienced first hand, in due time may bear fruit similar to the Council we remember today.


L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
24 January 2014, page 8

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