Ecclesial Reception of Vatican II

Author: Angelo Arnato, S.D.B.


Angelo Amato, S.D.B.

Reflections on the Holy Father’s Apostolic Letter ‘Novo Millennio ineunte’ - 9

1. A prophetic vision: the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000

"This time, in which God in his hidden design has entrusted to me ... the universal service connected with the Chair of St Peter in Rome, is already very close to the year 2000.... For the Church, the People of God spread, although unevenly, to the most distant limits of the earth, it will be the year of the great Jubilee" (Redemptor hominis, n. 1). This is what the Holy Father John Paul II said in his first Encyclical (1979), which was dedicated to Jesus Christ, "Redemptor hominis ... centrum universi et historiae".

This prophetic dream has come true, in a way that no one could have foreseen. The year 2000 was truly the year of the Great Jubilee. Of course, no one can tell of the marvels wrought by grace in the minds and hearts of millions of simple, anonymous faithful lay people who joined the Pope as pilgrims on the highways of the world, to live their witness of faith in Jesus Christ and in his Church.

The last day of the Holy Year had not yet ended when the Holy Father asked the Church to make a twofold discernment: to interpret the meaning of the extraordinary jubilee events and to question herself on the ecclesial reception of Vatican II, 35 years after the close of the Council (cf. NovoMillennio ineunte, n. 2).

A first reflection is on the meaning of several special Jubilee events. From the opening of the Holy Door on 24 December 1999 to its closing on 6 January 2001, the Jubilee Year hosted events of extraordinary ecclesial importance: the ecumenical opening of the Holy Door in the Basilica of St Paul-outside-the Walls (28 January), the commemoration of the patriarch Abraham (23 February), the Pope's visit to Mount Sinai (24-26 February), the request for pardon (12 March), the Pope's visit to the Holy Land (20-26 March), the commemoration of the martyrs of the 20th century at the Colosseum (7 May), the Pope's visit to Fatima for the beatification of the visionaries (12-13 May), World Youth Day (15-20 August) and the beatification and canonization rites that spanned the entire Jubilee year, as a witness to the holiness of the sons and daughters of the Church in history.

These events were not merely external and superficial; they were real experiences of grace. The People of God interpreted and lived the Jubilee with extraordinary dignity and spiritual intensity, shown in simple, essential acts and approaches, such as prayer, pilgrimage, sacrifice, communion, sharing, solidarity, conversion, recourse to the sacraments and the return to the mission. Not only will the sunny, joyful World Youth Day be remembered for ever, but also the endless daily streams of prayerful pilgrims to the Jubilee churches or lined up to pass through the Holy Door.

One of the reasons for the Jubilee's "religious success" can be found in a felicitous and original pastoral idea of the Pope: that we should prepare ourselves for the year 2000 with proper catechetical instruction on the "basics" of Christianity, through the profession of faith in Jesus Christ, in his Spirit of holiness and in the Father rich in mercy, and consequently rediscover the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Reconciliation (TertioMillennio adveniente).

Prepared in this way, the faithful could celebrate the Jubilee Year renewing their profession of faith in the Blessed Trinity and rediscovering communion with God and neighbour in the Eucharist. As had been hoped, the Holy Year really was an "unceasing hymn of praise to the Trinity, the Most High God" (Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 Incarnationis Mysterium, n. 3). Rather than assessing it, the Holy Father rightly felt the need to "share the song of praise" at the end of the Jubilee experience which he had thought of as an exceptional occasion since the very beginning of his pontificate (cf. NovoMillennio ineunte, n. 2).

2. The Great Jubilee and the fruits of Vatican II

A second reflection concerns the reception of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council 30 years after its conclusion. Indeed, in closing the Jubilee the Pope wonders: "Has the Jubilee succeeded in this aim?" (ibid.).

In TertioMillennio adveniente theHoly Father broadened this question:

"An examination of conscience must also consider the reception given to the Council, this great gift of the Spirit to the Church at the end of the second millennium. To what extent has the word of God become more fully the soul of theology and the inspiration of the whole of Christian living, as Dei Verbum sought? Is the liturgy lived as the "originand summit" of ecclesial life, in accordance with the teaching of Sacrosanctum Concilium? In the universal Church and in the particular Churches, is the ecclesiology of communion described in Lumen gentium beingstrengthened? Does it leave room for charisms, ministries, and the different forms of participation by the People of God?... Another serious question is raised by the nature of relations between theChurch and the world. The Council's guidelines set forth in Gaudium at spes and other documents—of open, respectful and cordial dialogue, yet accompanied by careful discernment and courageous witness to thetruth, remain valid and call us to a greater commitment" (TertioMillennio adveniente, n. 36).

A motivated and comforting response to the Pope's questions has been provided by the Jubilee celebrations, in which the People of God took an exemplary lead, and by theological reflection, to which, for example, scholars from all over the world testified at the international convention on the reception and timeliness of the Second Vatican Council in the light of the Jubilee (25-27 February 2000). This convention, that was based on the four pillars of the Council—the Constitutions Dei Verbum, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Lumen gentium, Gaudium et spes (The Acts of the convention, organized by the Central Committee of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, were edited by Bishop Rino Fisichella, Il Concilio Vaticano II. Recezione e attualità allaluce del Giubileo, San Paolo, Cinisello B. 2000, pp. 766), offered a supremely comforting evaluation of the vitality of the Council's Message in the Church and in the contemporary world. We cannot but reflect in somewhat greater detail on this second point of the discernment desired by the Pope.

In concluding his analysis of the reception of DeiVerbum, AlbertVanhoye said: "The Dogmatic Constitution on the Divine Revelation produced many excellent results.... The word of God, according to the Council, is not Scripture separated from Tradition, but Scripture carried by the life-giving current of Tradition. Revelation is not merely the communication of a collection of truths. More than anything else, it is entering into relations with persons; it is the introduction to a life of communion with God, the Father, the Son and the Spirit" (A. Vanhoye, La parola di Dio nella vita della Chiesa. La recezione della "Dei Verbum",in Il Concilio Vaticano II, p. 45).

In this post-conciliar period, the sacred liturgy also proved to be the source and summit of ecclesial life. Indeed, according to Tena Garriga (T. Garriga, La sacra liturgia fonte e culmine della vita eclesiasle, in Il Concilio Vaticano II, p. 65), the true purpose of liturgical action which, through contemplation, adoration, listening and thanksgiving leads to "seeingChrist", has been interiorly accepted.

The post-conciliar reception of Lumen gentium involves a very broad and articulated discourse. In fact "the Second Vatican Council was not only an ecclesiological Council, but first and foremost spoke of God, of that God who is the God of all, who saves all and is accessible to all, and spokeof God not only in the Christian context but to the world," (J. Ratzinger, L'ecciesiologia della costituzione"Lumen gentium", in Il Concilio Vaticano II, p. 67). Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger maintains that certain key words of Lumen gentium live on in the ecclesial conscience: People of God, the collegiality of the bishops, local Church, ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, the subsistence of the unique Church in the Catholic Church.

However, with the Extraordinary Synod of 1985, a new ecclesiological synthesis was introduced, with the expression "ecclesiology of communion". In its biblical foundation (cf. 1 Jn 1,3), the concept of communio involves our coming into contact with the Son of the Father in the love of the Spirit: a contact which is celebrated and lived in the Eucharist. The ecclesiology of communion is thus an essentially Eucharistic and Trinitarian ecclesiology that combines the discourse on the Church with the discourse on God and on life with God and in God. This ecclesiology of communion—Ratzinger continues—has often been reduced in its rich meaning. Just as in the concept of "People of God" the reference to God is sometimes lost, so there is a tendency to reduce the "ecclesiology of communion" almost exclusively to the theme of the relationship between the local Church and the universal Church. In this regard, the Cardinal asks that we go beyond a factual, empirical vision of the Church as a human realization, and instead, recover "the ontological precedence of the universal Church, the unique Church, the unique body, the unique spouse, as distinct from the concrete empirical realization within the individual particular Churches" (ibid., p. 72).

In this context, Ratzinger points out that "the Second Vatican Council, with the formula of the subsistit—in accordance with Catholic tradition—wanted to teach the exact opposite of 'ecclesiological relativism': the Church of Jesus Christ truly exists. He himself willed her, and the Holy Spirit continuously creates her, beginning at Pentecost, in spite of every human failing, and sustains her in her essential identity. The institution is not an unavoidable but theologically irrelevant or even harmful externalization, but belongs in its essential core to the concreteness of the Incarnation" (ibid., p. 78). With the formula of the "subsistit" the Council means to tell us that the Church of Jesus Christ, as a concrete subject in this world, can be found in the Catholic Church.

In completing the reflection on the reception of the conciliar Constitutions, Angelo Scola identified the two cornerstones of Gaudium et spes as Christocentric anthropology, the foundation of human dignity, and the dialogical pastoral approach, through which the Council presented the salvific mission of Christ and of the Church anew to the entire human family (A. Scola, Gaudi um et spes: dialogo e discernimento nella testimonianza della verità, in Il Concilio Vaticano II, p 113). With regard to dialogue, Scola offers a more precise definition: "dialogue is identified in the proper sense with the real communication of the Christian identity which is proposed in the first place as a (sacramental) sign of Jesus Christ, the heart of the world, through the Church forma mundi (form of the world). Jesus Christ, the living and personal truth, exalts the freedom of every human person, of every people, of every culture, of every religion" (ibid.).

The reception of the Council brought other extraordinary gifts to the Church: a renewed and more motivated missionary enthusiasm, greater attention to cultures, deeper ecclesial communion, fruitful ecumenical dialogue, an open interreligious dialogue based on charity, truth and freedom. To this should be added the rediscovery of a more vibrant and deeply felt spirituality, the providential development of ecclesial movements, the apostolic involvement of lay people, the renewal of catechesis and pastoral care and an ecclesial commitment to justice and peace among peoples. In the face of this marvellous springtime in the Church, which the experience of the Jubilee highlighted in an outstanding way, the Holy Father cannot fail to give thanks for the "marvels" that God the Trinity has worked for us: "Misericordias Domini in aeternum cantabo" [The mercy of the Lord I shall sing for ever] (Ps 88 [89],2) (cf. Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 2). He repeats the hymn of jubilation that Our Lord Jesus Christ addressed to the Father: "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes" (Mt 11,25).

(Orig. Ital. in O.R.15-16 June 2001, n. 11)  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 September 2001, page 10

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