On Thursday, Pope Benedict met with parish priests and clergy of the Diocese of Rome. After being greeted with prolonged applause in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, the pope delivered an unscripted 46-minute “chat,” as he called it, during what is being called his “last great master class: Vatican II, as I saw it.”
For those who enjoy Church history, it is worth it to visit Vatican Radio’s website and even download the “chat” and hear the Pope’s words as he relates numerous stories and anecdotes about his experience of the Second Vatican Council, which was convened by Pope John XXIII in 1962 and continued by Pope Paul VI until 1965. Pope Benedict first attended the Great Ecumenical Council as a special adviser to Cardinal Frings of Cologne, and then as a theological expert in his own right. His discussion is likely one of the last witnesses to Vatican II, and his memory of many of the details of what occurred, and what was said, is nothing short of amazing.
For Catholics, Vatican II’s most obvious outcome was the change in the language of the Mass from Latin to that of the people. However, other central issues discussed at the Council were reform and renewal of the Church itself and the Church’s relation to other Christians and to the rest of the world (ecumenism).
Perhaps what was most striking about what the pontiff related, however, was his assertion that “the world interpreted the Council through the eyes of the media instead of seeing the true Council of the Fathers and their key vision of faith.” Pope Benedict’s “chat,” in fact, is stunning in its criticism that the “journalists’ interpretation of the Council was political,” causing the Council to be “trivialized with disastrous consequences for the Church.” The pope said that, as a result of the presentation of the Council given by the media, “seminaries were closed, convents were closed… the virtual Council was stronger than the real Council.”
For example, according to the Vatican Radio reporter, “Benedict XVI spoke of how the horrors of the holocaust prompted wider reflection on the Catholic Church’s relations with other Christian traditions and the ancient people of Israel and of the input of Council fathers from the Americas and Asia in discussions on religious liberty and interfaith dialogue. But little of this he said, filtered through at the time.”
Pope Benedict’s own words about the media’s distortion of the Second Vatican Council are quite strong, as is his keen observation that the “Virtual Council” of the media is now “breaking down, getting lost, and the true Council is emerging with all its spiritual strength.”
In the pope’s own words:
I would now like to add yet a third point: there was the Council of the Fathers – the true Council – but there was also the Council of the media. It was almost a Council in and of itself, and the world perceived the Council through them, through the media. So the immediately efficiently Council that got thorough to the people, was that of the media, not that of the Fathers. And while the Council of the Fathers evolved within the faith, it was a Council of the faith that sought the intellectus, that sought to understand and try to understand the signs of God at that moment, that tried to meet the challenge of God in this time to find the words for today and tomorrow. So while the whole council – as I said – moved within the faith, as fides quaerens intellectum, the Council of journalists did not, naturally, take place within the world of faith but within the categories of the media of today, that is outside of the faith, with different hermeneutics. It was a hermeneutic of politics. The media saw the Council as a political struggle, a struggle for power between different currents within the Church. It was obvious that the media would take the side of whatever faction best suited their world. There were those who sought a decentralization of the Church, power for the bishops and then, through the Word for the “people of God”, the power of the people, the laity. There was this triple issue: the power of the Pope, then transferred to the power of the bishops and then the power of all … popular sovereignty. Naturally they saw this as the part to be approved, to promulgate, to help. This was the case for the liturgy: there was no interest in the liturgy as an act of faith, but as a something to be made understandable, similar to a community activity, something profane. And we know that there was a trend, which was also historically based, that said: “Sacredness is a pagan thing, possibly even from the Old Testament. In the New Testament the only important thing is that Christ died outside: that is, outside the gates, that is, in the secular world”. Sacredness ended up as profanity even in worship: worship is not worship but an act that brings people together, communal participation and thus participation as activity. And these translations, trivializing the idea of the Council, were virulent in the practice of implementing the liturgical reform, born in a vision of the Council outside of its own key vision of faith. And it was so, also in the matter of Scripture: Scripture is a book, historical, to treat historically and nothing else, and so on.
And we know that this Council of the media was accessible to all. So, dominant, more efficient, this Council created many calamities, so many problems, so much misery, in reality: seminaries closed, convents closed liturgy trivialized … and the true Council has struggled to materialize, to be realized: the virtual Council was stronger than the real Council. But the real strength of the Council was present and slowly it has emerged and is becoming the real power which is also true reform, true renewal of the Church. It seems to me that 50 years after the Council, we see how this Virtual Council is breaking down, getting lost and the true Council is emerging with all its spiritual strength. And it is our task, in this Year of Faith, starting from this Year of Faith, to work so that the true Council with the power of the Holy Spirit is realized and Church is really renewed. We hope that the Lord will help us. I, retired in prayer, will always be with you, and together we will move ahead with the Lord in certainty. The Lord is victorious. Thank you.