55 years after Vatican II, the task remains the same

Pope Francis kisses the relic of St. John XXIII during the canonization Mass for Sts. John and John Paul II in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 27. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

The Ottobrate Romane are those splendid October days in Rome when the daytime sun is warm, the evenings are soft and the light shimmers with singular clarity. I have been blessed to have spent numerous October days in Rome, both during and after my seminary years there. But two October days stand out with special significance and poignancy.

On Oct. 11, 1962, a sparkling sun illumined the opening procession of the Second Vatican Council as it traversed St. Peter’s Square. All present recognized that it was a historic occurrence, but few could have foreseen how revolutionary an event the council would turn out to be. That October day initiated three years of intense labor and high drama, in which even those of us standing on the periphery would participate vicariously.

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But it was the evening of that day that particularly enthralled. Thousands of ordinary Romans, as well as students and visitors, converged upon St. Peter’s Square carrying lit candles. The air was fragrant and our spirits hope-filled; a full moon shone in the sky. St. John XXIII, clearly tired after a long and eventful day, appeared suddenly at the window of the papal apartments and delivered a short, animated address that thrilled the crowd and the world.

It became known as the discorso della luna—“the moon speech”—because John, pointing to the sky, proclaimed that even the moon had come out to join in joyful celebration. And, in the most memorable sentence of his ex tempore talk, he bade the parents present to go home and embrace their children and tell them it was a hug from the pope—una carezza dal Papa.

Invitation to Proclaim the Gospel

Providentially and beyond expectation, I also found myself in that same square 50 years later to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the council’s opening. Oct. 11, 2012, was another sun-bathed day. I was seated with thousands of others, enfolded within Bernini’s monumental colonnade, to participate in a Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI to mark both the anniversary of the council and the opening of the Year of Faith that he had convoked.

The Mass and the celebration, Benedict said, were an invitation “to enter more deeply into the spiritual movement which characterized Vatican II, to make it ours and to develop it according to its true meaning. And its true meaning was and remains faith in Christ, the apostolic faith, animated by the inner desire to communicate Christ to individuals and all people, in the Church’s pilgrimage along the pathways of history.”

Now, on the 55th anniversary of the opening of the council, the task remains the same—perennial, yet ever new.

Though the council did not devote a particular document to set forth its faith in Jesus Christ, all of its documents are christologically saturated. Indeed, the ressourcement—the return for inspiration to the biblical and patristic sources of the faith—was, at its deepest, a re-sourcing: a rediscovery and reappropriation of the mystery of Jesus Christ, the source of the church’s life and mission.

In his homily, Benedict underscored the fidelity of Paul VI and of John Paul II to the council’s confession of the Christic structure and heart of faith:

Between these two Popes there was a deep and complete convergence, precisely upon Christ as the center of the cosmos and of history, and upon the apostolic eagerness to announce him to the world. Jesus is the center of the Christian faith. The Christian believes in God whose face was revealed by Jesus Christ. He is the fulfillment of the Scriptures and their definitive interpreter. Jesus Christ is not only the object of the faith but, as it says in the Letter to the Hebrews, he is “the pioneer and the perfecter of our faith” (12:2).

Now, on the 55th anniversary of the opening of the council, the task remains the same—perennial, yet ever new. It is the challenge to proclaim the Sun of Justice, the crucified and risen Savior, to a world that too often walks “in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Lk 1:79).

Following in the Footsteps of Benedict

Pope Francis explicitly unites himself to the words and witness of his predecessor when he writes in “The Joy of the Gospel”: “Christ is the “eternal Gospel” (Rev 14:6); he “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8), yet his riches and beauty are inexhaustible. He is forever young and a constant source of newness” (No. 11).

Francis has often spoken in homilies and addresses of the need for Christians to find their center not in themselves, but in Christ. This de-centering certainly requires asceticism, but it is evoked, enabled and sustained by the love they have known—the love of him who is Lord, savior and friend. Thus Francis urges:

The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts (No. 264).

One cannot miss in these words of the successor of St. Peter, an echo of the biblical exchange between Peter and the risen Lord: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?... Feed my lambs!” (Jn 21:15–19). Note how Francis associates salvation with “the love of Jesus which we have received.” And how markedly affective his exhortation is, propelled by phrases like “intense desire” and “touch our hearts.”

The Christian mystic continually asks, as did Ignatius Loyola: “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I to do for Christ?”

One recalls that in the famous first interview with Antonio Spadaro, S.J., published in America in September 2013, Francis admitted an affinity with what he called “the mystical movement” in the Society of Jesus, one which he associated with, among others, Blessed (now Saint) Peter Faber. Certainly, by mystical he did not mean extraordinary psychic and physical phenomena. Rather, the mystic is one whose whole life is marked by a deep personal encounter with Jesus Christ. One who has experienced in intimate fashion the love of Jesus, who has become the vivifying center of the Christian’s life, of his or her perception and action. The Christian mystic continually asks, as did Ignatius Loyola: “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I to do for Christ?”

Thus, Francis, a son of Ignatius, offers a spiritual counsel. He writes:

The best incentive for sharing the Gospel comes from contemplating it with love, lingering over its pages and reading it with the heart. If we approach it in this way, its beauty will amaze and constantly excite us. But if this is to come about, we need to recover a contemplative spirit which can help us to realize ever anew that we have been entrusted with a treasure which makes us more human and helps us to lead a new life (No. 264).

“Reading with the heart,” “recovering a contemplative spirit,” “contemplating with love.” It almost seems a synopsis of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius...or a strategy for receiving the council faithfully and fruitfully—even after 55 years! How else can we truly realize the council’s “universal call to holiness,” which John O’Malley, S.J., has identified as one of the distinctive characteristics of this “pastoral” council?

Francis has made clear in his writings and homilies that he is under no illusion concerning the challenge of recovering and cultivating “a contemplative spirit.” In “The Joy of the Gospel,” he laments that “in the prevailing culture, priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional” (No. 62). Similarly, in his “environmental” encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” Francis discerns as a primary cause of the crisis that threatens our common home “a misguided anthropocentrism” whereby “humans place themselves at the center. They give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative” (No. 122).

In contrast, “contemplating with love” is, of its essence, ex-centric. It is to be drawn out of one’s self into the reality of the other. It is to discover and abide in a new center, and hence to become a new self. To “recover a contemplative spirit” in a technological and consumerist culture is ipso facto to engage in countercultural practices, both ascetical and mystical. It will require concrete renunciations and specific conversions that give flesh to our baptismal commitments (in most cases made on our behalf by others), but now requiring radical adult ratification. Sadly, the council’s insistent exhortation to holiness has been too often outshouted by the din of our disputes and divides.

Thanksgiving or Strife?

The privileged locus for experiencing new life in Christ is through active and knowledgeable participation in the Sunday Eucharist. In the Eucharist we encounter, in full sacramental density, the living center who is Jesus Christ. As Pope Francis said in a recent talk to Italian liturgists:

The liturgy is “living” because of the living presence of him who “dying has destroyed death and rising has restored life to us again” (Easter Preface I). Without the real presence of the mystery of Christ, there is no liturgical vitality. As without a beating heart there is no human life, so without the pulsating heart of Christ there is no liturgical action.

And to foster such active and knowledgeable participation, Francis suggests to the liturgists the need to recover and renew a “mystagogic catechesis” of the sort presented by the fathers of the church. Fifty-five years after the council, are we yet up to the task—prepared to embark upon the liberating journey it unveils?

Far too often the years after the council have been marked less by mystagogy, leading more deeply into the mystery we celebrate, than by logomachy, the strife of words.

For far too often the years after the council have been marked less by mystagogy, leading more deeply into the mystery we celebrate, than by logomachy, the strife of words. “Chalice” or “cup;” “consubstantial” or “one in being;” “say” or “acclaim?” Are we in peril of wrangling over crumbs and missing the wonder of the feast?

Now I do not deny that words have their importance. But even the most poetic of renderings cannot replace the experiential appropriation of the Gospel. The power and authenticity of the words we employ in the liturgy stem from the living encounter with the Lord Jesus whose love reorients our lives.

Nor am I an advocate of ill-prepared homilies; and I am as averse to sentimental hymnody, ineptly performed, as the most punctilious liturgical musician. But are we so bereft of contemplative capacity and mystagogical imagination that even in less than inspiring surroundings, we cannot enter into the saving mystery that nourished and sustained Alfred Delp, S.J., in the dankness of a prison cell?

Whether “chalice” or “cup,” it is the blood of the covenant, contained in the vessel, that saves. But do we affirm this merely notionally, not apprehending the consequences and the cost? And whether our lips mutter “consubstantial” or “one in being,” does the awesome claim regarding the ultimate reality in whom we live and move and have our being truly affect and change us? Or whether we simply “say” or, more formally, “acclaim,” does the miracle of the mystery we profess impel us to adoration and praise?

May I suggest that a generous and generative reception of the council, even after 55 years, hinges on the personal response each gives?

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Henry George
7 months 2 weeks ago

I was a student in Rome during the years of the Council and have some
of the memories shared by Imbelli.

I don't view Vatican II as saying anything fundamentally new,
but saying somethings in a new way.

Whatever Vatican II did and did not do there was no reason to
force the "Spirit of Vatican II" down the throats of those who did
understand the changes in the Liturgy.

I attended a Mass today that was, well little short of embarrassing.
The songs, not hymns, were wholly unmemorable and the choir
was lost on some of them as was the congregation on most of them.
There was no "Full and Active" participation by the Laity.
The priest gave a rambling sermon and ripped through the Canon in
less than 4 minutes. People spoke loudly before and after Mass
making it difficult to pray in the Church.

No wonder my brother drives 75 miles to attend the "Old Mass".

Can the people who plan the liturgies, who teach liturgy and the
priests who celebrate liturgies please do better. The new liturgy
is the lasting legacy of Vatican II for most people, why make it
something less than soul-moving ?

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