The Church That Came Out of Vatican II

According to a Journalist Who Covered the Council

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 21, 2002 ( In presenting the Second Vatican Council as a “sure compass” for the new century, John Paul II recognizes there is still a long way to go on the path marked out by the historic summit.

To learn more about the challenges Vatican II continues to pose, ZENIT interviewed Italian journalist Gian Franco Svidercoschi, who has written five books on the council.

Svidercoschi (born in 1936), began his career in journalism as a Vatican correspondent for the Italian media in October 1958, three days before the death of Pius XII. He is a former assistant director of L’Osservatore Romano. A personal friend of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, he has interviewed him twice since his election to the papacy. He also collaborated with the Holy Father in the writing of his most personal book, “Gift and Mystery” (1996), about his priestly life.

The production of a new film will begin in the near future inspired by the “History of Karol,” a biography of the Pope and one of Svidercoschi’s latest books.

Q: Recalling the enthusiasm that Vatican Council II inspired both within and outside the Church, some think it has been betrayed. Is this true?

Svidercoschi: I think it is easy to see how the council, in its spirit and main objectives, has been anything but betrayed. Obviously, it has not been the work of the Antichrist either, as some wish to believe, who are frightened just by hearing the word “reform.”

At the same time, it can be seen that the “revolution” that began with this council still needs to be realized today; it has much potential that still needs to be developed. For this reason, I think that it is at least premature to say that the time has arrived for a new council, a Vatican III.

Above all, it is necessary to recover the authentic meaning of Vatican II. It is necessary, as Pope Jean Paul II requests, to “return to the council,” to make it the “compass” for the future way of the Church.

Q: Although only three decades or so have passed since the conclusion of Vatican II, it would seem that centuries have passed, given the acceleration of history over the last years. Don’t you think that the council is beginning to lose some of its original appeal?

Svidercoschi: The present world is very different from that in which Vatican II took place. History has changed. The political, economic and social situation has changed and, in addition, there has been a change at the anthropological and cultural level. And the Church has also changed because of her new and profound influence on society and the life of men.

And yet, beyond a certain language still linked to those years, beyond certain clearly provisional affirmations, Vatican Council II has not lost any of its current importance. What is more, it could be considered as the indispensable key to understand not only the history of the Church in recent times, but also the history of the world, of humanity.

In the apostolic letter “Tertio Millennio Adveniente,” the papal document of preparation for the Jubilee, the council is seen as “the evangelical response to the recent evolution of the world with the disconcerting experiences of the 20th century.” At the same time, “it marks a new era in the life of the Church” and for the world it is presented as “a proclamation of new times.”

Since Vatican II, and without rejecting its own identity, truth, the Church has abandoned that attitude of opposition that was with it since the birth of the modern world, during the long encounter-confrontation with rationalism. And the Church has done so not because its traditional “enemies” have disappeared or have changed their strategy, but because she has understood that her help was needed, her work, to uphold fundamental values — peace, justice, the rights of the person, life — which the wars and totalitarian tragedies had reversed.

Q: What is the most important change brought by Vatican II?

Svidercoschi: It implied the end of the Constantinian era of the so-called regime of Christianity — the end of a certain negative spirit of the Counter-Reformation, characterized by an excessively juridical, clerical, defensive attitude. The end of that excess of uniformity, which in a certain sense suffocated decades of ecclesial life. The end of a relation between the Church and history, the Church and society, which since the Enlightenment had gradually deteriorated, had become conflictive, leading — or rather — obliging Popes and the Holy See to oppose the modern world with a whole series of locks.

This is the reason why, with the council, many things in the Catholic community are no longer as they were before. The Church has placed herself under the Word of God; the “mystery” she represents has been placed above the hierarchy, of the juridical-institutional aspects, of ecclesiastical structures.

The right to religious liberty has been recognized; ecumenism has become a priority objective. The indissoluble ties with Judaism have been rediscovered. There has been a confident opening to the world, and an explicit acceptance of history.

The Church that has come out of the council is a Church that is more evangelical, more biblical, more conscious of its own identity. A Church that is no longer Eurocentric, which is no longer restricted to the uniformity of a Latin mold, but rather open to every culture, to every experience, in which she truly lives her own universal dimension. In brief, a Church that obviously maintains firmly the essence of the faith, but which is willing to re-examine and renew all that which can give a historic answer to the different needs, in syntony with the “signs of the times,” without improper “sacralizations” or “dogmatizations.”

Q: Why has the application of the council been delayed?

Svidercoschi: It is true that this plan of renewal is still half way through the process of its realization. I will explain. Much has been done at the institutional level, but very little at the local level of the Christian people.

In part, this delay was caused by the phenomenon of “polarization,” that is, the confrontation between “innovators” and “traditionalists,” which resisted the reforms. There have been deficiencies and omissions. Once the initial enthusiasm passed, many Christians ended by forgetting the council; the council has become a custom, a routine, something obvious.

Only a minority has remained committed, living its authentic spirit, and today they realize that the “aggiornamento” [updating], an expression that Pope John so liked, must still be further studied and developed.

Meanwhile, at least two generations have grown up that know nothing about Vatican II, of the changes it introduced, of the prospects it opened up, of what still remains to be done.

A case in point is the eucharistic celebration. When today’s young people first entered a church, they found the Mass as we celebrate it today: the priest who celebrates facing the congregation, the vernacular language, the biblical readings, the Prayers of the Faithful. Young people do not really understand how things have changed in the Church or the reason for it.

However, if we enlarge our view, we must not forget that the delay in the application of the council is also due to the situation of the world. The council was delayed in reaching Eastern Europe, where Marxist atheism prevailed, and the Third World countries, where priority attention was obviously centered on the consolidation of the young Churches and the promotion of the mission.

Q: What aspect of the council has best been applied?

Svidercoschi: From my personal point of view, much has been done in the application of the council outside of the Church, “ad extra,” namely, in the Church’s relations with other churches and Christian communities, with other religions, with the world.

In a certain sense, in her mission “ad extra,” the Church has lived through a s
econd “revolution,” because in moving from principles to their practical realization, to the daily missionary life, there has been continuous development, which has raised ever higher the goals set by the conciliar documents.

Suffice it to recall the different topics connected to religious liberty, the role of the Church in the defense and promotion of human rights and peoples’ rights, the chapter of the “mea culpas” which has given new credibility to the proposals for interreligious dialogue and dialogue with the other cultures.

Suffice it to think of the evolution in relations with Judaism, especially with John Paul II, his visit to the synagogue of Rome, his talks on the Holocaust, the trip to Jerusalem to the Wailing Wall. And, although with greater difficulties and with the problems arising in the wake of Sept. 11, the rapprochement with the Muslim religion.

Mention must also be made of the progress seen in the different fields examined by the second part of “Gaudium et Spes”: the commitment in favor of life and of the family; the end of the conflict between science and faith, greater attention to social questions, such as hunger, poverty in the world, the acceptance of pluralism in politics, determined opposition to war.

Q: What are the most important points of the council that still must be applied?

Svidercoschi: There have been and continue to be numerous obstacles on the way to a more linear realization of the council within the Church (“ad intra”), in its specific problems. I am referring above all to “Lumen Gentium” and its principal points — the Church “Mystery,” the “people of God,” episcopal collegiality. It would seem that today what is lacking is a work of synthesis between the life and mission of the Church before the council and the new conciliar proposals.

Indeed, it can be seen that practically all the extraordinary consistories of cardinals convoked by John Paul II have addressed this topic. The extraordinary consistory of May 2001 relaunched the solution — the ecclesiology of communion — which might be decisive in the search for new modalities in the exercise of the Petrine ministry, presented by the Pope in his encyclical “Ut Unum Sint.”

German Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, recently asked the question clearly: “We have to integrate better the definitions of Vatican I on the primacy and on infallibility with the ecclesiology of communion of Vatican II. There is an attempt to distinguish between the content and the form, which was influenced by the atmosphere of years in which the Church was besieged and the Pope had to guarantee for himself the possibility to act even in difficult conditions …”

On this depends that process of “de-clericalization” that John Paul II has undertaken, giving increasing space to the charismatic, lay and communion aspects than to the institutional, hierarchic and clerical elements. Up until now he has found quite a bit of resistance in some Catholic realms.

Q: As you mentioned, the Pope presents the council as the “compass” for the century that is beginning. What does it mean in practice?

Svidercoschi: The Jubilee of the Year 2000 offered the opportunity to recapitulate what has been applied of that “revolution” and what still remains to be done. The council prepared the way for the Great Jubilee, favoring a more profound understanding of it. In turn, going back to the council, the Jubilee prepared the way for a “renewal” in the Church.

In this context, “Novo Millennio Ineunte,” the programmatic letter published by John Paul II following the Jubilee, draws an itinerary that seems to have all the characteristics of a profound change, what is more, of an authentic turn in the history of Christianity. A “new Advent,” as the Pope already intuited in his first encyclical.

The Jubilee, in itself, was the beginning of a profound transformation of life and, at the same time, of a self-critical review of the vicissitudes of the past. It delineated, in anticipation, a great design of renewal that should allow the Catholic community to face the challenges of the future. A renewal based above all in the historic realization of that mystery — mystery of faith, of salvation — that was the first and fundamental affirmation of the Council on the Church.

This renewal must now be a transparent expression of the communion and the responsibility of all her children. “To make the Church the home and the school of communion: That is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God’s plan and respond to the world’s deepest yearnings,” John Paul II has written [in “Novo Millennio Ineunte,” No. 43].

“Before making practical plans, we need to promote a spirituality of communion, making it the guiding principle of education wherever individuals and Christians are formed, wherever ministers of the altar, consecrated persons, and pastoral workers are trained, wherever families and communities are being built up.”

In other words, the spiritual “revolution” promoted by the Jubilee, must now be transformed into an ecclesial, pastoral and missionary “revolution,” beginning with the communities, parishes, each one of the local Churches. In an address to the congress of the Italian Church in Palermo, the Pope said “We do not live in the period of the simple conservation of what already exists, but in that of the mission.”

Q: In order to understand better, what are the results that this renewal will bring?

Svidercoschi: In the first place, it will finally create an authentic relation of interdependence, eliminating tensions between the two “souls” of the council: the Church “ad intra” — renewal of the Church — and the Church “ad extra” — commitment to man.

In the second place, it will develop episcopal collegiality.

In the third place, it will establish a new relation in complementary terms between the institutional and clerical dimension and the charismatic and lay dimension of the Church.

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