By Kathleen Naab

VATICAN CITY, DEC. 14, 2012 ( The preacher of the pontifical household says that the only way to truly interpret the Second Vatican Council is appealing not just to its "spirit," but to the Holy Spirit.

Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa said this today as he gave a second Advent sermon in the presence of Benedict XVI and members of the curia.

The preacher first outlined the history of attempts made to interpret Vatican II, now 50 years since it was held. (The celebration of this 50th anniversary is one of the key elements of the Year of Faith now under way).

Father Cantalamessa then affirmed that the key to interpretation is the one proposed by the papal magisterium: that the Council was a "renewal in continuity," bringing "permanence in change."

To achieve this understanding, he said, we must consider the Holy Spirit's action in the Church.

"The Holy Spirit doesn't speak new words," the preacher said. "He doesn't create new sacraments and new institutions. Rather, he renews and perennially enlivens the words, the sacraments and the institutions that Jesus created. He doesn't do new things, but makes all things new!"

Father Cantalamessa claimed that insufficient attention paid to the role of the Holy Spirit explains many of the difficulties that arose in the reception of Vatican II. 

On the one hand were those who rejected the Council in the name of Tradition, but "a Tradition," he said, "wherein the Holy Spirit played no role at all."

"On the opposing front of extremism, things were not going any better," the Capuchin reflected. "Here there was willing talk of the 'spirit of the Council,' but unfortunately it was not the Holy Spirit."

True role

Father Cantalamessa proposed illustrating the "true key to a pneumatic interpretation of the Council; in other words, what the true role of the Holy Spirit is in the implementation of the Council."

Drawing from Thomas Aquinas' assertion that even the letter of the Gospel "would kill, unless there were the inward presence of the healing grace of faith," the preacher stated that "the 'implementation' or carrying out of the Council is not a simple straightforward matter of applying its decrees in a literal and almost mechanical way. Rather, we must seek to apply them 'in the Spirit,' meaning by this the Holy Spirit, and not some vague 'spirit of the Council,' which is open to every whim."

Father Cantalamessa went on to note the fruits of the Council in ecclesial movements and parish communities, and in the Charismatic Renewal.

"The ecclesial movements and new communities certainly do not exhaust the full potential and the expected renewal of the Council, but they do respond to the most important of these, at least in the eyes of God. They are not without weaknesses and at times partial drifts. But what other great renewal has appeared in the history of the Church without human flaws? Did not the same thing occur when the mendicant orders appeared at the beginning of the thirteenth century? At that time as well, it was the Roman popes, especially Pope Innocent III, who first recognized and embraced the grace of the moment, and encouraged the rest of the episcopate to do the same," he said.


The preacher of the pontifical household concluded with a consideration of the "meaning of the Council, understood as the collection of the documents it produced."

"Are we to leave them aside and expect everything from the Spirit?" he asked.

"The answer," he said, "is contained in the phrase with which Augustine sums up the relationship between the law and grace: 'The law was given that grace might be sought, and grace was given that the law might be kept.' The Spirit does not dispense us, then, from making use of the letter; i.e. the decrees of Vatican II. On the contrary, it is he who urges us on to study them and to put them into practice."

So after 50 years, Fr. Cantalamessa observed, "after so many explorations and controversies, we have arrived where we started; that is, at the event of the Council itself. All of the intrigue, however, has not been in vain for, in the deepest sense, only now are we able to 'know the place for the first time,' that is, to evaluate its true significance, which was unknown even to the Council Fathers themselves. [...] Fifty years later, we cannot but note the fulfillment of the promise made by God to the Church through the mouth of his humble servant, blessed John XXIII. If to talk of a new Pentecost seems an exaggeration, given all the problems and controversies that arose in the Church after and on account of the Council, we need only to reread the Acts of the Apostles and to note that problems and controversies were all but lacking after the first Pentecost. And they were no less heated than today's!"

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