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Making Up for a Lost Opportunity

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As we prepare to mark on Tuesday the Golden Jubilee of the close of the Second Vatican Council, I've been thinking a lot about the way we Catholics in faith relive what we remember.

Father Roger J.

In Christianity and in Judaism, when we mark an important anniversary of faith, we don't just look back to a completed historical event. The Jewish sense of zikkaron and the Christian sense of anamnesis both refer to a type of memorializing in which we bring the past into the present. We not only recall but mysteriously enter into the experience of what we're marking.

That's what happens when the Jews celebrate Passover: they relive in a sense the night that is unlike any other night. That's what happens when Catholics celebrate Mass: we enter in time into the Upper Room and on Calvary as Jesus eternally gives his body and blood for us and our salvation (CCC 1363). That's what's meant to happen, to some degree, when we celebrate the liturgical feast of saints: we do far more than remember historical heroes, or even let their deeds and words from the past echo in the present; rather we recognize that they are still very much alive, in communion with us, seeking to pray for us and help us.

As we prepare to mark on Tuesday the Golden Jubilee of the close of the Second Vatican Council, I've been thinking a lot about the way we Catholics in faith relive what we remember.

Since October 11, 2012, when we commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Council, we have had a three-year opportunity to revivify the graces of what many believe to be the most significant event in the life of the Church in the last 150, if not 450, years.

Pope Francis wrote in April that the "Church feels a great need to keep this event alive. With the Council, the Church entered a new phase of her history. The Council Fathers strongly perceived, as a true breath of the Holy Spirit, a need to talk about God to men and women of their time in a more accessible way. ... It was a new phase of the same evangelization that had existed from the beginning, ...[a summons] for all Christians to bear witness to their faith with greater enthusiasm and conviction."

At the beginning of this triennium, Pope Benedict declared a Year of Faith, declaring that the Council was "the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century" from which we could "find a sure compass by which to take our bearings" now and into the future. He expressed the hope that celebrating a Year of Faith would give an impetus for Catholics to enter into the ongoing work of the Council by enthusiastically owning and continuing its mission. That would involve, he said, knowing the "texts bequeathed by the Council Fathers" -- texts, he added, that have "lost nothing of their brilliance" -- learning how to "read them correctly" and taking them to heart "as important and normative texts" for evangelization today.

Despite Pope Benedict's and Pope Francis' hopes, however, the Council's three-year anniversary celebration basically been a dud, remaining irrelevant on the outskirts of the Church's life.

Sure, the Vatican held symposia with experts in Rome to mark the anniversaries of each of the 16 documents of the Council, but very few dioceses, parishes, Catholic schools and universities, took advantage of the anniversary to help non-experts study the documents and implement the great deal that remains to be done. Very few bishops, pastors and priests, including the Pope, offered pastoral letters or reflections to help their people better understand the continuing importance of the Council and inspiring them to get to know it better. And I regret to say that very few Catholic writers -- myself included -- took advantage of the anniversary to write much about the Council.

And this was more than merely a missed chance for spiritual nourishment and growth. It was a wasted opportunity to correct the ubiquitous false impressions about the Council and to assist all the faithful to understand, appreciate and carry out what the Council really taught.

Even after 50 years, many Catholics with good educations have never read the documents of the Second Vatican Council. They erroneously think that it was a blank check to revolutionize whatever some wanted to be transformed in order to make the Church groove with the times: it supposedly changed the Mass and basically everything else, eliminated Gregorian Chant and Latin, jettisoned high altars and communion rails, whitewashed sanctuaries to place up hokey banners, gave religious the permission to shorten or heave their habits, prioritized lay people in the sanctuary, altered the Church's teachings to accommodate the sexual revolution, treated all religions as essentially the same, substituted one's personal opinions for a conscience guided by truth, and basically treated as refuse many things the Church had previously considered sacred.

The fact that Vatican II -- as St. John XXIII said at its beginning and Bl. Paul VI reiterated at its close -- was about reaffirming and teaching more vigorously and efficaciously the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine to people today; understanding the Church properly as the universal sacrament of salvation; calling everyone to true holiness; helping people participate fully and actively in the liturgy so that they would make their life a Mass; promoting religious liberty based on the freedom and duties of conscience; clarifying the Church's relationship with believers of other faiths; and evangelizing the laity not principally so that they might enter the sanctuary but so that go out into the world and transform it -- this is something that comes as a total surprise to many.

As Pope Benedict has emphasized, the Council was about reform in continuity, not rupture. Thanks, however, to popular narratives in certain circles of Catholics and the media who have desired to change some traditional Catholic teachings on faith and morals and who have popularized an open-ended "spirit of Vatican II" instead of what Vatican II actually decided and taught, many have come to believe that the Second Vatican Council was the Church's act of reinvention.

This three-year anniversary period was an opportunity to correct that myth and remedy its ongoing doctrinal and ecclesial damage. For the most part, however, it was a talent that the vast majority in the Church buried in the ground rather than invested (see Mt 25:18).

Insofar as the Council and its interpretation remain central to intra-ecclesial realities and the Church's interaction with the modern world, it behooves us to repent of the opportunity lost and use the fiftieth anniversary of the close of the Council as the catalyst to do what we could have been doing -- and should have been doing -- these last three years: learning and living the real Council according to its true spirit indicated by its teachings.

Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.

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