Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Reflections in the Light of Vatican II

Change at the Top - Two Anniversaries

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in February 2013 and the election of Pope Francis the following March have produced a new atmosphere in the Roman Catholic Church. There remains uncertainty as to the probable implementation of key teachings of the Second Vatican Council, but interesting senior appointments have been made, an important study group has been set up and there is a refreshing openness and grounds for renewed hope.

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI

On 11 February 2013, Pope Benedict stunned the Catholic Church and the world by announcing that he would resign his office. The resignation took effect on the following 28th February. There is every reason to believe the reasons His Holiness gave; they concerned his age and his health resulting in a reduced ability to deal with surrounding problems. It seemed a well-based decision although it was almost, but not quite, without precedent.

Subsequent reflections in this random series may enlarge on Benedict's papacy and his immediate predecessor's as they did not view Vatican II as John XXIII, or Paul VI, the two Popes of the Council respectively envisaged and left it. You may wish to read Peter Hebblethwaite's article on John Paul II.

For the present, the major point to underline is that however important to the Church is the Pope as Bishop of Rome, nevertheless it remains a human office. Benedict's resignation was a valuable antidote to any tendency to an oracular mindset.

Oracles of God?

There have been times in history and particularly since the definition of infallibility at Vatican I, when Popes were seemingly oracular.

In his book, Saints and Sinners- a History of the Popes, the eminent Cambridge historian Professor Eamon Duffy saw fit to entitle the final section of the book: 'The Oracles of God: 1903–1997'. We have had ten complete papacies since Pius X in 1903 and I experienced eight of them. However the individual holders may have viewed their high office, to members of the Church at large, the office of Bishop of Rome had seemed to have an oracular dimension, particularly after Vatican I with its definition of infallibility. Vatican I broke up uncompleted under secular political pressures and, for example, the full role of the bishops was not considered. While the definition of the 'Infallibility' of the Pope was carefully hedged about, nevertheless, the oracular aura seemed to creep into day to day matters. What was worse, as the Pope could not attend to everything, the oracular dimension was allowed to rub off, as it were, on members of the Roman Curia who directed the Church on behalf of the Pope. In the case of John Paul II, perhaps because of his towering individual stature, but exacerbated by his final long, debilitating illness, the deficiencies in administration in the Vatican had been growing during that reign. Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: CDF) seemed to have benefitted at the time with something of a free hand, and was himself then elected Pope. In different ways, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI had 'in effect' made a dead letter of many reforms proposed by Vatican II.

Among the reforms sidelined by both popes and relevant to this reflection, were the sharing in the government of the Church by the bishops ('Collegiality') and the reform of the Roman Curia. It is difficult to deny that the reversal of the decentralization heralded by the Council added to the workload of Pope and Curia. Pope Benedict clearly implied problems in the Curia and one principal official, the outgoing Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, even spoke revealingly of 'crows (informers) and vipers' in the Curia. In addition, there were disquieting rumours of cliques, unresolved issues of clerical sex abuse and the Vatileaks scandal. Suffice to say here that as a result of the resignation of Benedict XVI, a rebalancing of perspective about the needs of the Church may well be possible. But actually achieving the very different balance required is the task of Pope Francis with his team, and it remains daunting.

The Resignation - Summary

In summary, it cannot be said too often that among the many essential changes needed, high on the list is 'Collegiality'. This requires mechanisms to enable the world's Catholic Bishops to govern the Church (always with the Pope). Linked with this is the reform of the Roman Curia. It is not difficult to make a connection between neglect of the collegial reforms and Pope Benedict's overload and resignation.[Italics for emphasis]

The Election of Pope Francis 12 March 2013

The Conclave took place as expected and under scrutiny of world media. The crowds in St. Peter's Square in Rome, were multiplied many times by television and radio audiences. Most readers will know that after the white smoke had appeared, which signaled the election, there seemed an unusually long wait before the formal announcement, and the appearance of the new Pope. Not everybody may know the reason for the delay. It seems that before appearing in front of the world, the new Pope wanted to have a few words on the phone with his predecessor – a happy gesture and indeed a novel event! It seems however that the recipient of the call— the Pope Emeritus in Castel Gondolfo—had the phone off the hook to watch his successor on TV. When our new Pope finally appeared, his first two simple friendly words stay with me:  Buona sera !

It was unstuffy, it was ordinary, it was different and with the implications of the name Francis and the Jesuit connection, it seems a good point at which to end this reflection before attempting to weigh the size of the Church's task ahead.

Arthur Wells (January 2014)