VATICAN CITY (VIS) – Pope Benedict XVI, in looking back over the last year, pointed to "the great events that profoundly marked the life of the church."
The Vatican Christmas tree stands in the middle of St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Dec. 17, prior to an evening tree-lighting ceremony. The 98-foot tree was donated by the town of Afiesi in the region of Upper Austria. (CNS photo from Reuters)
The pope chose the traditional annual exchange of Christmas greetings with the cardinals, archbishops, bishops and members of the Roman Curia to reflect on the historic nature of 2005, including events surrounding including the death of John Paul II, World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, and the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the closing of Vatican Council II.
The death of Pope John Paul II
Benedict XVI pointed out that no pope had written as many texts as John Paul II, or visited "the whole world and spoken directly to human beings of all continents.”
Yet, the pope said, “in the end, his was a journey of suffering and silence," which "taught us an important lesson."
Speaking of John Paul II's last book, "Memory and identity," the Benedict XVI said "it left us with an interpretation of suffering that was not a theological or philosophical theory, but a fruit matured over a personal journey of endurance which he underwent, supported by faith in the crucified Lord."
In this work, he said, the late pontiff "shows how deeply touched he was by the spectacle of the power of evil during last century." Faced with the dilemma of whether some limit against evil exists, the response from his book is: "divine mercy."
"Of course we have to do all we can to alleviate suffering and to prevent the injustice that causes the suffering of the innocent," said Benedict XVI. "Nonetheless, we must do everything possible for human beings to discover the meaning of suffering, to accept suffering and to unite it to Christ's suffering. In this context, he emphasized how the worldwide response to the pope's death became a recognition of his complete submission to God for the sake of the world.”
World Youth Day
On the subject of World Youth Day in Cologne, which was held in August, Pope Benedict indicated that the theme of that event, "We have come to adore him," contained two distinct images: that of pilgrimage, of man who "goes in search of truth, of just life, of God," and that of adoration. This word, he added, takes us through to October's Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist, and the year dedicated to this sacrament.
"It moves me to see," the pope said, "how the joy of eucharistic adoration is increasing throughout the church, and how its fruits are appearing. During the period of liturgical reform, Mass and eucharistic adoration outside of Mass were often seen as being in opposition."
However, he added, "receiving the Eucharist means adoring him whom we receive."
40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council
Benedict XVI then offered some reflections on the 40th anniversary of the closure of Vatican Council II, considering the outcomes of the event and how it had been received.
"Problems in its reception," he said, arose from "two contrasting interpretations: ... the interpretation of discontinuity and rupture," which found favor among the media and a certain segment of modern theology, and "the interpretation of reform," of renewal and continuity within the one church.
The former of these two interpretations, said the pope, "risks leading to a fracture between pre-conciliar church and post-conciliar church."
As for "the interpretation of reform," Benedict XVI recalled "Pope John XXIII's well known words... when he said that the council wishes to transmit doctrine pure and whole, without attenuating or falsifying it."
It is necessary, added Pope Benedict, "for this certain and unchangeable doctrine, which must be faithfully respected, to be more deeply studied and presented in a way appropriate to the needs of our time."
"It is clear that the commitment to express a particular truth in a new way calls for fresh reflection and for a new and living relationship with that truth,” he said, “In this sense, the plan proposed by John XXIII was extremely demanding, just as the synthesis of faithfulness and dynamism is demanding. But wherever this interpretation has been the guideline for the reception of the council, there new life has grown and new fruits have matured.” He noted that, in the 40 years since the council, “the positive aspects are greater and more vibrant than they appeared in the years around 1968."
Benedict XVI then went on to observe how “in the great debate concerning the human being that characterizes modern times, the council had to dedicate itself specifically to the subject of anthropology," to raise questions "on the relationship between the church and her faith on the one hand, and man and the modern world on the other."
In other words, "the council had to find a new definition of the relationship between the church and the modern age."
The pope outlined the difficulties that have marked this relationship: including the trial of Galileo, the French Revolution, the clash with liberalism, the two world wars, and without overlooking the ideologies that gave rise to Nazism and communism, or the questions raised by scientific progress and the historical and critical interpretation of scripture.
"It could be said that three tiers of questions were formed that now awaited a response,” he said, pointing to the relationships between faith and modern science, the church and the modern state and the church and Judaism.
The pope indicated how all these sectors risked giving rise to some form of discontinuity which, nonetheless, was not without a certain continuity of principles. "It is precisely in this continuity and discontinuity at various levels that the true nature of reform lies.”
Benedict XVI then dwelt on the subject of religious freedom and recalled that Vatican Council II, recognizing an essential principle of the modern state and adopting it with a decree on religious freedom, returned to the most profound heritage of the church. “The ancient church's natural practice was to pray for emperors and political leaders, considering this to be her duty but,” he said, “she refused to worship them, and thus clearly opposed the religion of state.” “A missionary church,” he added, “knowing she is held to announce the message to all peoples, must commit to the freedom of faith."
"Vatican Council II, with the new definition of the relationship between the faith of the church and certain essential elements of modern thought, reconsidered and even corrected certain historical decisions. But in this apparent discontinuity, [the church] actually maintained and deepened her intimate nature and her true identity."
"In our time too, the church remains 'a sign of contradiction,'” Pope Benedict said. “The council could not seek to abolish this gospel contradiction in the face of the dangers and the errors of mankind. What it did seek to do was to set aside erroneous and superfluous contradictions and present to our world the requirements of the gospel in all its greatness and purity."
"The step taken by the council towards the modern age,” the pope said, “is part of the perennial problem of the relationship between faith and reason, which is presented in ever new forms.” The pope concluded by saying that the documents of the Second Vatican Council “can become a great force in the ever necessary renewal of the church” if it is read and accepted within the context of being “guided by a correct interpretation.”