Let me join Fr. Giampietro in remembering Vatican II (free translation from my blog – 19-7-2020)

Fr. Giampietro started a series of written articles and videos to commemorate the 50 years of Vatican II, presenting a recent book by an Australian theologian Ormond Rush “The Vision of Vatican II”.

Vatican II happened 50 years ago, but it surely doesn’t belong to the past, its light still leads the Church through the darkness of her journey today.

I and Fr. Giampietro are almost coeval. When he left Italy to come as a newly ordained missionary priest to Hong Kong, I went to Italy to pursue my studies of theology in view of priestly ordination. Around that time John XXIII announced his intention to convoke an Ecumenical Council, we young priests and seminarians, welcomed that announcement with jubilation.

The last Ecumenical Council (Vatican I) was already 90 years back away, and with the Papal Infallibility proclaimed in that Council, few expected any more Ecumenical Council.

But in the 90 years of history fast and deep changes happened in the society in many fields. A thorough assessment of the new situation in which the Church found herself was strongly felt necessary.


From Fr. Giampietro’s first article I can understand what kind of expectations from the council were nurtured in his mind. He said: “from 19 to 24 years of age I realized big changes in my way of thinking”: moving away from the “Tridentine culture” through different readings, some of which belonged to “forbidden literature”.

As about me, I grew up in Shanghai till 16 years of age. Experience of foreign invasion and poverty was part of my childhood, but on the other side I received a rich formation in Catholic faith from French Jesuits first, and then from the Salesians of Don Bosco, that faith and the accompanying joy  always reigned in my heart in spite of all the hardships of life.

In 1948 I moved to Hong Kong just in time to avoid the atheist dictatorship. Life in Hong Kong was more comfortable than in Shanghai, but the religious fervour and spiritual joy kept growing through the years of novitiate, philosophy studies and training in Salesian work.

When in 1955, I was sent by my religious superior to study in Italy (Turin) I was 23, more or less 3 years before Fr. Giampietro left Italy for Hong Kong. That means I went into a similar situation as Fr. Giampietro described in that short quotation above. I also “realized big changes in my way of thinking”. In the Pontifical University, with students coming from all continents, I found myself in the real big world, in a Church new to me, which was in a state of awakening and confusion. “A thorough assessment of the situation was strongly felt necessary”.

To me, a simple-minded young man, the “Italian” situation of those days appeared to be very “nervous”, “on the defense”.

Fr. Giampietro mentioned the “forbidden literature”. Even in the Italian Church traces of “fascist” style governance could be seen. Few Italian theologians dared to write, most theological books in Italian were translation from other European languages.

(One day 4 notoriously conservative Italian Cardinals pressured the Salesian superiors to fire our Professor of social ethics, considered too “progressive”. But fortunately, that was an isolated episode.)

The teaching community in our University was open-minded enough to let “the wheat and the weeds grow together”: as students of an university we were allowed to be informed of all the many “currents” of ideas in the Church, but our Professors were also wise enough to help us to distinguish between the two.

I am afraid it was this “fascism in the Italian Church” to cause that strong reaction, an expectation of a “liberating” Council, to free the Church from the so called “Tridentine Culture”.


I have not read the book of Fr. Ormond Rush, innumerable such books appeared after the Council, they present a “comprehensive” vision of the Council, the “fundamental principles” behind the many documents. They may be useful to help having a general understanding of the Council,

but there is a danger: a particular “comprehensive” presentation of the Council may not be faithful to the documents of the Council, but rather a subjective understanding of it.

I repeat: I have not read the book by Fr. Rush, but I allow myself to say that Fr. Giampietro’s “comprehensive” presentation of the Council’s vision seems to be out of focus. In the article he seems to say that Vatican II has the merit of undoing the “Tridentine” like the cleansing of Michelangelo’s “Ultimo giudizio”. That would be extremely negative and terribly narrow a vision, and above all: out of focus.


Let us start from the fundamentals.

What are the Ecumenical Councils for?

They are not for the creation of a new Church, but for a new self-understanding. The Church was founded by Jesus Christ on the Apostles. The conclusion of the Frist Ecumenical Council of Jerusalem declared: “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves (apostles)…”.

Guided by the Holy Spirit the Ecumenical Council are the milestones on the journey of the Church through centuries, accumulating a rich heritage, showing ever brighter the true face of Christ, the Redeemer of mankind.


The Bishops, the protagonists of the Vatican II worked hard from 1959 to 1965.

I was in Rome from 1961 to 1964, working hard on my thesis of Doctorate in Philosophy. In spare time, I enjoyed, like other young priests and seminarians in Rome, all the daily hot news and gossips about the Council; the fierce battles along the stereotype of divide between conservatives and progressives; Council Fathers accusing each other with leaflets flying over Saint Peter’s square…The jokes!” (of course, the most memorable thing is the moving “good night”, that 11 October, of John XXIII, from his studio, to the faithful on St. Peter’s square, under the shining moon, concluded with “give a caress to your children, on my behalf”.)

There is a saying, not far from the truth: an Ecumenical Council starts from human efforts, then comes the devil to make trouble, but at the end the Holy Spirit brings everything to an Happy Ending.

The seed of Vatican II were sown in the minds and hearts of many believers long before 1959, then the Pope convoked the Council and set up the Preparatory Commission, which gathered materials from all the Churches and drafted the working papers; then the fierce debates in the hall. In the process sometimes charity and good manners left to be desired (the devil came!); Then the many rewritings of the documents (sometimes days were spent on a single sentence or word. How ungrateful those who despise the “minute details” in favour of the “comprehensive spirit” of the Council), only because of such hard work it was possible to reach that almost unanimity in the approval of the final documents.


The fruit of Vatican II are those 16 Documents, especially the 4 Constitutions. Through those documents you hear the real voice of the Holy Spirit.

Seminaries, comprehensive presentations, comparative analyses etc. are useful means to understand the Council, but not by ignoring the Documents themselves or manipulating the Documents.

Unfortunately, the polarization between the Conservatives and Progressives did not disappear after the Council. Fr. Giampietro mentions those who had difficulty to understand, or even refused to accept the “novelties” in Council’s decisions: they are the extreme conservatives; but there are also extreme progressives who claim that now on everything can change in the Church.

The Church is a living body it certainly grows and changes, but, as Cardinal John Henry Newman puts it, the development is “homogeneous”, i.e. with the substantial identity not altered. A boy grows into maturity and he is still the same person.

The extreme conservatives say: the Church after the Vatican II is no more the Catholic Church I received baptism in. But you were baptized in a Church which believes in one apostolic Church, led by the Pope and the Bishops as authentic teachers of faith.

The extreme progressives say: before the Council nothing was allowed to change, now with Vatican II many changes have been made, so, many things should be allowed to change also in the future. Yes, but only by a decision of the legitimate authority, not by an arbitrary choice of anybody, and surely not by undoing the past. The Holy Spirit of today doesn’t contradict the Holy Spirit of yesterday.


Let me spend few words on this “anti-Tridentine Complex”.

It is true that most Ecumenical Councils in the history were convoked to deal with a crisis (e.g. a heresy), the Tridentine (1545-1563) was one. But by fighting the heresy the Church deepened her self-knowledge.

The heretics say “sola scriptura!”, “only the Bible is enough”. The Church answered: Bible is precious but it’s a book, Jesus entrusted His Church to living human beings with the promise of His presence and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The heretics say “sola fides!”, “just believe and you are saved” The Church answered: salvation is not simply a covering of sins leaving us interiorly still a “massa damnata”, the grace transforms us radically and we are given the capacity and duty to live a really “holy” life.

(Today we don’t call them heretics, we call them brothers, and rightly. But when facing mortal danger you may be excused if you forget the niceties.)

In the Council clarifications were given on the nature of the Sacraments, especially of Holy Eucharist and the Priesthood.

For such enriching supply of Church teaching into the deposit of faith, how can we not to be grateful to the Lord?

When searching for the causes of the protests of the protestants, Tridentine Council recognized serious deficiencies in the formation and care of the clergy. Wise and effective remedies were agreed upon and hence a formidable revival of faith, piety and of missionary zeal: this is the Catholic reform or “Counter-reform” in opposition to protestant reformation. I think both I myself and Fr. Giampietro are beneficiaries of that reform.


The protesters say “latin is invented by the devil”! Come on! The Church saved the Greek-Roman Culture (philosophy literature, art, music) and used it to educate the invading “barbarians”, after the fall of Roman Empire, laying foundation of the modern European civilization.

Some may not know that the modern philosophers and scientists still used to write in latin (Francis Bacon 1561-1626, Galileo Galilei 1564-1642, René Descartes 1596-1650, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz 1646-1716, Immanuel Kant 1724-1804).

The Tridentine theology mainly in latin saved the faith of the Church of the lay, and the Tridentine liturgy in latin with the gregorian chant (including the “dies irae”) nourished the piety of generations and sustained the courage of innumerable martyrs.

It sounds blasphemous to say that Vatican II had to clean the Church of the Tridentine “dirt”.


Then, are we not talking about vision? Vision is looking ahead, not backwards. The vision of Vatican II is in the Opening speech of Pope John XXIII, 11 October 1962: “from the renewed, serene and calm adherence to all the teachings of the Church, in its integrity and precision, as resplendent mainly in the conciliar acts of Trent and Vatican I, the Christian and Catholic spirit of the entire world awaits to go one step further towards a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciences that is in a more perfect correspondence with fidelity to authentic doctrine, studying it and exposing it through the forms of research and the literary formulas of modern thought.”

This is the meaning of “aggiornamento”, it does not mean to deny our past or to follow all the secular fashions!


Conclusion:

Let us admire the divin plan, the one history of salvation. Human freedoms may fail, but God guides the Church securely to the goal. It’s a journey in continuity not through ruptures.

  • The history of Israel was a continuous alternation of fidelity and unfaithfulness. But the true faith of Abraham, through Mary, Jesus and the Apostles, has been transmitted to us.
  • The Old Testament belongs to us too, and the Church of the New Testament is open to everybody.
  • The psalms are prayers which fit every situation of our life. The voice of the prophets rings still relevant to the Church in modern society.
  • We must be grateful to Greek Culture just for the word “Homoousios” which helped the Church to express with exactitude the divin nature of Jesus, true God and true man.
  • The latin language was instrumental to keep the many European and missionary Churches united to Rome. The rich heritage of centuries of liturgical music and ceremonials nurtured the piety of believes. Why should we be surprised, if today’s young people, while sincerely accepting the Church’s liturgical reform, still appreciate the Tridentine Mass?
  • The Church carries on her journey “admixt world’s tribulation and God’s consolation” (St. Augustin “city of God”) “to come to unity in our faith and in our knowledge of the son of God, until we become the perfect Man, fully mature with the fullness of Christ himself” (Eph. 4:13)
  • Vatican II is very aware that errors persist in the world, but the Council doesn’t intend to condemn them, it wants to help man to realize how those errors, especially a willful refusal of God, are not conducive to real human happiness.

The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the modern world, the most typical expression of the Council’s Vision, lists all the threats to and anxieties of modern man, but is fully confident that the Church is able to come to man’s aid, if only she succeeds to reveal to him the true face of Jesus.

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天主教香港教區榮休主教
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