Catholic Prayers for the New Evangelization

"Catholic Prayers for the New Evangelization"

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Vatican II: the Unbroken Tradition of the Church
Rev. Mr. Matthew J. Albright

The life of the Church in the twenty-first century is guided in large part by the pastoral approach taken by the bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Council documents, and the subsequent study, reform, and renewal that grew out of the Council. Important for the Church, then, is a proper understanding of how an ecumenical council in general, and Vatican II in particular, is to be understood within the life of the Church.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2005 Christmas Address to the Roman Curia, reflected on the 40th Anniversary of Vatican II. His thoughts help the Church today to understand the meaning of the Council. The Pope addressed important issues: how the Church throughout the world has received the Council; what has been its result; and why have the years since the Council been so difficult. He explains that problems have arisen in the Church in recent years because different people have interpreted the same things differently. The Pope said, "The problems of reception derived from the fact that two contrasting hermeneutics [or ‘interpretations’] found themselves face to face and battled it out." The "hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture" suggests a "fracture between the pre-Council and post-Council Church," and promotes a drive for anything new. On the contrary, the "hermeneutics of reform" sees a continuity of doctrine and Tradition in the Church before, during, and after the Council.
As the Pope explains, the problem caused by the "hermeneutics of discontinuity" is that this approach "asserts that…it would be necessary to follow not the Council texts, but its spirit. In this way, of course, a huge margin remains for the question of how then to define this spirit and, as a result, room is made for any whimsicality." The Council gave the Church 16 documents, which address the Church’s approach to modern issues. The letter of these documents has at times been ignored in favor of following the "spirit of Vatican II." As the Pope explains, this "spirit" is given various meanings by the agendas of those who claim its support for constant change and novelty.
In opposition to this is the "hermeneutics of reform." When Pope John XXIII opened the Council, he expressed this approach, saying that the Council "wishes to transmit doctrine pure and whole, without attenuating or falsifying it." The intention of the Fathers of Vatican II – as was the purpose of the 20 previous ecumenical councils – was to pass on the teaching of Jesus Christ, in a manner that answers the needs of the time. The Council’s great work was not the elimination of something old and the creation of something new but, rather, to pass on the ancient Tradition of the Church, which, while lived out by different people in every age, remains forever the same. For, as the Pope said, the Church "is a subject that grows in time and develops, remaining however always the same, the one subject of the People of God on their way."
The teaching of Christ, handed down by the Apostles, safeguarded by the Early Church Fathers, and expounded by pastors through the centuries, remains the same today. The Ten Commandments remain the sure guides for human action and interaction. Certain human acts are always and in every circumstance contrary to the Divine Law. The moral and doctrinal teachings of the Church find expression in new ways but the Gospel of Jesus is not new, nor it is open to change. For example, amid speculation by contemporary theologians who predicted that the Holy Father would suddenly change the Church’s prohibition of artificial contraception, Pope Paul VI, in Humanae vitae, defended human life and proclaimed the consistent teaching of the Church that birth control is unacceptable.
The Liturgy, the public prayer of the Church develops organically from sure foundations and undergoes developments in history, which are at times needed but do not change the essence of the liturgy. So often I hear, with regard to liturgical elements such as the Latin language, chant, consecration bells, and countless beautiful traditions, both those who lament "Why did Vatican II get rid of that?" and those who rejoice that past traditions have apparently been abandoned. How surprised many on both sides would be to know that Vatican II was not nearly so concerned about novelty as we think, and that much of what was apparently "lost" in the Mass is found in the Council documents or most current liturgical instructions. To name a few: chalices still must be made of precious metal; Latin remains the official language of the Church and part of the liturgy; Gregorian Chant is the music proper to the Roman Rite; Communion patens are to be used; bells, candles, and incense remain essential liturgical elements. A "new Mass" was not created. In the midst of necessary liturgical adaptations, notions of discontinuity and novelty made their mark on the sacred worship of the Church.
Contrary to the popular hymn, we are not called to "sing a new Church into being." Vatican II is the council of our time, and the Church today is formed by its legacy. We give thanks to the Holy Spirit for guiding its great work. Yet, as the Pope reminds us, it is one link in an over two-thousand year chain of unbroken Tradition. The task of Catholics today is to know the whole Tradition well and to live our Faith with fervor. The Church calls us, as she calls people of every age, to bring Christ to others and proclaim the continuous Tradition of the Church in our time.

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