Pope Benedict’s thoughts on Vatican II, as he saw it

McKellar_YearofFaithboxOn February 14th, 2013, Pope Benedict gave a warm unscripted talk to the clergy of Rome. He reminisced about his time at the Second Vatican Council as an official peritus or expert.

Pope Benedict first addresses the reform of the liturgy noting that prior to the Council there had developed almost two parallel liturgies. He notes, “The priest with the altar-servers, who celebrated Mass according to the Missal, and the laity, who prayed during Mass using their own prayer books, at the same time, while knowing substantially what was happening on the altar.” The Fathers of the Council sought to renew the liturgy through “a rediscovery of the beauty, the profundity, the historical, human, and spiritual riches of the Missal.” Pope Benedict notes that “it became clear that it should not be merely a representative of the people, a young altar-server, saying ‘Et cum spiritu tuo’, and so on, but that there should truly be a dialogue between priest and people: truly the liturgy of the altar and the liturgy of the people should form one single liturgy, an active participation, such that the riches reach the people.”  He notes, “I find now, looking back, that it was a very good idea to begin with the liturgy, because in this way the primacy of God could appear, the primacy of adoration.”

Pope Benedict also highlights two great principles of the reform, intelligibility and active participation. He cautions the clergy against some common misunderstandings of these principles;

 Unfortunately, these principles have also been misunderstood.  Intelligibility does not mean banality, because the great texts of the liturgy – even when, thanks be to God, they are spoken in our mother tongue – are not easily intelligible, they demand ongoing formation on the part of the Christian if he is to grow and enter ever more deeply into the mystery and so arrive at understanding.  . . . Only ongoing formation of hearts and minds can truly create intelligibility and participation that is something more than external activity, but rather the entry of the person, of my being, into the communion of the Church and thus into communion with Christ.

 The second theme Pope Benedict addresses is that of the Church. He notes that the Council Fathers intended to follow Pius XII and complete the vision of the Church that had occurred at Vatican I by focusing on the Mystical Body of Christ. Pope Benedict observes, “People were beginning to realize that the Church is not simply an organization, something structured, juridical, institutional – it is that too – but rather an organism, a living reality that penetrates my soul . . . and a building block of the Church as such.”  He notes that in saying that “we are the Church” this notion was not intended to emphasize a particular “we” or a single group that calls itself Church.  Rather it “requires me to take my place within the great ‘we’ of believers of all times and places.” To emphasize this in a structural manner among the bishops the word “collegiality” was adopted. This notion does not emphasize power but “the complementarity of the different elements” and “the completeness of the corpus of the Church with the bishops, the successors of the Apostles, as structural elements.” In addition to this the Fathers pointed to the theme of the Church as the “people of God.” Initially this is an Old Testament theme about Israel and only by entering into communion with Christ, and by being one with him, do the nations become God’s People.

Later what is clearly the central concept of the Council came to light as he reflected on this great theme. He notes that;

. . . the link between People of God and Body of Christ is precisely communion with Christ in Eucharistic fellowship.  This is where we become the Body of Christ: the relationship between People of God and Body of Christ creates a new reality – communion.

The third theme was the debate over the problem of Revelation. Benedict calls the Constitution on Divine Revelation “one of the finest and most innovative of the entire Council” with its insistence that “only in this communion of the living Church can one really understand and read the Scripture as the word of God.” Pope Benedict insists, “Only if we believe that these are not human words, but God’s words, and only if there is that living subject to which God spoke and speaks, can we interpret sacred Scripture properly.”

Finally Pope Benedict addresses the theme of Ecumenism found in several Declarations and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. He notes that the importance of these documents has been demonstrated only after decades and we are still working to understand their interlinked themes.

In closing Pope Benedict makes an important distinction between the genuine intentions of the Council Fathers and what he calls the Council of the Media. Pope Benedict elaborates;

 While the Council of the Fathers was conducted within the faith – it was a Council of faith seeking intellectus, seeking to understand itself and seeking to understand the signs of God at that time, seeking to respond to the challenge of God at that time and to find in the word of God a word for today and tomorrow – while all the Council, as I said, moved within the faith, as fides quaerens intellectum, the Council of the journalists, naturally, was not conducted within the faith, but within the categories of today’s media, namely apart from faith, with a different hermeneutic. It was a political hermeneutic: for the media, the Council was a political struggle, a power struggle between different trends in the Church. It was obvious that the media would take the side of those who seemed to them more closely allied with their world. There were those who sought the decentralization of the Church, power for the bishops and then, through the expression “People of God”, power for the people, the laity.


Scott McKellar is Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.


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November 23, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph