Dialogika

Pope Benedict XVI

The Second Vatican Council as I Saw It

The following are excerpts from an address delivered in Italian to the clergy of the Diocese of Rome in which Benedict reminisces about his experiences at the Second Vatican Council. After the opening remarks, this excerpt presents the pope's comments on Nostra Aetate.  Vatican translation. For the full text, click HERE.

 

... today, given the conditions brought on by my age, I have not been able to prepare an extended discourse, as might have been expected; but rather what I have in mind are a few thoughts on the Second Vatican Council, as I saw it. I shall begin with an anecdote: in 1959 I was appointed a professor at the University of Bonn, where the students included the seminarians of the diocese of Cologne and the other dioceses in the area. Thus I came into contact with the Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Frings. Cardinal Siri of Genoa, in 1961 if I remember rightly, had organized a series of talks on the Council given by various European Cardinals, and he had invited the Archbishop of Cologne to give one of them, entitled: the Council and the world of modern thought.

The Cardinal asked me – the youngest of the professors – to write a draft for him. He liked the draft, and to the people in Genoa he delivered the text just as I had written it. Soon afterwards, Pope John invited him to come and see him, and the Cardinal was anxious that he might have said something incorrect, something false, and that he was being summoned for a rebuke, perhaps even to be deprived of the cardinalate. Indeed, when his secretary vested him for the audience, the Cardinal said: "Perhaps I am now wearing these robes for the last time". Then he went in, Pope John came to meet him, embraced him, and said: "Thank you, Your Eminence, you said the very things I wanted to say myself, but I could not find the words". So the Cardinal knew that he was on the right track and he invited me to go with him to the Council, firstly as his personal advisor; and then, during the first session – I think it was in November 1962 – I was also named an official peritus of the Council.

So off we went to the Council not just with joy but with enthusiasm. There was an incredible sense of expectation. We were hoping that all would be renewed, that there would truly be a new Pentecost, a new era of the Church, because the Church was still fairly robust at that time – Sunday Mass attendance was still good, vocations to the priesthood and to religious life were already slightly reduced, but still sufficient. However, there was a feeling that the Church was not moving forward, that it was declining, that it seemed more a thing of the past and not the herald of the future. And at that moment, we were hoping that this relation would be renewed, that it would change; that the Church might once again be a force for tomorrow and a force for today. And we knew that the relationship between the Church and the modern period, right from the outset, had been slightly fraught, beginning with the Church’s error in the case of Galileo Galilei; we were looking to correct this mistaken start and to rediscover the union between the Church and the best forces of the world, so as to open up humanity’s future, to open up true progress. Thus we were full of hope, full of enthusiasm, and also eager to play our own part in this process. I remember that the Roman Synod was thought of as a negative model. It was said – I don’t know whether this was true – that they had read out prepared texts in the Basilica of Saint John, and that the members of the Synod had acclaimed, approved with applause, and that the Synod had been conducted thus. The bishops said: no, let’s not do that. We are bishops, we ourselves are the subject of the Synod; we do not simply want to approve what has already been done, but we ourselves want to be the subject, the protagonists of the Council. So too Cardinal Frings, who was famous for his absolute fidelity – almost to the point of scrupulosity – to the Holy Father, said in this case: we are here in a different role. The Pope has called us together to be like Fathers, to be an Ecumenical Council, a subject that renews the Church. So we want to assume this new role of ours.

[...]

The second part of the Council was much more extensive. There appeared with great urgency the issue of today’s world, the modern age, and the Church; and with it, the issues of responsibility for the building up of this world, of society, responsibility for the future of this world and eschatological hope, the ethical responsibility of Christians and where we look for guidance; and then religious freedom, progress, and relations with other religions. At this moment, all the parties of the Council really entered into the discussion, not just America, the United States, with its powerful interest in religious freedom. In the third session the Americans told the Pope: we cannot go home without bringing a declaration on religious freedom voted by the Council. The Pope, however, had the firmness and the decision, the patience, to take the text to the fourth session, for the sake of greater discernment and the fuller consent of the Council Fathers. I mean: it was not only the Americans who intervened forcefully in the unfolding of the Council, but also Latin America, well aware of the extreme poverty of its people, on a Catholic continent, and the responsibility of the faith for the situation of these people. Likewise, Africa and Asia saw the need for interreligious dialogue; problems arose which we Germans – I have to admit – had not foreseen. I cannot describe all of this now. The great document Gaudium et Spes analyzed very well the issue of Christian eschatology and worldly progress, and that of responsibility for the society of the future and the responsibility of Christians before eternity, and in this way it also renewed a Christian ethics, the foundations of ethics. But – let us say unexpectedly – alongside this great document there arose another document which responded in a more synthetic and more concrete way to the challenges of the times, and this was the Declaration Nostra Aetate. From the beginning our Jewish friends were present, and they said, primarily to us Germans, but not to us alone, that after the tragic events of the Nazi period, the Nazi decade, the Catholic Church had to say something about the Old Testament, about the Jewish people. They said: even if it is clear that the Catholic Church is not responsible for the Shoah, it was Christians for the most part who committed those crimes; we need to deepen and renew Christian awareness of this, even though we know full well that true believers have always resisted these things. Thus it was clear that our relationship with the world of the ancient People of God needed to be an object of reflection. Understandably, too, the Arab countries – the bishops of the Arab countries – were unhappy about this: they feared somewhat a glorification of the State of Israel, which naturally they did not want. They said: fine, a truly theological statement about the Jewish people is good, it is necessary, but if you speak about that, speak of Islam too; only then will there be a balance; Islam too is a great challenge and the Church also needs to clarify her relationship with Islam. This was something that, at the time, we did not much understand: a little, but not much. Today we know how necessary it was.

When we began to work also on Islam, we were told that there were also other world religions: the whole of Asia! Think of Buddhism, Hinduism…. And so, instead of a declaration as initially conceived, concerning only the People of God in the Old Testament, a text was created on interreligious dialogue, anticipating what only 30 years later would be demonstrated in all its intensity and importance. I cannot enter now into this theme, but if one reads the text, one sees that it is very dense and prepared truly by people who were familiar with the realities, and it indicates briefly, in a few words, what is essential. Likewise it indicates the foundation of dialogue, in difference, in diversity, in faith, on the unicity of Christ, who is one, and it is not possible for a believer to think that religions are all variations on a single theme. No, there is one reality of the living God, who has spoken, and there is one God, one incarnate God, thus one word of God, that is truly God’s word. But there is religious experience, with a certain human light from creation, and therefore it is necessary and possible to enter into dialogue, and thus to become open to one another and to open everyone to the peace of God, the peace of all his sons and daughters, the peace of his entire family.

Therefore, these two documents, on religious freedom [Dignitatis Humanae] and Nostra Aetate, linked to Gaudium et Spes, make a very important trilogy whose importance has been demonstrated only after decades, and we are still working to understand better the interlinked realities of the unicity of God’s revelation, the unicity of the one God incarnate in Christ, and the multiplicity of religions, by which we seek peace and also hearts that are open to the light of the Holy Spirit, who illumines and leads to Christ.