In talk to priests, pope recalls experiences as Vatican II consultant

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI, who has dedicated much of his pontificate to shaping the church's understanding of the Second Vatican Council, devoted one of his last public addresses to the subject, recalling his experiences as an expert consultant at Vatican II, praising some of its major documents and lamenting widespread distortions of its teachings.

The pope made his remarks Feb. 14 in his annual address to clergy of the Diocese of Rome. Although he had cited deteriorating "strength of mind and body" in explaining his historic decision to resign at the end of February, Pope Benedict, who turns 86 in April, spoke for 46 minutes, delivering a highly structured talk without a prepared text or notes.

Pope Benedict said that popular understanding of Vatican II has been long distorted by its coverage in the press, which presented the council as a political struggle for "popular sovereignty" in the church. This "council of the media" was responsible for "many calamities, so many problems, so much misery," the pope said. "Seminaries closed, convents closed, liturgy trivialized."

But the pope said that the "true council," which was based on faith, is today "emerging with all its spiritual strength," and he called on his listeners to "work so that the true council with the power of the Holy Spirit is realized and the church is really renewed."

The talk gave Pope Benedict a chance to underscore one of the major themes of his pontificate almost at its end. In a landmark speech during his first year as pope, he had proclaimed the importance of reading Vatican II in continuity with the church's millennial traditions, not as a radical break with the past. His efforts to promote such interpretations have culminated in the current Year of Faith, which opened last October on the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II.

In his speech to the clergy, Pope Benedict highlighted some of the council's greatest achievements as well as difficulties in their implementation. He praised "Dei Verbum," on the interpretation of Scripture, as one of the council's "most beautiful and innovative" documents, but said "there is still much to be done to arrive at a reading of Scripture that is really in the spirit of the council," because many scholars continue to read the Bible as a merely human book, without reference to faith or the church's teaching authority.

Pope Benedict praised as "an act of providence" the council's decision to make liturgy, the adoration of God, its first order of business, but he criticized what he called misunderstandings of the liturgical reform the council fostered. Celebrating the Mass in a modern language does not suffice to make its mysteries intelligible, he said, and external participation by the laity in worship does not necessarily produce "communion with the church and thus fellowship with Christ."

The pope's talk was not all serious. He drew laughter with an anecdote about the late Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne who, when Blessed John XXIII once summoned him to Rome, "was afraid he had perhaps said maybe something incorrect, false and that he had been asked to come for a reprimand, perhaps even to deprive him of his red hat." Instead, Cardinal Frings received Blessed John's praise, and later brought the future Pope Benedict with him to the council as his personal adviser.

Before the pope's talk, the several thousand priests in the Vatican's audience hall greeted him with a standing ovation and a shout of "Long live the pope!" Cardinal Agostino Vallini, the vicar of Rome, then read a short tribute to the pope, likening the occasion to the departure of St. Paul from Ephesus in the Acts of the Apostles.

The cardinal broke into tears as he concluded, telling the pope, "in the name of all the priests of Rome, who truly love the pope, that we commit ourselves to pray still for you and for your intentions, so that our grateful love may become, if possible, even greater."

A video excerpt of Pope Benedict's address is available at

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970