Saturday, April 19, 2014

Sticking Point In Catholicism

A Moment of Reconciliation for Catholics
Two popes who differed on the Second Vatican Council become saints a half century later.

April 17, 2014 6:48 p.m. ET
If Pope Francis follows tradition, he will not deliver a homily when he celebrates Easter Mass in St. Peter's Square on Sunday. Rather, after Mass has ended he will read a message "Urbi et Orbi"—to the city of Rome and to the world—to commemorate Christ's resurrection by calling for peace and reconciliation around the globe. The address is typically among the pope's most quoted speeches of the year.

But this time, the most important day of the Catholic Church's liturgical calendar may feel like a prelude to an even more spectacular celebration the following Sunday. On April 27, Pope Francis will add Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II to the church's canon of saints. The event presents an opportunity to send a message of peace and reconciliation not only to the nations of the world, but also to a church still recovering from decades of discord.

More than a million pilgrims will travel to Rome to attend the canonization ceremonies in St. Peter's Square. Hundreds of millions will watch at home or in movie theaters around the world, and the Vatican is broadcasting the images in 3-D. Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, is expected to make a rare public appearance.

The canonization comes at an important moment in church history, the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, a series of meetings held by the church's bishops in Rome between 1962-65. The double induction will inevitably remind Catholics of that epochal event, which was essential to the pontificates of both men, though in markedly different ways.

Pope John called Vatican II in 1959 because he had come to the "conviction that something ought to be done in order to make the church more responsive to this modern world, in order to make the modern world more responsive to the church," according to Jesuit Father Ladislas Orsy, one of the council's official theologians. Or, as Pope John famously put it, he wanted to open the church's windows and let in some fresh air. Initiating Vatican II was by far the most consequential action of his pontificate, though he died in 1963 after the first of the council's four sessions.

Pope John Paul attended the entire council as a young bishop, making major contributions to the 1965 document "Gaudium Et Spes," which dealt with the church in the modern world. He argued that Catholics could better engage secular culture if they approached it more sympathetically. He was also a supporter of the council's declaration on religious freedom, and he furthered the council's aim of world-wide evangelical outreach by traveling to 129 countries during his pontificate. But he also made it his job to correct what he viewed as deviations from the council—including dissent in religious orders—that some had justified by appealing to an expansive spirit of Vatican II.

Catholic life looked and felt dramatically different in the years after the council. Mass was now held in modern languages rather than Latin, many nuns moved from convents to apartments and traded habits for ordinary clothes, and lay people took on expanded roles in parish life. Some issues that the council did not address—contraception, sexuality, celibacy, among others—have since grown more controversial.

Most Catholics now feel at home in the post-conciliar church, but vocal minorities continue to debate the legacy of Vatican II, and these arguments color how they view the soon-to-be sainted popes. Some conservative Catholics think Pope John acted with good intentions but ushered in an era of confusion that lingers today. Not a few progressives, on the other hand, regard the pontificates of John Paul and Benedict as a 35-year campaign to roll back the council's reforms.

Pope Benedict, who served as a theological adviser during the council and later as John Paul's top doctrinal official, stressed the continuity of the council's innovations with the church's traditions. At an October 2012 Mass marking the golden anniversary of the council's opening, Pope Benedict said Vatican II had aimed to present "certain and immutable" church teachings in the language of modern culture. This aim, he said, had gone largely unfulfilled amid the "spiritual desertification" of the half century that followed, when many Catholics instead "embraced uncritically the dominant mentality" of secularism.

Pope Francis is likely to offer a more cheerful assessment of Vatican II when he canonizes Popes John and John Paul. More important, he may take the occasion to encourage reconciliation among Catholics divided by their views of the council. But he will not need to address the subject explicitly to send such a message, particularly if Pope Benedict joins him. The church communicates visually as often as verbally, and the sight of a "conservative" pope joining a "progressive" pope to honor two predecessors with such contrasting reputations would be a stirring image of harmony and hope.

Mr. Rocca is Rome bureau chief of Catholic News Service and director of a forthcoming documentary film, "Voices of Vatican II: Council Participants Remember."
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