Vatican II and Pope Francis – where to from here…

The election of Pope Francis represents a decisive moment on the Church’s pilgrim journey says Gary Carville


All Popes since the time of Vatican II – Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI – began their ministry as Successors of Peter by declaring their aim to complete and implement the work of the council. Pope John Paul in his first radio message referred to the “unceasing importance of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, and…the definite duty of assiduously bringing it into affect”. At the end of the Great Jubilee of 2000 he described the Council as ‘a compass’ by which Church members would take their bearings in the ‘vast ocean’ of the third millennium. Pope Benedict XVI also confirmed his determination to put Vatican II into practice, noting that the council documents “are proving particularly relevant to the new situation of the Church and the current globalized society”.

Pope Francis has made no such bold declaration as yet.

Incorrect! He has! He is living it!

The first indications that Pope Francis is embracing some of the central themes of Vatican II came in his remarks on the loggia of St Peter’s within an hour of his election. His comments were not made to cardinals alone, but to the whole world. He spoke of himself as Bishop of Rome and of the Church of Rome “which presides in charity over all the churches”. In this way he brought into focus one of the major themes of the debates of Vatican II, particularly around the conciliar document Lumen Gentium and the question of collegiality – how the college of bishops share their power in the governance of the Church and, in particular, the relationship between the primacy of the Pope and the powers of local bishops. In doing this, he used the words of the second century Church Father St Ignatius of Antioch when describing the role of the Church of Rome.

Since that night Francis has been very sparing in the use of the term Pope. Nonetheless, he fully exercises the powers that belong to the Pope, subject only to God. This is a point that Vatican II declared upon – that the Pope in virtue of his office as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the universal Church has “full, supreme and universal power over the Church”. However, the council’s decree Lumen Gentium also declared that Peter’s successor and the bishops as successors of the apostles are joined together in the character and nature of the order of bishops. This communio is expressed in “unity, charity and peace” (LG No 22). The supreme authority that the college of bishops has is exercised in union with the Bishop of Rome. Therefore, whatever possible structures may be put in place to reform the governance of the Church (an issue of particular concern at the General Congregations of cardinals before the recent conclave) – such as a reform of the Synod of Bishops – cannot undermine the precise affirmation of collegiality laid down in the Vatican II documents. It is the application of the council that will be central here.

Nonetheless, the relationship between the local churches, the national episcopal conferences and the exercise of the ministry of See of Rome in terms of everyday governance could be important points in the ministry of Francis. In realising this, Francis sees the Church as the ‘People of God’, an understanding of the Church proclaimed by the Council, but often misunderstood. Francis sees this understanding as important but only in terms of Christ being the centre of Church’s life and ministry. The papacy is simply a place of service, as he pointed out to media representatives on 16 March.

This exercise of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff, “while in no way renouncing what is central to its mission” also concerned Pope John Paul II in relation to ecumenism. (Ut Unum Sint, no 95). This theme, so central to Pope John XXIII and the Vatican Council, is also a key theme of Francis in these early days. The role played by representatives of the Eastern Churches at his Inaugural Mass on March 19 and the warm and positive message he sent to the new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby make this clear. The possibility of a joint pilgrimage to Jerusalem next year by Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I has been raised. This would mark the fiftieth anniversary of the visit to the Holy Land by Pope Paul VI in 1964 and his meeting with the then Patriarch of Constantinople, the first since the schism of 1054.

Above all, Francis sees the Church fearlessly proclaiming the Gospel of Christ in the modern world by word and by simple deeds. He is not afraid of the world, and does not wish to see the Church hide away from it. In proclaiming the Gospel, the Church is drawing from the great tradition that comes from Christ and it is in continuity with that tradition. That is what Vatican II, its documents and its spirit envisaged – proclaiming our present and future in the light of Christ and in continuity with the past.

Francis brings to the papacy and the universal Church a Latin-American (and Jesuit) perspective that is different from the more imperial mindset that has dominated for much of two millennia. It recalls the remarks of another Jesuit, Karl Rahner, who made no small contribution to the council, that Vatican II represented a shift from a Eurocentric Church to a world one. Francis’ election represents a decisive moment on that journey. It calls to mind also John XXIII’s remark that the Second Vatican Council was about dusting off from the throne of Peter the dust that had gathered since the reign of Constantine.

However, Francis’ message is projected in a way of humble simplicity. The liturgy is celebrated properly but simply. There, God and humanity come together. His words are inclusive – he offered his first Urbi et Orbi blessing to “all men and women of goodwill”, not just to Catholics. His silent blessing to the media on March 16, was, he said, respectful that a number of them were not believers or did not practice the faith. In many ways, he is reminiscent of John XXIII who wished the Church to engage with the world without rancour or condemnation. It calls to mind the words of John’s opening address to Vatican II: “In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church”.

His most instructive words on the Council came in one of his now familiar off-the-cuff homilies at morning Mass in the Domus Santa Martha, the hostel where he lives. On April 16 he asked: “The council was a beautiful work of the Holy Spirit, but after 50 years, have we done everything the Holy Spirit in the council told us to do?” While some Catholics would like to undo the reforms of the Council, others are trying to “build a monument” to it rather than fully live its teachings, he said. He is warning us against attempts to ‘domesticate’ the Holy Spirit. Instead, he urges us to pray for renewal and to reach out to all in a renewed way.

Now after the great hope-filled witness of John Paul II, and the great teaching of Benedict XVI, we are, in the ministry of Francis, beginning anew to invigorate the Church and the world in the vision of John XXIII. Now that we have the writings, the witness to hope and freedom, and the clear teaching of recent Popes, we might truly and fully live the vision of Vatican II in reality as a living Church in a world that needs to hear anew the message of Jesus. In that way, the centrality of the thinking and teaching of Vatican II can be further realised.

Gary Carville is a PhD Scholar in Theology and Irish Studies at the Mater Dei Institute of Education, a college of Dublin City University. His thesis is on Ireland and Vatican II: History and Reception of a Church Council.