The first pope to be ordained a priest after Vatican II has shown a particular attachment to the Council, most notably through the liturgy and synodalityWhy Pope Francis is so keen on celebrating Vatican II
Session of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, October 15, 1962. (Photo: OR/CPP/CIRIC)
By Loup Besmond de Senneville | Vatican City
Some in Rome were surprised when it was announced that Pope Francis would preside at a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on October 11 to commemorate the beginning of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The liturgy came 60 years to the day after the opening of what John XXIII called an “aggiornamento” (“updating”) of the Church “after twenty centuries of life”.
Some 35 cardinals, 55 bishops, and 450 priests – five of these men who actually took part in Vatican II – joined Francis for Tuesday’s anniversary Mass. Indeed, during his nearly ten years in office, the Jesuit pope has continued to place himself as the successor of the Council, regularly citing, for instance, the four constitutions that it produced.”
Until the summer of 2021, Francis spoke indirectly about Vatican II through his travels or the major texts of his pontificate,” said Massimo Faggioli, an Italian theologian who teaches religious studies at Villanova University in the United States. “He was a typical Latin American: the Council was a given, and he spoke in particular about the post-Council,” Faggioli noted.
A turning point
Referring to the pope’s family name, he said there is definitely a “Bergoglian way of thinking” about Vatican II. Faggioli said the publication of Traditionis custodes, the “motu proprio” that strictly curtailed the celebration of the pre- Vatican II Mass, was a turning point.”
At that time, (Francis) understood that the situation was serious, especially in the United States, and identified a risk of liturgical schism,” Faggioli pointed out. In fact, for several months, the pope had been making the liturgy one of the cornerstones of Vatican II, or at least he began to equate the contestation of liturgical reform with a rejection of the entire Council.
“I do not see how it is possible to say that one recognizes the validity of the Council — though it amazes me that a Catholic might presume not to do so — and at the same time not accept the liturgical reform born out of Sacrosanctum Concilium,” Francis declared last June in Desiderio desideravi, his apostolic letter on the liturgy.
Interestingly, the Argentine pope mostly remained silent on the liturgy during the first years of his pontificate. “The liturgy became a point of contention over the Council,” said a senior Vatican source. “Liturgical reform is part of the Council, you can’t separate the two. To reject one is to reject the other,” the source insisted.
But beyond questions related to the liturgy, Francis’ actions are a continuation of the Council, especially in his development of synodality. He has held assemblies of the Synod of Bishops on particular themes, such as the family, youth and the Amazon. He has also taken a broader approach, such as the recent grassroots synodal process to prepare the Synod’s assembly on the future of the Church.
The final phase of this “Synod on synodality” will begin in a year’s time. It will come at the end of a two-year process that was intended to involve all Catholics. “Vatican II has opened up moments, previously unthinkable, of discussion and debate among Catholics,” Faggioli explained. “The council created precisely the possibility for discussion outside the Council, allowing participation by all, not just the bishops,” the theologian said.In this 60th anniversary year of Vatican II, the general secretariat of the Synod of Bishops has been eager to claim the Council’s legacy. “The purpose of the Synod was and remains to prolong, in the life and mission of the Church, the spirit of the Second Vatican Council,” said a statement the Rome-based secretariat released the past Monday, a day before the anniversary of Vatican II’s opening.
“The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, which was strongly desired by St. John XXIII and carried out by St. Paul VI, was an event of grace for the Church and for the world,” Francis recently stressed in the preface to a book on the subject published in Italy (Giovanni XXIII. Il Vaticano II. Un Concilio per il mondo, by Marco Roncalli).
He described it as “an event whose fruits have not been exhausted”. “The last ecumenical council has not yet been fully understood, lived and applied,” Francis continued. “We are on our way.”