Retired Pope Benedict XVI greets Archbishop Shevchuk prior to beatification Mass of Blessed Paul VI in St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 19. CNS photo/ Paul Haring

Never too late to listen to Pope Benedict XVI

  • October 23, 2014

One of the world’s wisest voices was not heard during the synod fortnight in Rome. His time to speak publicly is definitively past, but it behooves the Church to listen now to what he said then. 

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI appeared at the concluding Mass of the Synod to witness the beatification of a predecessor, Pope Paul VI. It was Blessed Paul VI who called Joseph Ratzinger from his professorial chair and seated him upon the cathedra of Munich in May 1977, creating him a cardinal one month later. It was one of the most consequential decisions he would make. 

Blessed Paul VI’s great task was to complete the work of the Second Vatican Council and to begin its implementation. The same Council was the great event that made the young Ratzinger into a figure that would play a central role in Catholic life for five decades. As pope, Benedict would call for a Year of Faith to commemorate the Council’s 50th anniversary and then, dramatically, abdicate during it. Three days after he announced his departure, Benedict addressed the clergy of Rome for their annual encounter at the beginning of Lent. The Holy Father, more lucid extemporaneously than most can manage with extensive preparation, delivered “a few thoughts on the Second Vatican Council, as I saw it.” 

“There was the Council of the Fathers — the real Council — but there was also the Council of the media,” said Benedict in his valedictory to his priests. “It was almost a Council apart, and the world perceived the Council through the latter, through the media. Thus, the Council that reached the people with immediate effect was that of the media, not that of the Fathers. And while the Council of the Fathers was conducted within the faith — it was a Council of faith seeking intellectus, seeking to understand itself and seeking to understand the signs of God at that time, seeking to respond to the challenge of God at that time and to find in the word of God a word for today and tomorrow … the Council of the journalists, naturally, was not conducted within the faith, but within the categories of today’s media, namely apart from faith, with a different hermeneutic. It was a political hermeneutic: for the media, the Council was a political struggle, a power struggle between different trends in the Church. It was obvious that the media would take the side of those who seemed to them more closely allied with their world.” 

“We know that this Council of the media was accessible to everyone. Therefore, this was the dominant one, the more effective one, and it created so many disasters, so many problems, so much suffering: seminaries closed, convents closed, banal liturgy,” Benedict continued, reminding those present that the great hopes of the Council met bitter disappointment in the immediate aftermath. 

“The real Council had difficulty establishing itself and taking shape; the virtual Council was stronger than the real Council. But the real force of the Council was present and, slowly but surely, established itself more and more and became the true force which is also the true reform, the true renewal of the Church. It seems to me that, 50 years after the Council, we see that this virtual Council is broken, is lost, and there now appears the true Council with all its spiritual force.” 

Speaking in February 2013, Benedict could not have known that within two years the dynamic of those years would be unleashed upon the Church again. It mattered less what happened in the “synod of the fathers” these past weeks than what happened in the “synod of the media,” the latter skillfully manipulated to dominate world headlines long before anyone would hear what the synod fathers themselves had to say. That manipulation was denounced in the strongest terms by senior bishops from Australia, America, Africa and eastern Europe, and the body of bishops rebelled as a whole against it, but again the virtual synod of what was presented to the listening media was more influential than the real synod itself. 

Blessed Paul VI suffered grievously from the “many disasters” visited upon the Church by the “Council apart.” He would recognize the 2014 Extraordinary Synod all too well. 

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila famously remarked amidst this synod that the “spirit of Vatican II” had returned. Cardinal Tagle did his doctoral work on Paul VI, so he would know that the spirit of Vatican II was twofold, the Spirit of God at work in the Church and the spirit of the world seeking to frustrate the Gospel. Both were evident at the Synod. 

Gazing up at the newly unveiled image of the beatus on the façade of St. Peter’s, perhaps Benedict asked the long-suffering Paul VI to intercede for the Church after a tumultuous Synod on the family, a retired man reflecting on the tumult of his youth. 

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: 

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