Pope Francis has reconnected the Church with Vatican IlPope Francis has reconnected the Church with Vatican Il
Mar 17, 2017
This is an edited text of an interview given by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington to Gerard O’Connell at the North American College in Rome on February 22, 2017.
On March 13, Francis entered the fifth year of his pontificate. As you look back over his first four years, how do you read them? What are the major achievements?
I think his great contribution to date has been the reconnecting of the Church with the energy of the Second Vatican Council, the energy coming out of that council. I was a student, studying theology when that council was going on and we were all caught up in the excitement of aggiornamento — renewal.
I think what happened next was that, following the council, there were some exaggerations. Theologically, there was the hermeneutic of discontinuity; liturgically, there were all kinds of experimentation. And, in a way, what got lost was the council’s call for us to return our focus to the primacy of love as the engine driving the Church, her teaching and her outreach.
John Paul II was the great refocusing moment in the life of the Church to get us back on track and say no to the exaggerations and discontinuity. Pope Benedict put the nail in the coffin on the discontinuity.
Now comes Pope Francis who’s saying, “Why don’t we pick up where we left off: collegiality, synodality.” The synodality that Paul VI initiated has flowered under Francis. Those two synods on the family were unlike any of the other synods prior to them because they actually invited the bishops into the process in a transparent, open way.
Then came the emphasis in Amoris Laetitia. It told us that we have to get back, as the council said, to a moral theology that rests on scripture and Jesus’ command to love and to the virtues that are the signs of a moral life, not the rigid following of the letter of the law.
So, when I look back over these four years, I see that Francis has accomplished all this refocusing, even though we have a long, long way to go to begin to change the direction of an institution as big as the Catholic Church and to get it focused back again on the path that I believe the council set out on. I think what he has done is already a huge accomplishment.
From the beginning of his pontificate, Francis has urged the Church to reach out to people.
He has certainly given us focus on an evangelising discipleship that is now becoming the trademark of the Church, but we have a huge way to go. The maintenance aspect of the Church will always be there, but he’s saying don’t forget that that’s only the support system for an evangelising outreach.
Having put that in place as a focus, personally, I think, he is completely refocusing the role of bishop. Think of it, at the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, John XXIII, “the Good Pope John” went into St Peter’s basilica on the sedia gestatoria (the ceremonial papal throne) and had flabella (large fans), the Noble Guards, the tiara and, yet, with all that, he was saying, “We need to look at this; this can’t be what the Gospel is all about.”
Now you see Pope Francis, he shows up in a simple white cassock and everyone says that’s where it should be. It was no small accomplishment for him to say that a much simpler Church, in terms of all the accoutrement, is going to be a much more effective Church.
So, if I had to say what were Francis’ great accomplishments to date, I would say that one was the refocusing of the Church to speak and look much more like the Gospel and then to invite bishops, once again, to take their responsible role in the life of the Church.
In the process, of course, Francis is changing the papacy.
Yes. It will never look like it did 25 or more years ago. We have, of course, to remember that so much of the external appearance of the Church was residual; it was what was left from another era, when the need for the Church to have this political and state quality to it was so very important. But we are past that. That’s not what people look to now when they’re trying to determine what allegiance they should give to the Catholic Church.
Francis has moved in three directions: he’s focused on poverty and the poor in the world; he’s focused on the care of creation and our common home; and then, in Amoris Laetitia, on the family. What do you see as the great contribution in Amoris?
In Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), the Holy Father is recognising what we have all come to see — that a pervasive secularism is now the dominant cultural voice. But, without family, you can’t pass on anything. John Paul II said faith, culture, civilisation and everything is passed on through the family because every child becomes the heir to the heritage of the generations before.
This Holy Father has recognised that marriage, in the culture in which we live, needs to be totally renewed. But you can’t do this without recognising that this is a different moment in history to 25 years ago, and the people the Church is talking to don’t understand the words the same way as we do.
I’ll give you one example. In the summer, we always have some time when I meet with young people, young couples, just to talk about where they are, what’s going on. In one conversation, they were very clear about marriage being “permanent,” that is, until it doesn’t work, they said. Permanent for them had a different meaning than it had for me.
I think that’s what the Holy Father is saying: this culture, this language — even the words we use — they have a different meaning for this culture, and we have to find a different way of demonstrating that we’re walking with them, so that we can hear them and they can begin to hear us.
This concept of accompaniment is key here.
Accompaniment is essential to where we’re going to be. The voice of the faith, the voice of the Gospel, isn’t going to be announced today to crowds of people waiting to hear. Nor is it going to be announced through the structures of culture, society — all the routine elements that used to be part of the Christian culture. It’s going to be heard because believers are walking with others and saying, “You know, I think there’s a better way; I have a different take on this than you do.”
Paul VI put it this way in Evangelii Nuntiandi (Evangelisation in the Modern World): “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”
I think that’s so true.
Some have alleged that Amoris Laetitia is not magisterial teaching.
I would never, ever, begin to challenge the voice of the Petrine Office because, if you say, as an individual, I can determine which of the teachings of the Church are magisterial and which aren’t, then which of the papal encyclicals and which of the apostolic exhortations are valid and which aren’t? Who gets to determine that?
It’s determined when they come out with the signature of the pope on them. That’s what makes them part of the Petrine Office — not somebody else’s judgment about their thought or about the content. And so, every apostolic exhortation, and that is all post-synodal ones, are all Petrine magisterium.
Remember it was Paul VI who said to the synod, “You can’t be issuing things because you don’t have any magisterium, I do.” And from Evangelii Nuntiandi on therefore, they were all exercises in the Petrine Office or Magisterium. --America Magazine
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