And now the second topic: the Church. We know that the First Vatican Council was interrupted because of the Franco-Prussian War, and so it remained somewhat one-sided, incomplete, because the doctrine on the primacy – defined, thanks be to God, in that historical moment for the Church, and very necessary for the period that followed – was just a single element in a broader ecclesiology, already envisaged and prepared. So we were left with a fragment. And one might say: as long as it remains a fragment, we tend towards a one-sided vision where the Church would be just the primacy.
So all along, the intention was to complete the ecclesiology of Vatican I, at a date to be determined, for the sake of a complete ecclesiology. Here too the time seemed ripe because, after the First World War, the sense of the Church was reborn in a new way. As Romano Guardini said: "The Church is starting to reawaken in people’s souls", and a Protestant bishop spoke of the "era of the Church". Above all, there was a rediscovery of the concept that Vatican I had also envisaged, namely that of the Mystical Body of Christ. People were beginning to realize that the Church is not simply an organization, something structured, juridical, institutional – it is that too – but rather an organism, a living reality that penetrates my soul, in such a way that I myself, with my own believing soul, am a building block of the Church as such. In this sense, Pius XII wrote the Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi as a step towards completing the ecclesiology of Vatican I.
Reflection – Well, so the day has come at last. At 8 p.m. (Roman time) today, Pope Benedict will step down from the chair of Peter and retire to a life of prayer and seclusion. I find myself unable to offer some sweeping analysis of Benedict’s papacy and its long-range impact, or some grand conclusion about the meaning of his resignation and its implications for the Church.
Partly, I’m still jet-lagged, and very much taken up with my short-term assignment to Robin Hood’s Bay, UK. Mostly, though, I don’t put all that much stock in grand sweeping analyses, especially those made in the moment of the event. Time and history will give us a better sense of ‘what it all means’ than this present moment affords.
Meanwhile, by sheer coincidence I have come to the point of the address to the Roman clergy about the ecclesiology of Vatican II, and particularly about the incomplete ecclesiology of Vatican I. And this is more than slightly relevant to today’s event.
Vatican I (if you are hazy on the details) defined the dogma of papal infallibility—the pope as the final arbiter of the deposit of faith. His ministry can never be exercised in isolation from the rest of the magisterium or in conflict with the whole of the tradition of the Church, but nonetheless, there is a last word, a final authority, and it resides in the occupant of the chair of Peter.
Vatican I said so, and it is binding on Catholics to believe so. But if we leave it at that, as Vatican I was forced to by historical events, then we are indeed left with an unbalanced and undue emphasis on the office of the papacy to the exclusion of the bishops and indeed this whole deeper sense to the Mystical Body of Christ.
Yes, the Pope has a unique and vital role, and may Benedict’s successor do as good as job with it as he did and John Paul II before him. But… your bishop is also a successor to the apostles, and has a role. And… you have a role, too, you know. As do I.
It is this deep sense of the Church as bigger than one man and even bigger than one office, crucial as it may be, that we need to grasp and truly take to heart. Some of the anxiety around Benedict’s resignation betrays, I would suggest, a lingering lack of balance in the Catholic community. A certain focus on the papal office that is just slightly out of proportion.
Everyone who reads this blog knows that my love of Benedict is second to none, and my respect for Church authority and fidelity to the Church is (I hope by now) beyond question. So understand me well when I say that popes come and popes go, you know! It is Jesus who is the life of the Church, and the Holy Spirit whose abiding presence makes this life real, present, vital, effective. And God the Father who is the source and end of our life in the Church.
So, thank you Benedict. We love you, and we wish you well, and will continue to pray for you daily. Now go have a good rest and pray for us as you promised you would. And the Church goes marching on with unfaltering step and unwavering gaze at the Lord who is our life and our salvation.