April 19, 2012 — 7th Anniversary of the Election of Pope Benedict XVI

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Seven Years… And a Prayer for Seven More

“And now, at this moment, weak servant of God that I am, I must assume this enormous task, which truly exceeds all human capacity. How can I do this? How will I be able to do it? All of you, my dear friends, have just invoked the entire host of Saints, represented by some of the great names in the history of God’s dealings with mankind. In this way, I too can say with renewed conviction: I am not alone. I do not have to carry alone what in truth I could never carry alone. All the Saints of God are there to protect me, to sustain me and to carry me. And your prayers, my dear friends, your indulgence, your lov e, your faith and your hope accompany me.” —Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at the Mass for the Imposition of the Pallium and Conferral of the Fisherman’s Ring for the Beginning of the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome, St. Peter’s Square, April 24, 2005

“The purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men. And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him. The task of the shepherd, the task of the fisher of men, can often seem wearisome. But it is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world.” —Ibid.

“My dear friends – at this moment I can only say: pray for me, that I may learn to love the Lord more and more. Pray for me, that I may learn to love his flock more and more – in other words, you, the holy Church, each one of you and all of you together. Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.” —Ibid.

The sun in Rome is shining on this 19th of April, the 7th anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s election to the See of Peter. It is a holiday in the Vatican for that reason.

I remember this day seven years ago. It was a Tuesday evening, about 6 p.m., when the smoke began to fly up from the Sistine Chapel roof. It looked grey, then, white, then grey again, and then fully white. The Pope had been elected. Who was he?

A few minutes later the Square was filled, and people were pouring in through all the columns of the colonnade. And then the announcement came: “We have a Pope. His name is Joseph Ratzinger. He has chosen to call himself Benedict XVI.”

At the balcony, Benedict’s first words to the crowd, given in Italian before he gave the traditional Urbi et Orbi blessing in Latin, were:

“Dear brothers and sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II, the Cardinals have elected me, a simple, humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord. The fact that the Lord knows how to work and to act even with insufficient instruments comforts me, and above all I entrust myself to your prayers. In the joy of the Risen Lord, confident of his unfailing help, let us move forward. The Lord will help us, and Mary, His Most Holy Mother, will be on our side. Thank you.”

Then the new Pope appeared. He seemed happy, peaceful.

The most important thing to say is to wish the Holy Father well (he turned 85 three days ago, on April 16).

My prayer for him would be something like this:

May the Lord be with you as you continue in the task God has called you to, of leading and ruling Christ’s Church, of teaching the truths of the faith, and of bearing witness to the final, eternal reality, the glorious holiness and the immeasurable justice, mercy and loving-kindness of the triune God. May you be consoled in moments of difficulty, may you be strengthened in moments of weakness — moments all flesh is heir to — and may you be protected by Mary, the Mother of God, and of the Church, and richly blessed with profound joy and peace as you continue your mission. Ad multos annos… unto many more years. As you yourself prayed on Holy Saturday, just 12 days ago, “Let us pray to the Lord at this time that He may grant us to experience the joy of his light; let us pray that we ourselves may become bearers of his light, and that through the Church, Christ’s r adiant face may enter our world (cf. LG 1). Amen.”

“It Was On the Third Day of the Council…”

(Left: Archbishop Lefebvre with Padre Pio in 1967, a year before Padre Pio’s death)

“On 29 June 1976, (Archbishop) Lefebvre went ahead with planned priestly ordinations without the approval of the local Bishop and despite receiving letters from Rome forbidding them. As a result Lefebvre was suspended a collatione ordinum, i.e., forbidden to ordain any priests. A week later, the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops informed him that, to have his situation regularized, he needed to ask the Pope’s pardon. Lefebvre responded with a letter claiming that the modernisation of the Church was a ‘compromise with the ideas of modern man’ originating in a secret agreement between high dignitaries in the Church and senior Freemasons prior to the Council. Lefebvre was then notified that, since he had not apologised to the Pope, he was suspended a divinis…” —Wikipedia, Marcel Lefebvre, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcel_Lefebvre

“On 18 September 1991, Cardinal Silvio Oddi, who had been Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy from 1979 to 1986, visited Lefebvre’s tomb, knelt down at it, prayed, afterwards saying aloud: “Merci, Monseigneur”. Thereafter Cardinal Oddi said he held Archbishop Lefebvre to have been ‘a holy man’ and suggested that the Society of St Pius X could be granted a personal prelature by the Holy See like that of Opus Dei. —Ibid.

Lefebvre, the Council, the Mass…

The report which follows concerns a matter of great importance — a matter that cannot be dealt with in one email. I will try to follow the story as it unfolds, as it is, in some ways, the story of the Church, and her trials, in our age…

Yesterday, the Vatican Press Office released a little note which almost all observers agree marks a pivotal moment in one of the most important developing news stories in the Church, and in the world, at this time.

The note said that a letter had been received in the Vatican from the head of the Society of St. Pius X.

That is all the note said.

And yet, the internet and the press was soon filled with reports that this note marked a “breakthrough” in the multi-year process of negotiations between Rome and Society of St. Pius X, which is not in full communion with Rome.

Here is the text of the note, entitled: Communique of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” (a commission now under the auspices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the chief doctrinal office in the Church).

The communique reads:

“The text of the response of His Excellency Bp. Bernard Fellay, Superior General of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X, requested during the meeting in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of March 16, 2012, was delivered on April 17, 2012. This text will be examined by the Dicastery and submitted afterwards to the judgment of the Holy Father.”

Why is this little note generating so much excitement?

Because many believe the note presages a solution to the break between Rome and the Society, and expect that solution to be announced within days, or weeks.

Some are even saying that this letter received, referred to in this note, is a “birthday present” to the Holy Father on his 85th birthday.

However, that goes beyond what we know for sure.

Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., the spokesman of the Holy Father, yesterday in the Press Office, had this to say (the following is a transcription of his oral comments to journalists; I bold-face the two phrases which are the “news” in this comment):

“Today’s news means that yesterday Bp. Fellay’s response, that had been requested by Cardinal Levada at the last meeting, was delivered to the Congregation, to the Ecclesia Dei Commission, to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Now, this response, it is a reponse that, according to the words of those who could see, it is a very different response from the previous one, and this is encouraging, we proceed forward. But, naturally, we also find in the response the addition of some details or integrations to the text of the doctrinal preamble that had been proposed by the Congregation for a doctrinal agreement, and this response will be discussed, it will be examined first by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in one of its meetings of the next few weeks and, afterwards, it will also naturally be examined directly by t he Pope. It can be said that steps forward have been taken, that is to say, that the response, the new response, is rather encouraging, but there are still developments that will be made, and examined, and decisions that should be taken in the next few weeks. I think the wait will not be long because there is the desire to reach a conclusion in these discussions, in these contacts.”

A spokesman for the Society of St. Pius X was, if anything, even less positive about this letter than Lombardi. He said the following:

Communiqué of the General House of the Society of Saint Pius X
The media are announcing that Bishop Bernard Fellay has sent a “positive response” to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and that consequently the doctrinal question between the Holy See and the Society of St. Pius X is now resolved.

The reality is different.

In a letter dated April 17, 2012, the Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X responded to the request for clarification that had been made to him on March 16 by Cardinal William Levada concerning the Doctrinal Preamble delivered on September 14, 2011. As the press release dated today [April 17] from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith indicates, the text of this response “will be examined by the dicastery then submitted to the Holy Father for his judgment”.

This is therefore a stage and not a conclusion.

Menzingen, April 18, 2012

How this matter is resolved — and how it will finally be resolved is still not at all clear — will have much to do with how Benedict XVI’s pontificate is viewed by future historians.

Benedict now finds himself at the center of many very powerful interests who will wish to sway his judgment as he decides this matter. For this reason, he will need our prayers.

But more important than the effect on the historical judgment of this pontificate, the way this matter is resolved will have a profound impact on the Church herself, on how she views herself and her mission in the world, in time, in history, and, therefore, on how the Church orients her activity and life with regard to the secular world outside of the Church.

The matter at issue is the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X and whether it will be received back into full communion with Rome, but the deeper question is the Second Vatican Council and how that Council should be interpreted.

Therefore, the matter directly concerns several hundred thousand Catholics who followed and sympathized with the French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and who ended up in an irregular position on the edges of the Church — “Traditionalist Catholics,” they are labeled — after Lefebvre was suspended a divinis (from all sacramental activities) by Pope Paul VI in the 1970s, and then excommunicated latae sententiae (i.e., automatically) by Pope John Paul II in 1988, after he ordained four bishops against the Pope’s explicit request not to do so.

Lefebvre died in 1991. I did not know him personally, but I have spoken with cardinals who did know him, including with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI). All have praised him for his upright moral character, his personal integrity, and his profound desire to be faithful to Catholic tradition; in short, for his personal goodness. Lefebvre was a missionary for many years in Africa, and then one of many bishops — for the sake of simplicity, let us say there were about 600 of them — who at the Second Vatican Council composed a “conservative” group concerned that the Council was moving too far, too fast. So he was by no means unique, or marginal, or “bizarre,” at that time. It is a sign of how rapidly and profoundly the times and mentalities have changed that he should be so regarded by some today. In the 1960s, he was well within the “norm” of a large group of bishops who ag reed with him.

But, he was the only bishop who, after the Council, founded a functioning Society which had a structure capable of surviving over time, and of carrying on his ideas which, in effect, were the ideas of the 600 conservative Catholic bishops at the Council.

For those who loved and followed him, he was a modern St. Athanasius, alone against the world. (St. Athanasius in the 4th century was arrested, deposed from his see in Egypt, had to flee into exile, and was opposed by hundreds of bishops who had become Arian in their theology, that is, heretics, but was supported by the Pope of the time. That is why we speak of St. Athanasius as “Athanasius contra mundum” — Athanasius against the world. And when we speak of him using that phrase, we are praising him for his intransigence, for not giving in to the majority…)

(Note: In his biography of Lefebvre, The Horn of the Unicorn, David Allen White said that Lefebvre received a small number of votes — variously reported as three or “several” — in the August 1978 conclave that elected Pope John Paul I, a matter that, he said, caused some consternation among the cardinals, as Lefebvre was not a cardinal, and casting a vote for a non-cardinal in a papal election is unusual, although permitted by Church law.)

Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict, came to know Lefebvre well, for the two met personally to negotiate a possible agreement in the spring of 1988. (That negotiation was preceded by a 1987 investigatory visitation of the Lefebvre seminary at Econe and their houses and centers elsewhere by Cardinal Edouard Gagnon, whom I knew. Gagnon was impressed by the piety and discipline he observed.)

In fact, an agreement between Rome and Lefebvre was reached, and Lefebvre signed the agreement on May 5, 1988. The agreement would have avoided the schism that then occurred, and it suggests that Lefebvre found reason to trust Ratzinger enough to sign the agreement.

But that very night, Lefebvre, having returned to Albano outside of Rome — just next to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence — felt uneasy in spirit. His assistants told me that he stayed up late praying in his private chapel. He was on his knees for most of the night, asking for God’s guidance. (I went out to visit that chapel, and to talk to his assitants, not long after that night.)

In the morning, Lefebvre changed his mind. He felt, his assistants told me, that he could trust Cardinal Ratzinger, but not the Vatican, that the document he had signed allowed too much leeway for Vatican authorities to eventually influence who would become the leaders (the bishops) of his Society, and that the outwardly secure, safe agreement that Ratzinger had urged him to sign, and which he had agreed to sign, would slowly be unraveled, in time, by others, and that all his work would risk, eventually, being dismantled.

“He simply could not make a leap of trust,” one observer close to the negotiations told me.

But why could he not make that “leap” of trust?

Some argue that it was because of his character, that he was by nature a bit “rigid,” not “expansive” and trusting.

But others say there were solid reasons for his lack of trust. They note, especially, that he had observed how some actions in the Church had been “pushed through” even by almost violent means, breaking procedures previously agreed upon.

In order to understand this better, one must go back to the Council itself. And, in order to do that, I thought I needed to go talk with someone who had been present at the Council. So I went to talk to Monsignor Brunero Gherardini.

Gherardini lives inside the Vatican, in the Fabbrica of San Pietro, the palace between the Paul VI Hall and the back of St. Peter’s. He lives on the 5th floor.

He is a tall, slender, white haired-man with friendly eyes and a ready smile. He is almost 90, but his mind is crystal clear. He taught theology for decades at the Pontifical Lateran University. He is considered a “conservative” and some say he is the last great representative of the “Roman School” in theology.

I rang three times, and he wasn’t in — I was late for our meeting. I waiting five minutes, then left. I would have missed him, but he was walking into the archway below, with a newspaper he had gone out to purchase. “Hello!” he said. “Turn around and come back upstairs with me and we’ll talk.”

And so I joined him in his apartment. He moved two chairs until they faced each other, and we began to talk. We spoke of the Pope’s anniversary today, and then I asked about the possible reconciliation with the Lefebvrists. He said these days are historic, and he is hopeful of a good result.

Then I asked about the Council. Whenever I think about the Council, I said, I always have one image in my mind: an aging Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, now blind, about age 80, limping, the head of the Holy Office and so the chief doctrinal officer of the Church, born in Trastevere to parents who had many children, so a Roman from Rome, from the people of Rome, takes the microphone to speak to the 2,000 assembled bishops. And, as he speaks, pleading for the bishops to consider the texts the curia has spent three years preparing, suddenly his microphone was shut off. He kept speaking, but no one could hear a word. Then, puzzled and flustered, he stopped speaking, in confusion. And the assembled fathers began to laugh, and then to cheer…

“Yes,” Gherardini said. “And it was only the third day.”

“What?” I said.

“Ottaviani’s microphone was turned off on the third day of the Council.”

“On the third day?” I said. “I didn’t know that. I thought it was later, in November, after the progressive group became more organized…”

“No, it was the third day, October 13, 1962. The Council began on October 11.”

“Do you know who turned off the microphone?”

“Yes,” he said. “It was Cardinal Lienart of Lille, France.”

“But then,” I said, “it could almost be argued, perhaps, that such a breech of protocol, making it impossible for Ottaviani to make his arguments, somehow renders what came after, well, in a certain sense, improper…”

“Some people make that argument,” Gherardini replied.

Father Joseph Ratzinger was among the leaders of the progressive movement at the Council, along with Karl Rahner, Dominique Chenu, Yves Congar — “Congar was the master-mind of the group,” Gherardini said — and others.

But the ways of God are mysterious. Ratzinger failed to bring Lefebvre back into full communion with Rome in 1988, and in 2005, he was elected Pope — seven years ago today.

During his pontificate, one golden thread has been his effort to reverse that 1988 defeat, and to bring the Lefebvrists back into union with Rome.

On July 7, 2007, he promulgated Summorum Pontificum, against vociferous protests by many cardinals and bishops, encouraging free use throughout the Church of the traditional Tridentine liturgy.

And now, the final acts of the negotiation with the successors of Lefebvre are about to be played out.

(to be continued)

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