ROME -- Pope Francis appealed for unity in the Catholic Church on Tuesday as he marked the 60th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, lamenting the divisions that its modernizing reforms spawned as the work of the devil.
Francis presided over a special evening Mass to commemorate the opening of Vatican II which brought the 2,000-year-old church into the modern era by allowing for Masses in the vernacular rather than Latin and a greater emphasis on the role of ordinary faithful in the life of the church.
Sixty years later, Vatican II still very much divides the faithful, with progressives seeing it as a break from the past and conservatives seeing it as fully in line with church tradition and chafing at the “spirit of Vatican II” progressive read of it. The latest battleground has been over the pre-Vatican II old Latin Mass, with traditionalists blasting Francis' decision to greatly restrict its celebration.
In his homily, Francis blamed the temptation to choose sides in the ideological battles on the “devil who wants to sow the scandal of division.”
“How many times, in the wake of the Council, did Christians prefer to choose sides in the Church, not realizing that they were breaking their Mother’s heart!” he asked. “To be on the ‘right’ or ‘left’, rather than with Jesus? To present themselves as ‘guardians of the truth’ or 'pioneers of innovation' rather than seeing themselves as humble and grateful children of Holy Mother Church?”
He pleaded for the faithful to act as one, as Christ’s flock. “Let us overcome all polarization and preserve our communion,” he said.
Tuesday’s Mass was celebrated in honor of St. John XXIII, who convened the council and presided over its opening session, and his remarkably well-preserved remains inside a glass coffin were on view by the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica.
The ceremony began with a reading of John’s inaugural speech to the council and excerpts from some of Vatican II’s key documents. It ended with the faithful leaving the basilica with candles in hand, recalling the candlelight procession that lit up St. Peter’s Square on the night of Oct. 11, 1962.
On that night, the “good pope” came to the window of the Apostolic Palace and delivered his famous “moonlight speech” to the thousands who had gathered below. Whereas pre-Vatican II popes usually spoke in formal terms, John surprised the crowd with an impromptu, pastoral speech urging the faithful to go home to their children and give them a hug and tell them “this is the caress of the pope.”
The council would last for another three years and outlive John, who died in 1963 of stomach cancer.
But when it was over, council fathers had agreed to major changes in the life of the church. In addition to allowing for liturgies in the vernacular, the council fathers also encouraged efforts to improve relations among Christians and revolutionized the church’s relations with Jews, including removing the phrase “perfidious Jews” from the liturgy.
Francis, 85, is the first pope to have been ordained after the council, and his priorities are very much inspired by it.
“Above all peace, above all the poor church,” said Vatican II historian Alberto Melloni told The Associated Press about Francis.
Melloni also pointed to Francis’ insistence on a “synodal” or decentralized church, with an emphasis on lay Catholics rather than clerics. The lay-centric vision of the church is clearly evident in Francis’ decision to allow laypeople, including women, to head Vatican offices and in the the two-year “synod” process in which ordinary Catholic faithful have joined a global consultation on the life and mission of the church.
Conservatives have bristled at Francis’ synod process, with German Cardinal Gerhard Meuller recently asserting it amounts to a “hostile takeover of the Catholic Church.” He told the EWTN broadcaster that Vatican II reaffirmed that divine revelation could not change and that any other interpretation was not only erroneous but dangerous.
“John XXIII did not convoke Vatican II to reinvent Catholicism,” writes church historian George Weigel in his new book “To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II.”
“As he put it in his opening address, the council’s ‘greatest concern’ must be the more effective presentation of Catholic truth in full” through a new language and vocabulary that could be understood in the modern world, Weigel wrote.