During a special Mass commemorating the 60th anniversary of the opening of the historic Second Vatican Council, Pope Francis called the event an act of love toward God and a remedy to the acute polarization afflicting the modern church.
Speaking to attendees of the Oct. 11 liturgy, Francis said God in his role as the Good Shepherd “looks out and wants his flock to be united, under the guidance of the Pastors he has given them.”
God wants faithful “to see the whole” of the church, and not just certain parts of it, he said, saying “the Church is a communion in the image of the Trinity. The devil, on the other hand, wants to sow the darnel of division.”
“Let us not give in to his enticements or to the temptation of polarization,” the pope said, asking, “How often 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!”
“How many times did they prefer to cheer on their own party rather than being servants of all? To be progressive or conservative rather than being brothers and sisters? To be on the ‘right’ or ‘left,’ rather than with Jesus?” he asked.
Francis chided faithful who sought to present themselves as either “guardians of the truth” or “pioneers of innovation” rather than “seeing themselves as humble and grateful children of Holy Mother Church.”
That, he said, “is not how the Lord wants us to be. We are his sheep, his flock, and we can only be so together and as one.”
Easily the most significant event in global Catholicism in the past century, the Second Vatican Council was formally opened by Pope Saint John XXIII on Oct. 11, 1962, gathering bishops from around the world to explore revisions and reforms with the goal of making the church better understood and more effective at evangelization in an increasingly secular world. It was closed by Pope Saint Paul VI on Dec. 8, 1965.
The 16 magisterial documents produced by the council outlined sweeping liturgical reforms; laid the foundation for the development of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue; underlined the need for more lay involvement in church life; and stressed the importance of developing evangelical strategies that were more pastoral in nature.
These reforms were met with intense resistance by certain factions of the church who argued that the church was watering down and abandoning the essentials, including the breakaway traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), which remain separated from Rome to this day.
Others defended the reforms as necessary adjustments in a rapidly changing world, but condemned certain interpretations of the reforms as being too lax and verging on Protestantism, and therefore unfaithful to the true reforming spirit of so-called Vatican II.
Many of these divisions still exist to this day, particularly surrounding the liturgy and Pope Francis’s decision last year to restrict access to the Traditional Latin Mass.
In his homily, Pope Francis focused on the day’s Gospel reading in which Jesus tells Peter, “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”
He said the Council was a response to this question, which allowed the church to see itself as “a mystery of grace generated by love.” As such, the council, he said, is an invitation for look at the church “from above,” meaning from God’s perspective.
“We are always tempted to start from ourselves rather than from God, to put our own agendas before the Gospel, to let ourselves be caught up in the winds of worldliness in order to chase after the fashions of the moment or to turn our back the time that providence has granted us,” he said.
Francis cautioned that “both the ‘progressivism’ that lines up behind the world and the ‘traditionalism’ that longs for a bygone world are not evidence of love, but of infidelity.”
Both of these attitudes, he said, are forms of a “Pelagian selfishness that puts our own tastes and plans above the love that pleases God, the simple, humble and faithful love that Jesus asked of Peter.”
Rediscovering the council, the pope said, is an opportunity to go back to the essentials of “a Church madly in love with its Lord and with all the men and women whom he loves; to a Church that is rich in Jesus and poor in assets; to a Church that is free and freeing.”
“This was the path that the Council pointed out to the Church,” he said, calling the anniversary a chance to return “to the sources of her first love; to rediscover God’s holiness in her own poverty.”
Pope Francis recalled the opening speech of the council given by Pope John XXIII, whose remains were displayed to the side of the main altar during Mass, and repeated his predecessor’s declaration of Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, or, “Mother Church rejoices.”
“May the Church be overcome with joy,” he said, saying, “If she should fail to rejoice, she would deny her very self, for she would forget the love that begot her.”
“Yet how many of us are unable to live the faith with joy, without grumbling and criticizing? A Church in love with Jesus has no time for quarrels, gossip and disputes,” he said, asking God to “free us from being critical and intolerant, harsh and angry,” saying this “is not a matter of style but of love.”
Francis pointed to Jesus’ command to Peter to feed his sheep, saying Jesus with this command gives Peter “a new role, that of a shepherd, something entirely new to him” and which marked a turning point in his life, “for while fishermen are concerned with hauling a catch to themselves, shepherds are concerned with others, with feeding others.”
A shepherd “is not ‘above’ the nets – like a fisherman – but ‘in the midst of’ his sheep,” he said, saying the council also teaches faithful the lesson of “looking around” and learning to be in the world “with others without ever feeling superior to others.”
“How timely the Council remains! It helps us reject the temptation to enclose ourselves within the confines of our own comforts and convictions,” he said.
The pope urged faithful to return to the council, which he said, “rediscovered the living river of Tradition without remaining mired in traditions.”
“Let us return to the Council and move beyond ourselves, resisting the temptation to self-absorption,” he said, insisting that as the church obeys Jesus’s command to feed his sheep, it “leaves behind nostalgia for the past, regret at the passing of former influence, and attachment to power.”
“You, the holy People of God, are a pastoral people. You are not here to shepherd yourselves, but others – all others – with love,” particularly “the poor and the outcast,” he said.
Pope Francis closed his homily urging faithful to “overcome all polarization and preserve our communion,” asking that “all of us increasingly ‘be one,’ as Jesus prayed before sacrificing his life for us.”
He also thanked members of other Christian communities who participated in the liturgy, and voiced gratitude to God for “the gift of the Council.”
“You who love us, free us from the presumption of self-sufficiency and from the spirit of worldly criticism,” he said, adding, “You who lovingly feed us, lead us forth from the shadows of self-absorption. You who desire that we be a united flock, save us from the forms of polarization that are the devil’s handiwork.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen