Walking with Peter – The Pope

St. Peter - Pope Francis

Although it was a long time ago, I find myself reflecting on lessons learned when I was still a seminarian preparing for priestly ordination in Rome. It was the time of the Second Vatican Council. Pope – now Saint – John XXIII had convoked this Ecumenical Council because, as he put it, the Church was in need of “aggiornamento,” updating.

Together with fellow students and so many others, I eagerly anticipated the Council sessions and felt that the Spirit was at work in the Church. The Vatican news releases with their meager content on each day’s Council deliberations generated even more conversation outside Saint Peter’s Basilica than inside where the Council was unfolding.

Looking back I feel particularly blessed because the bishop of my home diocese was an active participant in the Council sessions as well as in a number of preparatory commissions. Bishop, later Cardinal, John Wright was a wise, witty, articulate and impressive personality who shared a lot of insight with the young seminarian who served as what we would call today a “gopher”.

One conversation I recall with great poignancy now. There were reports of diverse views on the reform of the Liturgy as well as the very important working papers on Divine Revelation and on the Church. I asked if all this wide-ranging debate (at least within the Basilica and outside in the press accounts) would work against the unity of the Church. I pointed out, with all of the “theological expertise” that every seminarian feels he commands, that so much of what the Council was discussing was already, according to some, “settled Church practice and teaching” that could never be altered or adapted. I also noted that we had heard from friends at the Lateran University about the professor there who warned them that Pope John XXIII might be leading the Church “astray.” My question was, is not the very discussion contrary to Church unity?

My good, thoughtful and really kind bishop stopped what he was working on, a text he was writing, turned to me and asked me to tell him what I knew of the Council of Nicaea. This was the Council that chose to use a whole new field of language and concept to develop, to penetrate the revealed truth in Sacred Scripture that Jesus Christ is truly the Son of God, light from light, true God from true God, homoousion – one in substance with the Father. This was a word to define Jesus found nowhere in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The bishop’s lesson was clear. The Second Vatican Council under the leadership of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI was doing today what bishops in communion with Peter have always, in one format or another, done. They have gathered to speak with clarity, listen with humility, and be open to the Spirit. Speaking about how best to proclaim and live the Gospel is not a threat to Church unity. The challenge comes from those who will not accept the validity of the discussion, want to impose their own views as if they alone were in possession of the one true faith, and call into question the fidelity of everyone else.

Years later as a Cardinal, the same John Wright served in the Vatican. Those earlier conversations were then repeated with greater frequency and urgency. In the 70s all kinds of aberrations surfaced under the banner either of “the spirit” of the Council or an outright rejection of some of its positions. There was even the assertion actually published with some regularity that Pope Paul VI was really an imposter and the Church was facing a “sede vacante,” in other words a time when there is no pope.

I remember today Cardinal Wright’s wise words to a very young priest, “Stand with the Pope. Transitions are always challenges but if you walk through the discussion and implementation of the Council alongside the successor of Peter, you will not go astray.” He would use the example of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (a bishop who attended the Second Vatican Council and later dissented from some of its teaching and eventually broke away from the Catholic Church) as what happens when you place your own judgment above that of the rest of the bishops and the Pope.

From the other extreme of the Church spectrum came a flood of liturgical, catechetical and pastoral exaggerations that brought great harm to the faithful and the vitality of the Church. One enduring and sad legacy of that turbulent time is the hermeneutic either of discontinuity or suspicion that is still a plague. The former fails to recognize the need for continuity in the development of Church practice and teaching, and the latter envisions intrigue and ulterior motives for much of what happens in the Church.

The same advice remains equally applicable today. Stand with Peter. Make the faith pilgrimage with Peter, this is to say journey in fidelity with the pope as he leads the people of God. Work always with and never without him. Perhaps the journey will not move as fast as one would like or might seem to be moving more rapidly than another would appreciate. But one lesson has certainly been validated in these fifty years – the last half century – since the close of the Council: Peter has not led us astray, into error. Walking with Peter, journeying with the bishops in communion with him may have its own challenges and the outcome in every detail may not always be crystal clear. But it is the way given us by Christ.