Today is a very historic day: not only is it the 50th anniversary of the Opening of the Second Vatican Council, it is also the beginning of the year of Faith. This Year of Faith is a personal initiative of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, and it is going to be perhaps his greatest gift to our Church.
Last week the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican Office responsible for Indulgences and for handling those grave sins whose absolution is reserved to the Holy Father (such as desecrating the Blessed Sacrament, or violating the seal of confession) issued a proclamation for the Year of Faith. There are a remarkable number of ways to obtain plenary indulgences during this Year, and, more amazingly, the document includes a request to the Bishops of the World to make special provisions during this Year to allow more of their priests to absolve from sins reserved to the Bishop, such as abortion. It feels more like a jubilee year than a Year of Faith.
Today, we students in Rome were given a rare treat: the Congregation for Catholic Education cancelled all morning courses at the Pontifical Universities so that we could participate in the Mass to open the Year of Faith. As this was the first week of class, that was no small feat.
Once again, I was able to distribute Communion at the Mass, and, once again, I was very close to the Holy Father. There were two very interesting additions this time: seated to the left of the Pope was Bartholomew, the Patriarch of Constantinople, the ‘first among equals of the Orthodox Church’. In the sanctuary near to the Cardinals, Bishops and Diplomats was Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Ecclesial community.
After Communion, but before the end of Mass, Bartholomew was able to address the crowd, and he spoke in Italian of his memories of the Council, as well as of the tremendous work towards re-unification that Paul VI and John Paul II had carried out. He re-iterated his hope for a moment in which full union will again come about.
The Homily of the Holy Father was remarkable. He spoke of how the Council was not about doctrinal discussions, for, as he said, you don’t need an ecumenical council for that, but instead, about finding contemporary ways of expressing the perennial truths of the Gospel. Towards the end of the homily, he had a remarkable reflection about being in the desert and about the horrors of a life that is not focused on God.
Being once again so near to the Holy Father, I was able to see how tired he is, and yet, how he continues to struggle, to give himself completely for the good of souls. I would ask you all to pray in a very special way for our Holy Father, that he remain faithful to his mission, and that God grant him many more years as our Chief Shepherd.