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.
“If today the Church proposes a new Year of Faith and a new evangelization, it is not to honour an anniversary, but because there is more need of it, even more than there was fifty years ago! And the reply to be given to this need is the one desired by the Popes, by the Council Fathers and contained in its documents… Recent decades have seen the advance of a spiritual “desertification”. In the Council’s time it was already possible from a few tragic pages of history to know what a life or a world without God looked like, but now we see it every day around us. This void has spread. But it is in starting from the experience of this desert, from this void, that we can again discover the joy of believing, its vital importance for us, men and women. In the desert we rediscover the value of what is essential for living; thus in today’s world there are innumerable signs, often expressed implicitly or negatively, of the thirst for God, for the ultimate meaning of life. And in the desert people of faith are needed who, with their own lives, point out the way to the Promised Land and keep hope alive. Living faith opens the heart to the grace of God which frees us from pessimism. Today, more than ever, evangelizing means witnessing to the new life, transformed by God, and thus showing the path…. This, then, is how we can picture the Year of Faith: a pilgrimage in the deserts of today’s world, taking with us only what is necessary: neither staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money, nor two tunics – as the Lord said to those he was sending out on mission (cf. Lk 9:3), but the Gospel and the faith of the Church, of which the Council documents are a luminous expression, as is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published twenty years ago.”
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.