“To an Authentic and Renewed Conversion”: Vatican II and the Year of Faith
by Justin Soutar
***(Note: All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Bible.)***
On October 11, 2011, in an Apostolic Letter entitled Porta Fidei (The Door of Faith), Pope Benedict XVI declared a Year of Faith from October 2012 through November 2013 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. This Holy Year, according to Benedict, "is a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Savior of the world.” 
Why did Benedict declare this Year of Faith? In his message to young people gathered for World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain, in August 2011, he observed: “Today we are seeing a certain ‘eclipse of God’ taking place, a kind of amnesia which, albeit not an outright rejection of Christianity, is nonetheless a denial of the treasure of our faith, a denial that could lead to the loss of our deepest identity.” 
Benedict was aware that Europe and the West today are gradually losing touch with their Christian heritage, allowing God to fade into the background and become irrelevant to social and political life. This insidious “amnesia” not only threatens to cut modern Western civilization completely off from its Christian roots—with disastrous consequences for the entire world—but has also begun to subtly infect the minds and hearts of individual Christian believers, weakening their faith and leading them away from Christ.
What better way to respond to this “’eclipse of God’” and combat this “amnesia,” this “denial of the treasure of our faith,” than to summon the whole Church “to an authentic and renewed conversion” to her Lord Jesus Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2) and “the one Savior of the world”? This Year of Faith is meant to revitalize and reform the Church so that it can more effectively carry out its mission of proclaiming Christ to the whole world.
The Holy Spirit obviously inspired our previous Vicar of Christ to proclaim this Year of Faith in response to the needs of the Church and the world at this particular moment in human history. In light of "a profound crisis of faith" that has gripped contemporary human society and culture, Benedict pointed out "the need to rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ.” 
The primary objective of the Second Vatican Council was to preserve and hand on the deposit of faith. Although they include pastoral instructions and guidelines, the documents of Vatican II are primarily official dogmatic (teaching) documents of the Church’s Magisterium, written by the Catholic bishops of the world in union with the Successor of Saint Peter and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In Porta Fidei, quoting his great predecessor, Benedict says:
…the texts bequeathed by the Council Fathers, in the words of Blessed John Paul II, “have lost nothing of their value or brilliance. They need to be read correctly, to be widely known and taken to heart as important and normative texts of the Magisterium, within the Church’s tradition…I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning.” 
According to Benedict XVI, the Second Vatican Council can only fulfill its potential for renewing the Church “if we interpret and implement it guided by a right hermeneutic.”  In an address to the Italian bishops’ conference last year, our previous Holy Father identified this “right hermeneutic” as “a hermeneutic of continuity and reform.”  This double hermeneutic points to the essentially twofold nature of Vatican II and is the “key” to unlocking the Council’s inner meaning.
The fundamental objective of the Council was to preserve and transmit Catholic doctrine “in continuity with the 2,000-year-old Tradition of the Church.”  In his opening address to the Council on October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII stated: “The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.”  In accord with this directive, the Council Fathers carefully examined, further developed, and handed on to succeeding generations—while preserving fully intact—the unchanging doctrines of the Faith in a series of authoritative documents called dogmatic constitutions.
The second key term in the “right hermeneutic” for correctly understanding and implementing the Council is “reform.” While carefully preserving and handing on the deposit of faith, the Sacred Liturgy, the sacraments, and prayer in unbroken continuity with the Church’s ancient tradition, the Council introduced many liturgical, pastoral, and disciplinary reforms into the Church’s life to enable the Church to more effectively carry out her mission of teaching, governing, and sanctifying believers and of evangelizing non-believers in the context of the modern world. Thus the Council’s liturgical, pastoral, and disciplinary reforms must be kept within the framework of doctrinal and liturgical continuity.
Due to incorrect interpretation and implementation of the Council in the decades following it, Vatican II and its documents have often been misconstrued as a radical break with the Church’s tradition, when in fact they are an organic growth and development of that tradition. None of the Council documents contain new teachings; they merely re-enunciate, synthesize, and develop further what the Church has always believed and taught, and thus are meant to be read and understood within the context of the Church’s 2,000-year tradition.
By summoning us “to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Savior of the world” during this Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI called us to return to the basic essentials of our Christian faith that the Second Vatican Council proclaimed anew to the modern world. Benedict said that “we should learn the simplest and most fundamental lesson of the Council: namely, that Christianity in its essence consists of faith in God which is Trinitarian Love, and in a personal and community encounter with Christ who orients and gives meaning to life. Everything else flows from this.” 
As an “eclipse of God” slowly darkens our modern age and “a profound crisis of faith” takes hold on it, the basic truths of our faith proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council—and proclaimed anew to the Church and the world by Popes John Paul, Benedict, and Francis—shine ever more brilliantly: God exists. He is real. He loves us and hears our prayers. Man is an essentially religious being made in the image and likeness of God, and only in relationship to God, his Creator, does man discover his true identity and dignity and grasp the real meaning and purpose of life.
Perhaps no better prayer for this Year of Faith can be said than that of Benedict XVI: “May the Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ and of the whole Church, help us to achieve and to bring to completion what the Council Fathers, motivated by the Holy Spirit, pondered in their hearts: the desire that all might know the Gospel and encounter the Lord Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” 
Copyright © 2012, 2013 Justin D. Soutar. All rights reserved.
1. Porta Fidei, no. 6.
2. Message for the Twenty-Sixth World Youth Day (2011), no. 1 [Bold/italics added] http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/youth/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20100806_youth_en.html
3. Porta Fidei, no. 2.
4. (Porta Fidei, no. 5 [Novo Millennio Ineunte, n. 57]) [Bold/italics added].
5. Porta Fidei, no. 5 [Bold/italics added].
6. Address to the General Assembly of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, May 24, 2012 [Bold/italics added]. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2012/may/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20120524_cei_en.html
8. Quoted in Address to Italian Bishops, May 24, 2012 [Bold/italics added].
9. General Audience, October 10, 2012.