Homily no. 51 – ‘Vatican II: Dei Verbum’

Dei VerbumAs you know, the ‘Year of Faith’ has had two major anniversaries to celebrate: one is the 20th anniversary of the Catechism’s publication in 1992; and the other, a greater anniversary, is the 50 years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council.  The ‘Year of Faith’ was inaugurated on the 11th October last year, 50 years to the day since the opening of the Council in 1962.  The Council of all the bishops of the world, over 2000, took place in Rome, at the Vatican, over the next 4 autumns, 1962 to 1965, and is the greatest Council of the Church ever to have taken place in her long history.  St Peter’s basilica was transformed into a huge council chamber, as it were, so that all the bishops could take their seats for the proceedings.  Over the course of the four sessions, the Council debated as to how to present the traditional, apostolic, Catholic faith in a new and fresh way, so that the world might see more plainly how the Church is the carrier of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Pope John’s words at the opening of the Council summed up his intentions for the Council, stressing that the time-honoured teachings of the Church were immutable (unchangeable), but the way in which they are presented was another thing.  He was looking for a freshness of approach that invited those outside the Church to see her treasures of faith.

The Council went on to agree 16 documents after its 4 sessions of work, and 4 of those are referred to as ‘Constitutions’ — the major documents of its teaching.  Not one document was finalized in the 1st Session, which is a measure of how much debate and disagreement the 1st Session engendered.  Those bishops who thought that the Council would all be wrapped up in a matter of weeks could not have been more mistaken!  In fact, the most fundamental document of the Council, the one on Divine Revelation, was the one that was argued over the longest … Initially presented to the Council Fathers in mid-November 1962, it was not finished until the 4th Session, and promulgated by Pope Paul VI in November 1965.

It’s in fact quite a short document, just 16pp. in a typical printing.  It deals with the fact of God having chosen, out of love, to reveal His very presence, His own self, to human creation, and how that communication of God Himself is transmitted down to us in each successive generation.  It spells out the fact that God’s revelation has been a gradual thing, the one, continuous plan of His loving, wise, Mind, so that Mankind should come to know Him.  The Council said this: “By divine revelation, God wished to manifest and communicate both Himself and the eternal decrees of His will concerning the salvation of mankind.  He wished, in other words, ‘to share with us divine benefits which entirely surpass the powers of the human mind to understand’.”

An important distinction is between the written and unwritten parts of Revelation.  The written part is Scripture, the Bible, recorded by writers of the Old Testament and by Apostles and their contemporaries in the New Testament.  The unwritten part of Revelation is normally by the word, ‘Tradition,’ i.e. the living witness and testimony of the Church down the ages: not all things were recorded in a systematic way in Scripture, nor were they meant to be.  The Church has lived its Christian life from the beginning, from Jesus’s own time, even though not a word of the NT was recorded until maybe 20 years after Jesus’s Ascension.  Her Tradition is her community life, her living faith, her constant liturgy … This, in union with the Scripture which records beautifully the faith of Israel, and the fullness of faith in Christ, and guided by the Teaching Authority of Pope and Bishops, forms a single witness to what God wishes Man to know of Himself.

The Document spends its latter chapters encouraging the Church to deepen its reading, and therefore its knowledge and understanding, of Sacred Scripture, so that as Catholics we can know better all the Christ did and said.  One fruit of this would eventually be the incorporation into Mass of a far greater variety of Scripture texts at Sunday and weekday Mass.

It’s important to appreciate that most of what we know of God we could never have known without His telling us: we hear the Word of God, His Revelation, from Himself, so that we can know Him, and know therefore how to live as He intended, our hearts set on life with Him in heaven for ever.  This is the beautiful message of Dei Verbum, the document on Divine Revelation.  It’s widely acknowledged that thanks to its long gestation, its multiple rewrites, the document is a wonderful piece of writing, and very inspiring.  God wants us to know Him: “It pleased God, in His goodness and wisdom, to reveal Himself and make known the mystery of His will.  His will was that men should have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in the divine nature” (n. 2).  This is the core of our faith: God calls us to happiness in His life.

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About Fr Philip Miller

I'm the Catholic Parish Priest at St Augustine's, Hoddesdon, Herts, UK, in the diocese of Westminster. This cycle of homilies is one of my contributions to this parish's life in the 'Year of Faith' (Oct 2012 - Nov 2013) called for by Pope Benedict XVI to renew the Church's understanding of the faith.
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