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True Vatican II Spirit

Midwestern Bishop takes step toward deepening Council’s vision.
by Tim Drake | Source:

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — More than 50 years after Pope John XXIII called for a worldwide meeting of bishops to update the Church, the Second Vatican Council is far from understood.

For the bishop of a small diocese in the American Midwest, it’s time to get beyond the divisions that have sprung up since then and allow the true “spirit” of Vatican II to drive the New Evangelization.

That “spirit” is to be found in the “letter” of the council documents, not in the various misinterpretations that have evolved, Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, Iowa, says in Ecclesia Semper Reformanda (The Church Is Always in Need of Renewal), a pastoral letter released Oct. 15. Bishop Nickless characterizes the false “spirit” of the council as “a ghost or demon that must be exorcised if we are to proceed with the Lord’s work.”

Bishop Nickless says Catholics must stop seeing the Church as divided between pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II faith, mentality and practices.

The letter, which can be read at, details a five-point plan for “reclaiming and strengthening our faith, identity and culture as Catholics.” The five points cover the areas of liturgy, catechesis, family life, vocations and mission.

Unanswered Questions

Bishop Nickless said that he has received both positive and negative feedback on the letter, most of it from outside the rural Iowa diocese. Some laypeople in the diocese have e-mailed saying, “I’ll do anything I can to help. What can I do?”

On a practical level, the bishop wants to see what can be done to bring Eucharistic adoration to more parishes in the diocese. Currently, only one of the diocese’s 130 parishes has Eucharistic adoration.

In addition, Bishop Nickless sees ongoing clergy formation as crucial.

“There are differences in liturgical style and ecclesiology,” said Bishop Nickless. “I’ve asked our continuing education committee to come up with a plan for ongoing formation in the area of liturgy, and I try to model good liturgy at the cathedral.”

Furthermore, the diocese has hired a new director of family life and religious education. It is the bishop’s hope that the director will focus on better marriage preparation and how to implement another of the pastoral’s initiatives: adult catechesis.

Forty-four years after the close of the council, Bishop Nickless says there are many questions that still need to be asked and answered.

“Have we understood the council within the context of the entire history of the Church? Have we understood the documents well?” he asks in the letter. “Have we truly appropriated and implemented them? Is the current state of the Church what the council intended? What went right? What went wrong? Where is the promised ‘New Pentecost’?”

He speaks of two “hermeneutics” (interpretations) of Vatican II, as described by Pope Benedict XVI in an address to the Roman Curia in December 2005. “Why has the implementation of the council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult?” Pope Benedict asked. “Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the council. … The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarreled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.”

Evangelizing Inward and Outward

Bishop Nickless says the division occasioned by these two rival interpretations — a misguided “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” and an authentic “hermeneutic of reform” in continuity with the Church’s tradition — have weakened the Church’s identity and mission. The consequence, he adds, has been a sort of dualism — “an either/or mentality and insistence in various areas of the Church’s life.”

“It is crucial that we all grasp that the hermeneutic or interpretation of discontinuity or rupture, which many think is the settled and even official position, is not the true meaning of the council,” Bishop Nickless writes. “This interpretation sees the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar Church almost as two different churches. It sees the Second Vatican Council as a radical break with the past. There can be no split, however, between the Church and her faith before and after the council. We must stop speaking of the ‘Pre-Vatican II’ and ‘Post-Vatican II’ Church, and stop seeing various characteristics of the Church as ‘pre’ and ‘post’ Vatican II. Instead, we must evaluate them according to their intrinsic value and pastoral effectiveness in this day and age.”

Bishop Nickless calls for Catholics in his diocese to adapt the Vatican II model of the Church evangelizing itself first and then spreading the Gospel to the greater society.

“Our urgent need at this time is to reclaim and strengthen our understanding of the deposit of faith,” he writes. “We must have a distinctive identity and culture as Catholics, if we would effectively communicate the Gospel to the people of this day and diocese. This is our mission.”

“Notice that this mission is twofold, like the Second Vatican Council’s purpose,” he continues. “It is toward ourselves within the Church (ad intra), and it is to the world (ad extra). The first is primary and necessary for the second; the second flows from the first. This is why we have not been as successful as we should be in bringing the world to Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ to the world. We cannot give what we do not have; we cannot fulfill our mission to evangelize if we ourselves are not evangelized.”

Liturgical Reform

One area he focuses on is divine worship. Bishop Nickless urges adherence to recent Vatican directives concerning liturgical renewal, including Liturgiam Authenticam (Authentic Liturgy), which calls for translations of the Roman Missal that are faithful to the original Latin, and Summorum Pontificum, in which Pope Benedict promotes the form of the Mass in use before the Second Vatican Council (the Mass of Pope John XXIII or the “extraordinary form” of the Latin rite).

“Since, in the Church’s liturgy, we meet God in a unique way, how we worship — the external rites, gestures, vessels, music, indeed, the building itself — should reflect the grandeur of the heavenly liturgy,” the bishop writes. “Liturgy is mystical; it is our mysterious encounter with the transcendent God, who comes to sanctify us through the sacrifice of Christ made present in the Eucharist and received in holy Communion. It should radiate heavenly truth and goodness. This radiance, the splendor of truth, is called beauty. Our liturgy should radiate true beauty, reflecting the beauty of God himself and what he does for us in Christ Jesus. It should lift up our soul — first through our intellect and will, but also through our senses and emotions — to adore God as we share already in heaven’s eternal worship. In this vale of tears, the liturgy should be a lodestar, a transcending place of wonder and comfort in the midst of our day-to-day lives, a place of light and high beauty beyond the reach of worldly shadows.”

He argues that since Sunday Mass is the only connection many Catholics have with the Church, “should we not offer an experience of beauty and transcendence, compellingly different from our day-to-day lives?”

The bishop says it is “imperative” to recover the “wonder, awe, reverence and love for the liturgy and the Eucharist.”

“To do this, we must feel and think with the whole Church in ‘reforming the reform’ of the Second Vatican Council,” he writes.


Bishop Nickless’ letter seems to have struck a chord among other bishops and Vatican II experts.

“We have come into a time of perhaps a more mature understanding of the Second Vatican Council,” said Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo. “Many of us have felt that we have to go back to the texts of the documents. ... Studying the documents at this moment in time has helped us to see that they say very profound things that are not always grasped or proposed by people who are quick to speak of the ‘Spirit of Vatican II.’”

“One of the obstacles to the implementation of the council has been the polarization,” said Alan Schreck, professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville and author of Vatican II: The Crisis and the Promise. “If we could be aware of what Vatican II is telling us about our identity and mission, and come to some agreement on that, that would be a great achievement,” he said.

Added Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., “There has been a growing sense that so many wonderful things from the council were either being set aside or twisted to fit other agendas.”

“Most ecumenical councils have been followed by confusion,” said Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted. “We began to be able to respond once we had a Catechism of the Catholic Church and important documents such as Fides et Ratio, Evangelium Vitae and Veritatis Splendor. They have helped us to have confidence and are good tools for proclaiming the Gospel and teaching the faith.”

Perhaps Catholics will now add Bishop Nickless’ pastoral letter to that list.

Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.

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