The Anniversary of the Council and the Renewal of Preaching

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In 2012, the Catholic Church marks a major anniversary of one of its more strictly pastoral councils, one that singled out for comment the importance of preaching and the need for its renewal.  Its deliberations extended several years–making it the third longest in Church history.  In its span, the Council saw the death of one pope a little less than a year after it opened and the election of his successor.  Despite the fact that most of the Council’s attention had been devoted to pastoral issues, there were many who thought the Council Fathers did not go far enough in their reforms.  As history can well attest, this Council was shortly followed by a massive upheaval and many defections from the Church.  It was a time of great upheaval not only in the Church, but seemingly the whole world.  In some sense, the pastoral challenges facing the Church were far graver after this Council than they were before.  Many even believed the Council was a failure.  Yet, none of this affects the validity of the Council’s teaching or its contributions to the pastoral life of the Church.  Even though the world has changed greatly since the time the Council was called, the Church still does well and can benefit from re-familiarizing herself with its teaching.This great pastoral council, which the whole Church joins in celebrating in this anniversary year, is, of course, the Fifth Lateran Council.

This date–May 10, 2012–marks the 500th anniversary of the reading of the papal bull proclaiming the opening of the Fifth Lateran Council in St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome, the fifth and last to be held there, and thus the anniversary of the opening of its first session, which would meet in a further eleven sessions between 1512 and 1517.  The two popes involved were Julius II (1503-13) and Leo X (1513-23), and the major upheaval was the rebellion launched by the Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, just seven months after the closing of the Council.

In many ways, the Fifth Lateran was also a very Dominican council.  One of its primary figures was Thomas di Vio Cajetan, then the Master of the Order, but best known for his later work as a Cardinal in his paternal, but ultimately unsuccessful, encounters with Martin Luther.  Cajetan was one of the leading voices at the Council both for the reform of the Church and for the Primacy of the Pope.

While the Council’s efforts to reform the Roman curia, religious life, and credit organizations will doubtless receive much coverage during this important anniversary year, it is the Council’s instruction on preaching from its eleventh session on December 19, 1516 that garners our attention today.

The papal bull approved by this session of the council begins with words of praise for the act of preaching.   It says that preaching is of “first importance” and “very necessary” but only when it is done so rightly out of love for God and neighbor and according to the precepts and example of the fathers.  Those entrusted with the office of preaching are reminded to reflect upon the fact that they are now responsible for maintaining that which was begun by the Jesus Christ himself and handed down by the apostles:

Preaching is of the first importance, very necessary and of great effect and utility in the church, so long as it is being exercised rightly, from genuine charity towards God and our neighbor, and according to the precepts and examples of the holy fathers, who contributed a great deal to the church by publicly professing such things at the time of the establishment and propagation of the faith. For, our redeemer first did and taught, and by his command and example, the college of twelve apostles — the heavens alike proclaiming the glory of the true God through all the earth — led back from darkness the whole human race, which was held by the old bondage under the yoke of sin, and guided it to the light of eternal salvation. The apostles and then their successors propagated far and wide and rooted deeply the word itself through all the earth and unto the ends of the world. Therefore those who are now carrying this burden ought to remember and frequently reflect that they in turn, with respect to this office of preaching, are entering into and maintaining that succession of the author and founder of this office, Jesus Christ our most holy redeemer, of Peter and Paul, and of the other apostles and disciples of the Lord.  [Fifth Lateran Council, Session XI, 15 December 1516]

The instruction recalls with sorrow the fact that there are many entrusted with the office of preaching who ignore this fact and preach things contrary to the teachings of the church and thereby give scandal to the faithful all for the pursuit of vainglory.

When they turn aside from the official sacred teachings, which they ought particularly to follow, they separate and move far from salvation those who listen to them. For, as a result of these and similar activities, the less educated people, as being more exposed to deceit, are very easily led into manifold errors, as they wander from the path of salvation and from obedience to the Roman Church.  [Fifth Lateran Council, Session XI, 15 December 1516]

This is a perennially valid point, even nearly five hundred years removed from time of the Council.  The words of the preacher either maintain and strengthen what was founded by Jesus Christ and the apostles leading the believer into all truth or they lead astray, obscuring Christ, and safeguard vice and error. Preaching can lead astray in one of two basic ways: by moving those who listen to place their faith and confidence in something other than God and His revelation (e.g. introducing new prophecies, revelations, or superstitious practices) or by sowing doubt and disbelief (e.g. erroneous interpretations of Scripture, denials of articles of the faith, or disdain for received tradition).  (See 2 Tim 4:3-4)  The office of preaching, however, is intricately linked with the unity of the faith, the unity of our Baptism, and the unity of Christ in whom we place our trust for salvation.  Its mission is to safeguard and build up that unity, and to be an instrument of God’s saving grace for countless souls.

May this year of celebration in honor of the opening of this great Council help us to consider anew its important teachings, and be led by its wise pastoral counsel.

By Fr. Allen Moran, OP