It was expected that the Holy Father would put great emphasis on the Council documents, or that he would "reinterpret" the Council -- a mightily large task for a single short homily. Alas, that was not his intention: in his homily for the 40th Anniversary of the Council, his focus was on one one human being, the one exalted more than all others, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and, through her, to present the Traditional Doctrine of the Church on Man, Original Sin, God, and True Human Freedom.
And with this intention, he wrote the most beautiful, most profound, and --strangely enough -- most accessible text on the Most Holy Virgin to come out of the Vatican since BEFORE the Council. He used one conciliar notion, the one of the Virgin Mary as Mater Ecclesiae (Mother of the Church), forcefully included by Paul VI in Lumen Gentium, first as a sign that the Council was Marian, then as a stepping stone to give a magnificent lecture on the Blessed Virgin as only a masterful theologian and a competent professor could ever do.
Now, the notion that Vatican II was "Marian" will come as a surprise to most -- because, at least literally, it was not. It suffices to remember that, among the schemata which were to have been submitted to the Fathers, there was one schema for a document wholly on the Blessed Virgin. This schema was considerably reduced and included as a chapter in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium -- the same document in which Paul VI forced the acceptance of the title "Mater Ecclesiae".
There have been controversies even regarding the reception, by the Council Fathers, of the Definition of the Virgin as Mother of the Church by Paul VI in his closing speech for the III session of the Council (1964). The wonderful people at the Cornell Society for a Good Time immediately noticed that Romano Amerio had a quite different recollection of the moment. While then peritus Fr. Ratzinger remembers, as Pope, that "the Fathers spontaneously rose at once and paid homage to the Mother of God, to our Mother, to the Mother of the Church, with a standing ovation", philosopher Romano Amerio says in Iota Unum that "the Holy Father proceeded to make the solemn proclamation in his speech closing the third session of the Council on 21 November 1964, and was received in silence by an assembly usually quick to applaud". Both may be right... Perhaps they were at different places inside the Basilica...
In his homily of December 8, Pope Benedict first questions the need for understanding the Immaculate Conception. And then he presents the great problem: the great human problem of the original sin. It had been to re-present the notion of original sin that Pope Blessed Pius IX had defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception to a world in upheaval since the previous century.
What does "Mary, the Immaculate" mean? Does this title have something to tell
The Immaculate Virgin is the Holy Remnant, SHE alone is the embodiment of Holy Israel. In her are placed the hopes of those who expect the "Desired of all Nations":
Mary, the humble provincial woman who comes from a priestly race and bears within her the great priestly patrimony of Israel, is "the holy remnant" of Israel to which the prophets referred in all the periods of trial and darkness.
She is the offshoot from which grew the tree of redemption and of the redeemed. God has not failed, as it might have seemed formerly at the beginning of history with Adam and Eve or during the period of the Babylonian Exile, and as it seemed anew in Mary's time when Israel had become a people with no importance in an occupied region and with very few recognizable signs of its holiness.
God did not fail. In the humility of the house in Nazareth lived holy Israel, the pure remnant. God saved and saves his people. From the felled tree trunk Israel's history shone out anew, becoming a living force that guides and pervades the world.
Mary is holy Israel: she says "yes" to the Lord, she puts herself totally at his disposal and thus becomes the living temple of God.
As the Woman predicted in the Proto-Gospel of Genesis, it is Mary's lot to defeat the Serpent. Here, the Holy Father wonderfully sums the "Continuity Strategy". Here, we, sailors, together with the captain of the Barque of Peter, we voters of that "democracy" in which the dead ha ve a vote, we confess the need for redemption:
If we set ourselves with the believing and praying Church to listen to this text, then we can begin to understand what original sin, inherited sin, is and also what the protection against this inherited sin is, what redemption is.
What picture does this passage show us? The human being does not trust God. Tempted by the serpent, he harbours the suspicion that in the end, God takes something away from his life, that God is a rival who curtails our freedom and that we will be fully human only when we have cast him aside; in brief, that only in this way can we fully achieve our freedom.
The human being lives in the suspicion that God's love creates a dependence and that he must rid himself of this dependency if he is to be fully himself. Man does not want to receive his existence and the fullness of his life from God.
He himself wants to obtain from the tree of knowledge the power to shape the world, to make himself a god, raising himself to God's level, and to overcome death and darkness with his own efforts. He does not want to rely on love that to him seems untrustworthy; he relies solely on his own knowledge since it confers power upon him. Rather than on love, he sets his sights on power, with which he desires to take his own life autonomously in hand. And in doing so, he trusts in deceit rather than in truth and thereby sinks with his life into emptiness, into death.
Love is not dependence but a gift that makes us live. The freedom of a human being is the freedom of a limited being, and therefore is itself limited. We can possess it only as a shared freedom, in the communion of freedom: only if we live in the right way, with one another and for one another, can freedom develop.
We live in the right way if we live in accordance with the truth of our being, and that is, in accordance with God's will. For God's will is not a law for the human being imposed from the outside and that constrains him, but the intrinsic measure of his nature, a measure that is engraved within him and makes him the image of God, hence, a free creature.
If we live in opposition to love and against the truth - in opposition to God - then we destroy one another and destroy the world. Then we do not find life but act in the interests of death. All this is recounted with immortal images in the history of the original fall of man and the expulsion of man from the earthly Paradise.
Dear brothers and sisters, if we sincerely reflect about ourselves and our history, we have to say that with this narrative is described not only the history of the beginning but the history of all times, and that we all carry within us a drop of the poison of that way of thinking, illustrated by the images in the Book of Genesis.
We call this drop of poison "original sin". Precisely on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, we have a lurking suspicion that a person who does not sin must really be basically boring and that something is missing from his life: the dramatic dimension of being autonomous; that the freedom to say no, to descend into the shadows of sin and to want to do things on one's own is part of being truly human; that only then can we make the most of all the vastness and depth of our being men and women, of being truly ourselves; that we should put this freedom to the test, even in opposition to God, in order to become, in reality, fully ourselves.
In a word, we think that evil is basically good, we think that we need it, at least a little, in order to experience the fullness of being. We think that Mephistopheles - the tempter - is right when he says he is the power "that always wants evil and always does good" (J.W. von Goethe, Faust I, 3). We think that a little bargaining with evil, keeping for oneself a little freedom against God, is basically a good thing, perhaps even necessary.
If we look, however, at the world that surrounds us we can see that this is not so; in other words, that evil is always poisonous, does not uplift human beings but degrades and humiliates them. It does not make them any the greater, purer or wealthier, but harms and belittles them.
Yes, the Immaculate Virgin was the freest of all human beings! Chosen by God before all time, she confirmed that choice by her own "Fiat". Liberty without God, liberty to do evil, is an anti-liberty. The only true freedom comes from intimacy with God.
This is something we should indeed learn on the day of the Immaculate Conception: the person who abandons himself totally in God's hands does not become God's puppet, a boring "yes man"; he does not lose his freedom. Only the person who entrusts himself totally to God finds true freedom, the great, creative immensity of the freedom of good.
The person who turns to God does not become smaller but greater, for through God and with God he becomes great, he becomes divine, he becomes truly himself. The person who puts himself in God's hands does not distance himself from others, withdrawing into his private salvation; on the contrary, it is only then that his heart truly awakens and he becomes a sensitive, hence, benevolent and open person.
The closer a person is to God, the closer he is to people. We see this in Mary. The fact that she is totally with God is the reason why she is so close to human beings.
No, not a praise of man, but an appraisal of what man can be if he accepts God's invitation. In the third and last part of the presentation of the "Continuity Strategy", we will see how this notion of man's absolute freedom as a result of his absolute submission to God overhauls the structure of the Conciliar documents as understood in the first decades after the Council.