We need to insist that the Church was not born anew in the 1960s

How does one celebrate a 1,950th anniversary? Not much in the way of precedent for that, and this year’s anniversary of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul was left unmarked. With the quincentenary of the Reformation and the Fatima centennial, there was only so much attention available to be paid.

While the dates of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul are not absolutely certain, they took place during the persecution of Nero (64 to 68 AD) and have been fixed traditionally in the year 67. In 1867, Blessed Pius IX marked the 1,800th anniversary of Peter’s martyrdom, and in 1967, Blessed Paul VI marked the 1,900th of Peter and Paul together.

Moreover, Paul VI chose the 1,900th anniversary to be a Year of Faith, from the feast of Peter and Paul, June 29, 1967, to the same feast in 1968. The year was Paul VI’s response to the widespread crisis that beset the Church immediately after the Council, when fundamental doctrines of the faith were called into question. The year concluded with Paul VI issuing his extraordinary Credo of the People of God, a detailed profession of the ancient and apostolic faith.

The Nicene Creed speaks of the Church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic. The Church in our age has been more conscious of the first three, and neglected the fourth.

Concern for the unity of the Church, with great ecumenical (and inter-religious) progress made in theological dialogue, common prayer and cooperation in the corporal works of mercy, has never been more intense.

The holiness of the Church, despite a more widespread knowledge of her corruption, is also a hallmark of our time, with saints being canonised in record numbers and new movements aplenty arising to emphasise the call to holiness of the lay faithful in particular.

We are more aware too of the Church’s catholicity. Europe lies in the Church’s past; the future is Africa and Asia. At the First Vatican Council, fully half of the bishops present were Italian or French, many of them serving mission territories abroad. Today, the Church’s catholicity is more vibrantly experienced, and the truth that the Church is the world’s aboriginal and foremost multicultural institution is more manifest.

There is, though, an attenuated sense that we profess an apostolic faith, “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), or that “guarding the deposit of the faith is the mission which the Lord entrusted to His Church” (Fidei Depositum, which promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church). Considerable effort is required to insist that the Church was not born anew in the 1960s. How then to propose that we believe what the Apostles taught, in an age that celebrates novelty and progress?

The Protestant Reformation 500 years ago had to claim to be apostolic – it could not be Christian otherwise – but simultaneously claimed that the Church’s teaching on what the Apostles believed had been wrong for a millennium or more. The Catholic Reformation responded by reformulating the deposit of the faith, but the practical effect was that Catholic teaching for centuries would too often look to the Council of Trent rather than the biblical and apostolic age.

As Catholic life became unmoored in the upheavals of the 1960s, Paul VI re-proposed devotion to Peter and Paul as a means of returning to the Church’s identity as an apostolic Church. Therefore, on February 22, 1967 (the feast of the Chair of St Peter), in his apostolic exhortation declaring the Year of Faith, Petrum et Paulum Apostolos, the Holy Father wrote:

We wish to beg all of you … to remember the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul who bore witness to the faith of Christ with their words and their blood, so that you may profess truthfully and sincerely the same faith that the Church … received devotedly and expounded with authority.

Paul VI exhorted the bishops to present the faith “in its authentic meaning, to encourage the study of the doctrine of the recent Ecumenical Council, and to support Catholic thought in the search for new and original expressions, faithful however to the doctrinal deposit of the Church”.

Since the Protestant Reformation, the scientific revolution and the rise of critical biblical scholarship, the very idea that the apostolic faith could be understood, let alone proposed anew, in the modern world has been disputed.

The feast of dedication of the papal basilicas of St Peter and St Paul fell last Saturday, November 18. In the liturgy for the feast, St Leo the Great speaks of the two princes of the Apostles as “two eyes that bring light to the body whose head is Christ”. The Church needs that apostolic light to shine more brightly.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca

This article first appeared in the November 24 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here