The “Holy Year”—What Did It Accomplish?
THE year 1975 was designated a “Holy Year” for the Roman Catholic Church world wide. It was inaugurated on Christmas eve, December 24, 1974, when Pope Paul VI opened a “holy door” in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Now the year has ended. What was accomplished? Were the aims of this holy year achieved? Have conditions at least within the Roman Catholic Church improved as a result? Surely if the holy year was an event that had God’s backing, then we should logically expect his blessing upon it.
Purpose of Holy Years
Holy years in the Roman Catholic Church began in the year 1300. At that time Pope Boniface VIII decreed a special year of “grace.” Catholics were invited to come to Rome to venerate ancient places regarded as sacred. Those worshiping in the prescribed way were given indulgences, that is, remission of punishment for sins.
At first, holy years were held every fifty years, then every twenty-five years, except when wars or plagues made travel to Rome impossible. In our century, there have been regular Holy Years in 1900, 1925, 1950 and 1975. At times special holy years are decreed, and one such was in 1933.
What was the purpose of the 1975 Holy Year? The Cleveland Press observed: “While interior renewal is uppermost in the Pope’s mind, one high-ranking prelate close to Paul VI says the pontiff is also pinning hopes on the Holy Year to heal the deep rifts in the Roman Catholic Church caused by the wave of reforms which have followed the Second Vatican Council,” held ten years ago.
In recent years the Roman Catholic Church has been struck by a hurricane of dissent within its own ranks. Priests and laymen alike have argued over, and challenged, Church doctrines and practices. As a result, very deep divisions have been caused. This headline in the Muskegon, Michigan, Chronicle describes the condition: “Catholic Church Flounders in Seas of Change.”
In country after country, that situation confronts the Church. It is in very deep trouble everywhere. Hence, late in December of 1974, as the Holy Year was about to begin, Pope Paul appealed for unity and reconciliation. He said that the Church was gravely threatened by the “polarization of dissent.” In fact, he had previously called it an “epidemic” of dissent and said that it involved “dangerous” political and social views that were spreading. The pope lamented: “This phenomenon, spreading like an epidemic in the cultural spheres of our community, is causing us great pain.”
The pope also declared that “challenging sons” had inflicted “sharp wounds” on the Church. He accused both conservatives and liberals of threatening its unity. He appealed for reconciliation from “Catholic disagreement, from habitual contestation, from bitter criticism, . . . from underhanded or open minded defection.”
It was also hoped that the Holy Year would see some alleviation of another critical Church problem. This was the fact that many priests and nuns, as well as ordinary churchgoers, are abandoning religious life.
At an audience in the Vatican, the pope had told a delegation of Italian priests: “Our suffering because of the many priests who are defecting is our crown of thorns.” He has since repeatedly expressed anguish over these ‘defections of the clergy, and of the laity as well.
Thus, just before the Holy Year began, Epoca of Rome reported: “The dramatic alarm was made by Paul VI: the house of God ‘seems destined to extinction.’”
Epoca added this comment: “Numbers prove a decline that could not be stopped: from the end of [World War II] till today 10 thousand priests gave up the frocks in Italy, during the next 10 years most of our seminaries must close up, only 30 per cent of the faithful go to Mass, only 10 per cent receive the Communion on Sunday.”
Did the Holy Year accomplish its aims? Was its primary purpose of “renewal and reconciliation” achieved? Was there a healing of the tremendous divisions that have grown in recent years? Has the tide of defections halted?
Observers agree that the 1975 Holy Year provided no healing. There was no “renewal” or “reconciliation” of any substance.
This is acknowledged even by Catholic authorities. Priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley stated in an article published by the San Francisco Chronicle: “There is a conspiracy on to discredit the Catholic Church. Unfortunately the conspiracy is internal,” that is, it is being accomplished by leaders within the Church, the very ones who claim to want healing.
Greeley claimed that, despite the desire for renewal and reconciliation during this Holy Year, Church authorities took actions to widen wounds, not to heal them. He noted the following examples:
“The Congregation of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office, formerly the Inquisition) recently issued a condemnation of the conservative Swiss theologian Hans Kung even though Kung had already agreed to write no more on the subject under dispute.
“The same congregation celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the death of the great paleontologist and mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, by reasserting all the old regulations on book censorship . . .
“Bishop Leo Maher of San Diego has denied the sacraments to all members of the National Organization of Women (NOW) for supporting abortion.”
Greeley said: “Mind you, all of this is during the Holy Year of reconciliation.” He continued: “No reconciliation, however, for Hans Kung. No liberation for the members of NOW. And no liberty for Catholic authors.” This despite the fact that “many church [authorities] are pushing a kind of soft-core socialism called ‘liberation theology’ and the, American church is working on a Bicentennial discussion book entitled ‘Liberty and Justice for All.’”
This priest noted, however, that none of the restrictive actions taken by Church authorities would make much difference anymore. Why not? Because, he said, “priests will still give holy communion to members of NOW, Hans Kung’s book remains on top of the German best seller list, and very few Catholic authors will take the new censorship regulations seriously.”
Thus, despite the leaders of the Church issuing calls for “reconciliation and renewal,’’ they also issued condemnations, excommunications and censorship decrees during the Holy Year. These, in turn, were hotly contested or ignored by others within the Church. How obvious it is that the Holy Year produced no significant “reconciliation” or “renewal” among the Church’s clergy or laity.
All of this led Greeley to declare: “It is, of course, the last twisting of the tail of a dying beast. The death throes of an old ecclesiastical bureaucracy.”
The Holy Year also had no effect on the pope’s “crown of thorns,” that is, the loss of priests and nuns. Nor did the Holy Year stem the tide of defections on the part of the laity.
The bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, Louis Gelineau, said during the Holy Year that the Catholic Church was “experiencing a certain ‘coming apart’ as an organization.” He noted a serious drop in the number entering the priesthood, and also a serious drop in attendance at Catholic services. He added: “Many Catholics have become more formed by the world and its opinions than by the mind of Christ and the Church.”
At the start of the Holy Year the Toronto Globe and Mail told of the “desperate shortage of priests and nuns.” That shortage continues, and worsens. Fewer and fewer are taking up the religious life. According to official Catholic reports in America, “the number of seminarians has decreased by 55.5 per cent, the total of women entering novitiates has dropped by 81.2 per cent.”
Thus, there are fewer and fewer replacements for the priests and nuns who are quitting the Church or dying. One evidence of the trend was observed by the Detroit Free Press late in 1975 when it declared: “The number of Roman Catholic nuns in the world has dropped 24.6% in the past four years.”
Regarding the laity, Time magazine reported that, in the United States, only 50 percent of Catholics now attend weekly Mass, compared to 71 percent in 1963. Indicating how the thinking of many Catholics now differs from official Church doctrine is the report that after decades of anti-abortion teaching, 70 percent of Catholics now think that a legal abortion should be available for married women who want it. Few approved such a procedure before.
Also, 83 percent of Catholics now approve artificial contraception for birth control, compared to about half that number ten years ago. Today only 32 percent of Catholics accept the dogma of papal infallibility. And only 42 percent now accept the teaching that Jesus handed over the leadership of his church to the apostle Peter.
In country after country, the situation is the same. Church authorities in Italy, for example, acknowledge that fewer than one out of three Italians now go to church regularly. In Hungary, only about a quarter of that nation’s six million registered Catholics are considered active churchgoers. And from London, a report issued during the Holy Year stated: “The Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales is losing members at the rate of 250,000 a year. The number of converts it is winning has fallen to the lowest level in this century.” It spoke of a “wholesale loss of faith among English and Welsh Catholics.”
No, the 1975 Holy Year had no substantial effect in providing “reconciliation” or “renewal” among either the clergy or the laity. The turning away from the Church continues.
Ominous Trend for Church in Italy
A very threatening change has taken place in the heart of the Catholic Church—in Italy. Not only has Church attendance fallen, not only is there a growing shortage of priests and nuns there, but now another ominous threat to the Church is looming.
What is this threat? It is the inroads that an archenemy of the Church is making among Italy’s population, especially among the young people. That enemy of religion is Communism. While it is true that Communist teaching does accommodate itself at different times to both religion and other political ideologies, the long-range goal of Communism has not changed. That goal is to eliminate religious influence and power wherever Communism is in control.
In Italy, the Communist party has come very close to control or participation at the highest levels of government. The New York Times of December 2, 1975, reported: “Already, Communist control or participation in local government extends to five of Italy’s twenty regions, one-third of its 94 provinces, and, except for Rome, every major city from Naples north.”
Such inroads into the political power once exercised by the Church, or the parties it favors, were evidenced during the last elections, held in June of the Holy Year. In spite of Vatican support for the political party it favored, Communist candidates made the largest gains nearly everywhere. They won political dominance in every major city in the north. They also penetrated the south, even installing a Communist mayor in Naples.
Now, nationally, Communist votes are only about 2 percent behind those obtained by the party in power. And perhaps the most ominous trend for the future is the fact that the majority of younger voters cast their ballots for Communists.
For the past thirty years official Catholic doctrine in Italy has been against Communist candidates for office. Repeatedly, Catholics are warned not to vote Communist, at the threat of excommunication. In July of the Holy Year, the Roman Catholic bishops of Lombardy said that priests who encouraged Italians to vote Communist must recant or face excommunication.
The Vatican newspaper l’Osservatore Romano published a statement by northern Italian bishops expressing their “pained disapproval” over the outcome of the June elections in which the Communists gained 2.5 million votes and nearly outpolled the Vatican-backed party in power. And late in the Holy Year, in November, Pope Paul issued new warnings against Catholics who support the Communist Party. But it has been apparent for some time that such warnings are falling on a growing number of deaf ears.
Hence, when we consider all the facts, we must conclude that 1975 was anything but a “Holy Year” for the Roman Catholic Church. There has been no “reconciliation.” There has been no “renewal.” Instead, its troubles continue to mount everywhere, even at the very center of its power, in Italy.
No, 1975 was no “Holy Year” in any true sense of the word. And the most crucial reason why it was not was simply that it was not God’s doing. As Psalm 127:1 states: “Unless Jehovah himself builds the house, it is to no avail that its builders have worked hard on it.”