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Aggiornamento & Ressourcement in Modern Ecclesia

Regarded as one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, Hans Urs von Balthasar was a Catholic priest who authored 85 books and hundreds of articles and essays.  His book Razing the Bastions was an example of his response to western modernity in the Church.  At the time, this posed a challenge to traditional Catholic thought and practices (and arguably still does to this day).  Along with Henri de Lubac, who is also considered among the most influential theologians of the 20th century, the two wrote and taught about the relationship between aggiornamento and ressourcement within the Church.  Fr. Joseph Fessio refers to de Lubac as Homo Ecclesiastes, or “a man of the Church”, meaning he has received all from the Church and returned all to the Church.  Together, these two great theologians have shed incredible light and wisdom on the importance of Church tradition, along with being able to speak and transmit that tradition through the language of the current time. 

We learn from Fr. Christoph Schönborn, O.P. in his forward in Balthasar’s Razing the Bastions that “the discernment of what is Christian also means enduring and embodying the whole breadth of what is Catholic: to affirm and to know the fullness of the tradition, without which the Church would not be the Catholic Church, and at the same time to have the power “to grasp clearly today’s mission for the Church of today’s times.”” (Balthazar, 1993, 11) At a high level, this describes the relationship between aggiornamento and ressoursement, two essential and significant movements within the modern-day Church that have had a profound impact on the Church as we know it today.  To accurately explore this relationship, it’s important to thoroughly understand what each term means, and how they apply to ecclesia both traditionally and in modern times.

            Ressourcement is a French word meaning a “re-sourcing of the past”, or “return to the sources.”  This refers to the Patristic period, which began sometime around the end of the 1st century when the New Testament was almost completed and ended towards the close of the 8th century.  In this time the patristic fathers of the Church, who included St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John Chrysostom & St. Ambrose, were notable witnesses to the faith in a time of persecution.  They are, among others, regarded as defenders of the orthodoxy of our faith.  The term refers to going back to the point of origin to resource the past, bringing the ancient riches of tradition to bear on the contemporary state of the Church, and its state of life and culture.  Including Scripture, early writings of the Church fathers, and theological heritage, this aimed to help the modern Church reengage and rediscover it’s sources of tradition.  Theologians like Henri de Lubac were instrumental in bringing a great and creative surge which sought to recover the riches of the past in order to throw light upon the present moment during the time of Vatican II, where things were rapidly changing in the Church world.  The members of the council used this term, as well as aggiornamento often as they participated in what is renowned as the decisive ecclesial event of the last century, which produced four constitutions that speak of the Church in a more profound and radical way than any other council of the past.

            Aggiornamento seeks to find new ways to rethink and reformulate the fundamental practices and teachings we believe in order to properly engage with contemporary society and culture.  Stemming from Vatican II, it facilitated feedback from theologians like Balthasar, who describes it saying “Indeed it was not as though we were unaware that with an opening to the world, an aggiornamento, a broadening of the horizons, a translation of the Christian message into an intellectual language understandable by the modern world, only half is done.  The other half—of it at least equal importance—is a reflection on the specifically Christian element itself, a purification, a deepening, a centering of its idea, which alone renders us capable of representing it, radiating it, translating it believably in the world.” (Balthazar, My Work: In Retrospect, 1993) Balthazar, among many others in the council, believed it was essential to make our practices and teachings more relevant and accessible in today’s world.  The council embraced aggiornamento as a guiding principle for revitalizing and renewing the mission of the Catholic Church to the demands and realities of the modern world.

            So why are these concepts especially relevant in the Church today as we move decades forward from de Lubac and Balthazar?  Though the time for revelation has long closed, there have been thousands of years’ worth of brilliant individuals and saints who have brought new understandings of scripture and Church teaching to the people of their age.  Although this is passed down to us as well, it’s important that we continue forward with a balance of relevance and adaptation.  Aggiornamento calls attention to the Church to engage with modern society to help address the challenges of the time, as well as communicate its teachings in an effective way as we evolve and change over time.  At the same time, we rely on ressourcement to keep our focus on the sacred tradition that has been passed down to us through scripture and early Church writings in order to maintain doctrinal integrity and a proper theological understanding.  Therein lies the balance between continuity and tradition.  The two come together to promote balance and integration, as we are called to adapt to modern realities while maintaining traditional wisdom.  This allows the Church to grow and evolve without losing sight of its fundamental roots and heritage.  These two concepts also help to promote intellectual growth.  As I had said previously, we have an incredibly rich volume of our great saints who have passed the wisdom and reflections of their time down to us today.  In order to promote the saints and intellectuals of today to do the same, ressourcement stimulates their intellectual growth by encouraging ongoing reflection of the past, while applying aggiornamento to address the contemporary challenges and changes of today.

            We can look to Vatican II as a guiding light for these concepts, and the constitutions that came from them offer specific insight relevant to the concepts I have laid out.  The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World laid the groundwork for the consideration of aggiornamento as it stated: “The institutions, laws and modes of thinking and feeling as handed down from previous generations do not always seem to be well adapted to the contemporary state of affairs; hence arises an upheaval in the manner and even the norms of behavior.” (Gaudium et Spes, Art. 7, 1965) We therefore need to be especially cognizant of how we can most effectively pass down our sacred tradition in a meaningful way.  The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy also touches on this topic, stating: “With zeal and patience, pastors of souls must promote the liturgical instruction of the faithful, and also their active participation in the liturgy both internally and externally, taking into account their age and condition, their way of life, and standard of religious culture. By so doing, pastors will be fulfilling one of the chief duties of a faithful dispenser of the mysteries of God; and in this matter they must lead their flock not only in word but also by example.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, Art. 19, 1963).  In a final example, the Decree on Ecumenism addresses the movement toward unity between the Catholic Church and different Christian denominations.  The hope behind this movement is that all will eventually be gathered into the one and only Church, in the unity which Christ bestowed on his Church from the beginning in a common celebration of the Eucharist.  The document states:” Sacred theology and other branches of knowledge, especially of a historical nature, must be taught with due regard for the ecumenical point of view, so that they may correspond more exactly with the facts.” (Unitatis Redintegratio, Art. 10, 1964) These are all examples of the importance of speaking to the current climate we live within, while maintaining integrity in regard to our history.

            Henri de Lubac describes the Church as a pilgrim people journeying to God’s kingdom as it serves its mission, which he further explains as existing not for herself, but for others; to proclaim the Gospel, serve humanity, promote justice, and bring about God’s kingdom on earth.  Being rooted in love and service to all, it also has a requirement to be able to maintain its fundamental roots while adapting to an ever-changing people, who expand, contract, and constantly change over time.  As a living body in Christ, we have a responsibility which was first bestowed on Peter to remain familiar with and connected to the tradition from which the Church was formed.  Through events like the protestant reformation, it has been reinforced through Church councils that we have an obligation to not only teach, but to meet others where they stand, to speak to them appropriately, and to bring them back to that very bedrock that holds the foundation to everything we believe.  Aggiornamento and ressourcement play very important roles in maintaining an appropriate balance between tradition and innovation, as we become an ever-complex society that as of late has pulled many away from the faith due to the rise in relativism.  Being able to speak to the people of today using the richness of our historical past is the answer to combating the struggles we face today, as we strive to become one body of Christ, centered in ecclesia.


Kyle Lucey is our Men's Captain for Young Adult Ministry and is one of our parish trustees, advocating for the vibrancy of the parish in addition to his career work as a financial advisor.

Most importantly, Kyle is boldly living out his Vocation of marriage and discipleship his wife and family.

This article is an essay he wrote for one of his Theology classes at Franciscan U. and was willing to share! Enjoy!


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