“The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this,” stated John XXIII on October 11, 1962, “that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be more effectively defended and presented….”On Pope John XXIII’s opening Address at the Second Vatican Council – Catholic World Report
Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962, addressing the more than 2000 bishops assembled – the largest gathering of bishops in the history of the Church – with an address setting forth his vision for the Council, beginning thus:
Mother Church rejoices that, by a singular gift of divine Providence, the longed-for day has finally dawned on which, under the protection of the Virgin Mother of God, whose maternal dignity is celebrated today, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council is solemnly opened here beside the tomb of St. Peter.
Since there is so much revived conflict over the precise meaning of the Council, I thought it useful to cull salient passages from the Pope’s address, followed by some personal thoughts.
In calling this vast assembly, the latest and humble successor of the Prince of Apostles who now speaks to you intended a renewed affirmation of the Church’s teaching authority which is unfailing and perdures until the end of time. This teaching authority, taking into account the errors, needs, and opportunities of our age, is through this Council being exhibited in an extraordinary way to all people throughout the world.
Clearly, the Pontiff envisions no “new” Church but a “renewed” Church as he emphasizes the key place for her magisterium.
The testimonies of this extraordinary teaching authority of the Church, the universal Councils, stand before us as we gaze upon the various ages throughout the twenty centuries of the Christian era.
Vatican II is to be seen in continuity with the preceding twenty councils.
To increase the holy joy which affects us in this solemn hour, we wish to state openly and firmly in this vast assembly the happy circumstances in which this Ecumenical Council is beginning.
. . . the voices of people are brought to Us who, although burning with religious fervor, nevertheless do not think things through with enough discretion and prudence of judgement. These people see only ruin and calamity in the present conditions of human society. They keep repeating that our times, if compared to past centuries, have been getting worse. And they act as if they have nothing to learn from history, which is the teacher of life, and as if at the time of past Councils everything went favorably and correctly with respect to Christian doctrine, morality, and the Church’s proper freedom. We believe We must quite disagree with these prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster, as if the end of the world were at hand.
Here we have to say that his sociological evaluation was quite wide of the mark as vast parts of the world were simmering with confusion and rebellion – ready to explode but a few years on. In short, a rather naïve assessment of reality. Interestingly, when Pope John first announced the convoking of the Council in 1959, the veteran Curial official (with a more realistic view of things, even if more jaundiced) and then-Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (the future Paul VI), remarked: “This old boy does not know what a hornet’s nest he is stirring up.”
The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this, that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be more effectively defended and presented. . . . It is first of all necessary that the Church never turn her eyes from the sacred heritage of truth which she has received from those who went before; and at the same time she must also look at the present times which have introduced new conditions and new forms of life, and have opened new avenues for the Catholic apostolate.
Although Vatican II was not intended to be a “dogmatic” council, in the sense of defining any particular doctrines, obviously the Pope was concerned with the “pastoral” goal of making the Deposit of Faith more accessible to the people of the time. Here it must be noted that the practice of the Faith in Europe was abysmal; the strong observance of Catholic practice in the United States was exceptional.
The twenty-first Ecumenical Council, which uses the effective and significant assistance of experts in the sacred sciences, in the apostolate, and in administration, wishes to transmit whole and entire and without distortion the Catholic doctrine which, despite difficulties and controversies, has become the common heritage of humanity. . . we must devote ourselves to the task our age demands, pursuing the path which the Church has followed for twenty centuries. . . .
What instead is necessary today is that the whole of Christian doctrine, with no part of it lost, be received in our times by all with a new fervor, in serenity and peace, in that traditional and precise conceptuality and expression which is especially displayed in the acts of the Councils of Trent and Vatican I.
What the Pope is asking for is the ability of the Church in council to be able to replicate the skills of the wise steward praised by Our Lord in Matthew 13:52, who“brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Furthermore, we see once more Pope John’s stress on continuity between “his” Council and all those which went before – but most especially, in his estimation, those of Trent and Vatican I – the very Councils most pilloried by contemporary proponents of the “hermeneutic of rupture.”
For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our venerable doctrine, are one thing; the fashion in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgement, is another thing.
Yet again, we encounter the determination of the Pope to ensure doctrinal fidelity – all the while desiring that such truths be expounded in a contemporary key.
But at the present time, the spouse of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than the weapons of severity; and, she thinks she meets today’s needs by explaining the validity of her doctrine more fully rather than by condemning. Not that there are no false doctrines, opinions, or dangers to be avoided and dispersed; but all these things so openly conflict with the right norms of honesty and have borne such lethal fruits that today people by themselves seem to begin to condemn them and in particular those forms of life which disregard God and his laws, excessive confidence in technological progress, and a prosperity consisting only in the comforts of life.
From personal experience, the Pope concluded that “severity” hadn’t worked to suppress heresy. I am sure he had in mind the controversies surrounding “modernism,” landed on very heavily by Popes Pius IX and X (with the best of intentions). However, all that happened was that it went “underground,” only to re-surface in the aftermath of Vatican II – to be forced underground yet again through the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI – and now to re-surface in the present pontificate, which seems to give it even wide berth. All that said, honesty compels one to say that John XXIII tended to view reality (both ecclesial and civil) through rose-colored glasses. If the seeds of confusion were as moribund as he seems to suggest here, how can one explain their full “flowering” but a few years after the Council’s conclusion – in both Church and western countries?
Unfortunately, the whole family of Christians has not yet fully and perfectly attained this visible unity in the truth.
Although an ardent proponent of good “ecumenism,” one can see here that Pope John could never be accused of religious indifferentism, underscored by his use of the adjective “unfortunately.”
O Mary, Help of Christians and Help of Bishops, whose love we recently experienced in a special way at the shrine of Loreto where we venerated the mystery of the Incarnation, by your help dispose all things towards a joyful, favorable, and prosperous outcome.
His final appeal to Our Lady is an indicator of his strong, traditional piety. The Church would have to wait, however, for Paul VI to confer on Mary the title of “Mother of the Church” at the end of the third session of the Council – a title first used by St. Ambrose in the fourth century and then experiencing a long period of desuetude until the modern era.
The text was originally written in Italian and then translated into Latin (it seems that Leo XIII at the end of the nineteenth century was the last pope to compose directly in Latin). Strangely, this document has never had an “official” English translation!
• Related at CWR: “Vatican II, Sixty Years On” (October 10, 2022) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas