Vatican II: A First Fiftieth Anniversary
This Sunday, January 25th, is the fiftieth anniversary of Pope John XXIIIs announcement that he intended to convoke an ecumenical council. He did so less than a hundred days after his election, privately, to a small group of cardinals, after a service in the basilica of St. Pauls Outside the Walls to close the week of prayer for Christian unity.The announcement came in a speech in which Pope John set out some of the challenges and opportunities he saw, first, as bishop of the local Church of Rome and, second, as pastor of the entire Church. In the latter capacity, he noted in a single sentence the great gifts of grace that Christ was continuing to pour out on the world. On the other hand, there was the sad sight of so many people who reject faith in Christ and pursue material goods instead, an opposition thathe said continues the struggle between two cities that St. Augustine described. Material and technological progress was distracting people from the search for higher things, sapping the energies of the spirit, and relaxing traditional structures of discipline. All of this led to the key moment:
In the heart of the lowly priest whom, despite his unworthiness, the manifest indication of divine providence has led to this height of the supreme Pontificate, these observations arouse a decisive resolve to recall certain ancient forms for stating doctrine and for making wise provision for Church discipline. In ages of renewal in the history of the Church, these ancient forms have produced extraordinarily effective fruits by clarifying thought, by consolidating religious unity, by enlivening the flame of Christian fervor....Venerable brothers and beloved sons! In your presence, trembling a little with emotion and at the same time with humble resolution of purpose, we announce the idea of proposing a twofold celebration: a diocesan synod for the City and an ecumenical council for the universal Church.You, venerable brothers and beloved sons, do not need abundant illustrations about the historical and juridical significance of these two proposals. They will lead happily to the desired and awaited aggiornamento [up-dating] of the Code of Canon Law which is to accompany and crown these two efforts to give practical application to the provisions of ecclesiastical discipline, as the Spirit of the Lord will be suggesting to us along the way. ...
At the end of the talk, Pope John entrusted his proposal to the prayers of the Virgin and of his patron saints. "Of them all we beg that these important proposals may begin well, be carried through, and have a happy outcome, for the enlightenment, edification, and joy of the entire Christian people, for a renewed invitation to the faithful of the separated communities also lovingly to follow us in this search for unity and grace to which so many souls all over the earth aspire."[This was how the sentence appeared, months later, in Acta Apostolicae Sedis. But the original version of the ecumenical reference read: "a renewed invitation to the faithful of the separated churches to share with us in this banquet of grace and fraternity." The official text changes "separated Churches" to "separated Communities," makes the simple "us" into the plural of majesty, "Us", and invites the others, not to share in our banquet--the Council--but to "follow Us in this search for unity and grace."]So thats how the whole great thing called "Vatican II" got started. Its worth a prayer of gratitude to God for Pope John and for the Council.
About the Author
Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.