The Council begins

Fifty years ago today the Second Vatican Council began with a solemn ceremony in St. Peters Basilica. It had rained through most of the night before, threatening to wash out the procession through the Square. But the skies cleared into the brilliant Roman blue and things could proceed as planned.Students at the North American College had begun the week on retreat, given by Bishop John Wright. But the retreat was interrupted so that we could attend the opening of the Council. St. Peters Square was cordoned off, and despite our best efforts we were unable to get to good sites from which to watch the procession. Then we noticed that bishops, when they approached a guard, were granted immediate entrance: Avanti, Monsignore! And we also noticed that when bishops were accompanied by priest-chaplains, all of them got in. So we waited until we saw a bishop come who had no chaplains with him, and two of us placed ourselves right behind him, and we were all admitted: Avanti, Monsignore! So it was from the steps of St. Peters that I watched the opening procession of 2,400 bishops across the piazza and into the basilica, a most impressive sight!The most important moment occurred inside, of course, when after the Solemn High Mass, Pope John XXIII delivered his opening speech in which he set out his vision of the Council. Some of the highlights:

1. The popes repudiation of the prophets of doom who can see nothing but prevarication and ruin in modern times, who think things are getting worse and worse, who speak as if the end of the world is at hand. He is here describing an attitude that has been called Catholic catastrophism, which was very common in many RC circles over the previous century and a half, when various revolutions diminished the control the Church had over vast areas of human life. Such people, he said, tend to idealize the past as if it were always favorable to the Church and to ignore the restrictions on the Churchs freedom that came along with the support of the temporal authorities. Pope John asked the Council to consider whether humanity might not be entering a new order of things, under divine providence.2. He said that the chief aim of the Council was the defense and presentation of the revealed deposit of faith. This would require 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. Notice the two-fold task, to be undertaken simultaneously, that the Council at once be faithful to the heritage of truth and be alert to the contemporary world. I imagine the pope as saying that the Council has to do what a good preacher has to do: preach the Gospel and know your congregation! Our task, he says later, is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with an antiquity; eagerly and without fear, we must devote ourselves to the task our age demands, pursuing the path which the Church has followed for twenty centuries.3. He did not want the Council simply to repeat what everyone already knew. He wanted a new and deeper comprehension of the faith and he wanted the ancient faith presented in a manner intelligible to contemporaries: The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the formulation in which it is clothed is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great account, with patience if necessary, measuring everything by the forms and proportions of a teaching authority primarily pastoral in character." That the Council should be pastoral and not dogmatic was an extremely important guideline for the bishops to follow.4. He did not want the Council to issue a set of condemnations to combat errors, which, he said, often vanish as quickly as mist after sunrise. The Church had often been severe against errors in the past, and he acknowledged that there were errors to combat today. But at the present time, he said, 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.If one knows the kinds of texts that were prepared for the Council, particularly by the preparatory Theological Commission, it is obvious that by these four points Pope John was distancing himself from that material and giving the bishops the authority of his own voice should they also find those texts inadequate to the challenges facing the Church. And when bishops were to declare their dissatisfaction with the prepared material, they would often invoke Pope Johns description of the aims and methods of the Council.For these reasons I think Pope Johns opening speech was certainly the most important of all the papal speeches given at Vatican II, and I would even argue that it was the most important speech of the four sessions of the Council.

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.

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