A celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of Vatican II could fittingly begin by recalling the publication on Christmas Day 1961 of the Apostolic Constitution Humanae salutis, with which Pope John XXIII solemnly convoked the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. The official Latin text may be found in AAS 54 (1962) 5-13; the original Italian text may be found in Acta et Documenta, Series Praeparatoria, I, 139-43. Surprisingly, there is no English translation available on the Vatican website, and I have been unable to find it on the Internet. I have supplied an English translation on my website. Here I will excerpt only a few things.First, the Pope notes the challenges of the day, in particular the failure of our moral and spiritual sense to keep pace with scientific and technological progress and the threat of a militant atheism (communism). But the next paragraph anticipates John XXIIIs repudiation of prophets of doom in the speech with which he opened the Council nine months later:
These painful considerations remind us of the duty to be vigilant and keep our sense of responsibility awake. While distrustful souls see nothing but darkness falling upon the face of the earth, we prefer to restate our confidence in our Savior, who has not left the world he redeemed. Indeed, making our own Jesus' recommendation that we learn to discern "the signs of the times" (Mt 16:4), it seems to us that we can make out, in the midst of so much darkness, more than a few indications that enable us to have hope for the fate of the Church and of humanity. The successive bloody wars of our times, the spiritual ruins caused by many ideologies, and the fruits of so many bitter experiences have not been without useful lessons. Scientific progress itself, which has given man the ability to create catastrophic implements for his own destruction, has raised anxious questions; it has forced human beings to become thoughtful, more aware of their own limitations, desirous of peace, alert to the importance of spiritual values; it has accelerated that progress of closer collaboration and of mutual integration of individuals, classes and nations toward which, even amid a thousand uncertainties, the human family seems already to be moving. All this facilitates, no doubt, the Church's apostolate, since many people who in the past did not realize the importance of her mission are today, taught by experience, more disposed to welcome her teachings.
Second, he points to signs of vitality within the Church: not only has she opposed materialistic ideologies,
she has seen the rise and growth within herself of immense energies of the apostolate, of prayer, of action in all fields, first on the part of a clergy ever better equipped in learning and virtue for its mission and then of a laity which has become ever more conscious of its responsibilities within the Church and especially of its duty to collaborate with the Church's hierarchy. To all this should be added the immense suffering of entire Christian worlds, through which an admirable host of bishops, priests, and laymen are sealing their adherence to the faith, undergoing persecutions of all kinds, and displaying a heroism that equals that of the most glorious periods of the Church. Thus if the world seems to have changed profoundly, the Christian community has also in great part been transformed and renewed: that is, it has been strengthened in its social unity, reinvigorated intellectually, inwardly purified. It is ready for any trial.
Pope John then broadly outlined the main purposes of the Council:
The forthcoming Council, then, will meet happily and at a moment in which the Church has a more lively desire to fortify her faith and to contemplate herself in her own awe-inspiring unity, just as she feels the more urgent duty to give greater effectiveness to her healthy vitality and to promote the sanctification of her members, the spread of revealed truth, and the consolidation of her structures. This will be a demonstration of the Church, always living and always young, that feels the rhythm of time, that in every century beautifies herself with new splendor, radiates new light, achieves new conquests, all the while remaining identical to herself, faithful to the divine image impressed on her face by her divine Bridegroom, who loves her and protects her, Christ Jesus.Furthermore, at a time of generous and growing efforts being undertaken in various areas to reconstitute that visible unity of all Christians which corresponds to the will of the divine Redeemer, it is quite natural that the forthcoming Council provide the premises of doctrinal clarity and of mutual charity that will make even more alive in our separated brethren the desire for the hoped-for return to unity and will smooth the way to it. And finally, to a world which is lost, confused, and anxious because of the constant threat of new frightful conflicts, the forthcoming Council is called to offer a possibility for all men of good will to turn their thoughts and proposals toward peace, a peace which can and must come above all from spiritual and supernatural realities, from human intelligence and conscience enlightened and guided by God, Creator and Redeemer of humanity.
Finally, these yield a rapid anticipation of the agenda of the Council:
These fruits, which we so eagerly expect from the Council and on which we like so often to dwell, entail a vast program of work which is now being prepared. It addresses the doctrinal and practical problems which correspond more to the requirements of perfect conformity to Christian teaching, to the upbuilding and to the service of the Mystical Body, and to its supernatural mission: that is, the Scriptures, the venerable tradition, the sacraments, prayer, Church discipline, charitable and relief activities, the lay apostolate, the horizon of the missions.But this supernatural order must also reflect its effectiveness onto the other, the temporal, order, which unfortunately is ultimately the only one that occupies and preoccupies man. In this field also the Church has shown that she wishes to be Mater et magistra, to use the expression of our distant and glorious predecessor, Innocent III, spoken at the Fourth Lateran Council. Although she has no directly earthly ends, she cannot in her journey be disinterested in the problems and worries of here below. She knows how beneficial to the good of the soul are those means which render more human the life of those individual men who are to be saved. She knows that by giving life to the temporal order by the light of Christ, she is also revealing men to themselves, leading them, that is, to discover in themselves their own nature, their own dignity, their own purpose. This is why the living presence of the Church today extends by right and by fact to international organizations; this is why she elaborates her social teaching on the family, the school, work, civil society, and all the related problems, so that her teaching office has been raised to the highest level as the most authoritative voice, the interpreter and champion of the moral order, the defender of the rights and duties of all human beings and of all political communities.In this way the beneficial influence of the conciliar deliberations, we profoundly hope, must succeed to the point that it imbues with Christian light and penetrates with fervent spiritual energy not only into the depths of souls but also into the whole realm of human activities.
I note that here, as also elsewhere, Pope John built the case for the appropriateness of a council on the vitality that the Church was already displaying. It is ready for any trial. Was this overly optimistic on his part? Are there parts of this speech and vision of the Council that surprise you, disappoint you? What observations does the passage of half a century suggest to you?