It was the most important event in the history of Christianity since the Reformation and the Council of Trent.
Forty-five years ago today, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Paul VI closed the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica along with 2,300 bishops gathered from the entire world.
They had approved and signed Gaudium et Spes, the last of the major conciliar documents, the day before. The same day, the Pope had signed a decree making the year 1966 a special jubilee year, and he had joined the Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I in formally expressing together for the first time their regret for the mutual excommunications pronounced by their predecessors, Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Cerularius, in 1054.
But the Council Fathers saved December 8, the day on which they wanted to place everything in Mary’s hands, for something even more special.
And so Paul VI, together with all the bishops assembled, solemnly invoked Mary under a new title: Mother of the Church. That had been one of the most surprising features of Lumen Gentium’s teaching on the Church: the concluding chapter discussed Mary as “Mother of God in the Mystery of Christ and the Church.” It had always seemed a little out of place theologically. Until now.
As he concluded his homily, the Pope drew out a little bit of the meaning of that:
While we close the ecumenical council, we are honoring Mary Most Holy, the mother of Christ, and consequently, as we declared on another occasion, the mother of God and our spiritual mother. We are honoring Mary Most Holy, the Immaculate One, therefore innocent, stupendous, perfect. She is the woman, the true woman who is both ideal and real, the creature in whom the image of God is reflected with absolute clarity, without any disturbance, as happens in every other human creature.
Is it not perhaps in directing our gaze on this woman who is our humble sister and at the same time our heavenly mother and queen, the spotless and sacred mirror of infinite beauty, that we can terminate the spiritual ascent of the council and our final greeting? Is it not here that our post-conciliar work can begin? Does not the beauty of Mary Immaculate become for us an inspiring model, a comforting hope?
Just as Mary’s Immaculate Conception marked a new beginning for humanity, Paul and the assembled bishops hoped that the Council would be a new beginning for the Church’s engagement of culture.
Everyone knew that the story of the council’s work was really only beginning. To get a bit of the flavor of the time and its expectations, read this fascinating contemporary take on the Council’s closing from Life in 1965. How prescient were the historians quoted who “ask 30 or 50 years before Vatican II can be evaluated, since its chief product was words. The effect of these words on mankind will depend largely on post-council decisions, especially by the Pope.”
And so Pope Benedict is now in a position to look back at all that has transpired and all that has been accomplished, and see the work of Mary’s hand:
Presiding at a solemn Eucharistic celebration in the Vatican Basilica this morning, I wanted to give thanks to God for the gift of the Second Vatican Council.
Furthermore, I wished to pay homage to Mary Most Holy for having accompanied these 40 years of the Church’s richly eventful life. In a special maternal way, Mary has kept watch over the Pontificates of my venerable Predecessors, each one of whom, with great pastoral wisdom, steered the boat of Peter on the course of authentic conciliar renewal, ceaselessly working for the faithful interpretation and implementation of Vatican Council II. — December 8, 2005 (before reciting the Angelus)
Mary, Mother of the Church, pray for us!