These were the first words of Pope John XXIII's opening speech on the council's first day, Oct. 11, 1962.
The Church did indeed rejoice. Forty-five months earlier, “Good Pope John” had declared his intention to call a council. As he was only three months into his pontificate at the time, the announcement came quite out of the blue.
The idea had come to him (as he said in the council's opening speech) “completely unexpected, like a flash of heavenly light.” His personal journal, published after his death, tells us the flash came on Jan. 20, 1959.
Whatever the experience was like, he must have been convinced very quickly that the idea was indeed of the Holy Spirit, because he made his historic intentions public just five days later. Following a Mass at Rome's Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, he met with a group of cardinals in the adjoining Benedictine monastery. “Beloved sons and venerable brethren,” he said, “trembling a little with emotion, yet at the same time with a humble resoluteness of purpose, we pronounce before you the name and plan of a double endeavor: a diocesan synod for Rome and an ecumenical council for the universal Church.”
While we have no way of knowing what went on in the minds of the 17 cardinals gathered with him, Pope John did write later in his journal that his proposal was met with “devout and impressive silence.” (One wonders if this is simply a particularly papal way of describing eyebrows raised high and jaws falling low.)
Whatever the initial reaction, there were almost 3,000 bishops from 79 countries gathered in St. Peter's Basilica on Oct. 11, 1962. They had traveled to Rome by planes, trains, ships and cars. The bishops of Poland, among them the 42-year-old Karol Wojtyla, had arrived by special train four days earlier. There were 239 American bishops in attendance as well.
The sense of anticipation was high. Several years of preparation had led up to this moment. The Pope had been calling for the prayers of the Catholic people for the upcoming council, and they had responded. Just a month earlier, in a radio message broadcast on Sept. 11, Pope John had proclaimed: “Lumen Christi, lumen ecclesiae, lumen gentium! [Light of Christ, light of the Church, light of the nations!] What in fact has an ecumenical council ever been but the renewing of this encounter with the face of the risen Jesus, glorious and immortal King, shining upon the whole Church, for the salvation, joy and splendor of the human race.”
The Holy Father had prepared intensely for the speech, which he considered one of the most important of his life. He'd spent several days during September on private retreat, which he dedicated to his own spiritual preparation for the council and, more specifically and practically, preparation of the opening speech. He also went on personal pilgrimage, just days before the council opened, to the holy sites in Loreto and Assisi.
The opening speech the Pope offered to the assembled bishops that Oct. 11 stirred their hearts — as well as those of millions of other people, Catholic and otherwise, around the world. The speech is best remembered for Pope John's dismissal of the “prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.” It set a tone of optimism and vigor that was to pervade the council's deliberations for the next three years.
Less remembered from that speech, to our misfortune, is the Pope's clear and repeated indication of the council's raison d'etre. Why a council at all? What did he hope to achieve in calling it?
“The greatest concern of the ecumenical council,” Pope John said, “is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.” The council “wishes to transmit [this] doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion.” In calling the council, the Holy Father said, he intended that the teaching of the Church “might be presented in exceptional form to all men throughout the world.”
Salient words for us 40 years later. Indeed, they might well prompt an examination of conscience on the part of Catholic leaders and teachers everywhere. Have we allowed the council to become, through its monumental teaching documents, an instrument of guarding and teaching the faith more efficaciously? Or have we promoted some other “spirit of Vatican II” that has little to do with transmitting the Church's teaching “pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion”?
It is little wonder, given the intentions that Pope John articulated in that speech on the council's first day, as well as the council fathers’ subsequent efforts to carry them through, that our present Pope chose the same day 30 years later to offer to the world an extraordinary instrument for teaching and guarding the faith. On Oct. 11, 1992, Pope John Paul II signed Fidei Depositum, the apostolic constitution formally promulgating the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. An anniversary gift.
We could use a good shot of optimism and vigor in the Church in America today. We could also use a renewed sense of courage and zeal in our efforts to bring our faith to the world, in all its purity and beauty. Blessed Pope John, who is celebrated on Oct. 11, pray for us!
Barry Michaels writes from Blairsville, Pennsylvania.
The text of Pope John XXIII's speech of Oct. 11, 1962, can be found on the Internet at http://www.christusrex.org/www1/-CDHN/v2.html