Why Was Vatican II Called? In His Opening Speech, John XXIII Explains It All

Pope St. John XXIII’s opening address, ‘Gaudet Mater Ecclesia,’ remains one of the best ways to understand the importance of the Second Vatican Council as a whole.

Pope John XXIII arrives at St. Peter's Basilica on Oct. 11, 1962, to open the first session of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican.
Pope John XXIII arrives at St. Peter's Basilica on Oct. 11, 1962, to open the first session of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican. (photo: AFP via Getty Images)

On Oct. 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII presided over the solemn opening of the Second Vatican Council. A stately procession of some 2,500 Council Fathers, mostly bishops, made their way from the Vatican palace, through the wide expanse of St. Peter’s Square and a vast crowd of faithful, and into St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope John XXIII was in the rear of the cortège, clothed in splendid vestments and carried on a ceremonial throne, signs of an earlier age of papal splendor.

The spectacle certainly caught the attention of the media and the world as a whole. And yet, 60 years later, beyond the pageantry, the event endures as an unforgettable moment for the Catholic Church as well as for the world at large. Such is the case, not simply for the powerful symbolism, but above all due to the deeper meaning of the words and actions of the Church on that occasion.

Over the subsequent decades, those inside and outside the Church have sought to more fully grasp the significance of the monumental undertaking, the Second Vatican Council, which began on that day. Nonetheless, a return to the words of John XXIII himself on that day — in his address Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (“Mother Church Rejoices”) — remains one of the best ways to understand the importance of this anniversary and of the Council as a whole.

The speech was bold and yet at the same time deeply grounded in the tradition of the Church. The Holy Father was, on the one hand, initiating an ecumenical council, a mode of acting which is nearly as ancient as the Church herself. Since the early days of the Church, these meetings of bishops, intended to act in the name of the whole Church, had been a means for clarifying points of belief, consolidating unity and fostering new vitality.

But in the middle of the 20th century, when the Church convoked a council for the first time in nearly a century, the very notion of an ecumenical council had taken on fresh nuances of meaning. John XXIII deeply felt that, in the face of the tragic conflicts and bitter divisions of the earlier part of the 20th century, the Church needed to serve as a sign of unity — not just of unity within the institutional bounds of the Catholic Church herself, but also with separated Christians and all humanity. Each time the Church celebrates a council, John XXIII noted in the address, the Church gains a new spiritual strength but also makes a valuable contribution to the life of society as a whole.

“Illuminated by the light of this council,” the Pope ventured to hope, “the Church will be increased in spiritual riches.” She would find “new strength” so as to “bravely look to the future.” With the proper changes and mutual cooperation, he went on to assert, the Church would help persons, families and nations turn to the things that are above.

Pope John went on to describe the renewed attitude that he desired for the Church. He recognized that many persons today, moved by religious zeal, see only ruins and calamities in the present condition of human society. Such has been the temptation for believers at the time and still today: to long for an earlier era in which living the faith presented fewer challenges.

Certainly it was true that, as the Pope would later note in his speech, persons could be so occupied with political and economic concerns that they turned away from concerns of a spiritual order. Still, he challenged the Church to recognize the action of divine Providence in the new order of things into which humanity was entering.

Here was the profound purification of vision that John XXIII asked of the Church: to recognize the immense good present in the contemporary world. In unforgettable words, he called for the Church to show herself not merely as an authority and enemy of error, but as “a most loving mother of all, kind, patient” toward our separated Christian brethren as well as all humanity.

Over the course of the next four years, the Council sought to turn this attitude into a living reality. Throughout the process, the Council Fathers — in representation of the entire Church and with the desire to respond to the concerns of all humanity — continually challenged one another to expand their vision and become more attuned to the needs of the world, while at the same looking deeper into the Church’s spiritual riches. By means of this invigorating experience, the Church found — and continues to find — new ways of expressing and living out her identity in the ever-fluctuating circumstances of society.

Those circumstances certainly have changed in the last 60 years. The last six decades have brought with them no shortage of challenges and crises, in the Church and in the world. Yet, it’s precisely because of those challenges that we need to continue to look to the Council.

The grand endeavor initiated by John XXIII on that October day remains a basic reference point for the Church and for so many others who earnestly seek the common good. The Church took a significant step forward on that date, so as to meet the serious and pressing issues facing mankind. Our remembrance of that moment can give us all new hope and energy to continue in the same direction.