64 Years Ago, John XXIII Made the Historic Announcement of Vatican II

COMMENTARY: In revealing his plan to a group gathered at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls on Jan. 25, 1959, the Pope expressed a firm conviction that his idea for an ecumenical council came from the Holy Spirit.

Pope John XXIII
Pope John XXIII (photo: Fotografia Felici / Catholic News Service / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Over the next few years, leading to December 2025, we will be marking the 60th anniversary of the unfolding of the Second Vatican Council. This period offers us a special opportunity to look back at that historic assembly, which continues to be so crucial for the life of the Church today.

Among the many memorable moments of the Council, one date this month stands out in particular: Jan. 25, 1959. It was on this day that, in an address to a small group of cardinals assembled in the Benedictine monastery attached to Rome’s Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, John XXIII announced his intention to convoke an ecumenical council.

The announcement seems to have been a great surprise to those eminent Church leaders who were present, as it was to the world at large. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been.

As early as 1922, Pope Pius XI had recognized the value of gathering the world’s bishops, in the collegial style of a council, so as to respond to the serious problems facing the world in the aftermath of the First World War. Later, under the pontificate of Pius XII, a more extensive plan for an ecumenical council was drawn up. In the face of the logistical challenges of such an immense gathering, and the divergent ideas about the scope of a council, the Pope decided to not move forward with the idea.

The situation would radically change shortly after the 77-year-old cardinal-patriarch of Venice, Angelo Giuseppe Roncallli, was elected to the See of Peter. The awareness of the value of synods and councils in the life of the Church was deeply ingrained in the mind of this new pope, John XXIII, from both his study and pastoral experience. The first hints of a council came just a few days after his election. Despite this mindset, so favorable to such an ecumenical assembly, the decision to move forward with this initiative was not simply the result of received ideas or elaborate pastoral reflection.

While the exact details are unclear, the Pope had the firm conviction that the idea to hold an ecumenical council came from the Holy Spirit. As he commented to a group of pilgrims from Venice in May 1962, he felt his soul to be “illuminated with a great idea,” which he received with an “ineffable trust in the Divine Master,” and which was confirmed by the immediate and joyous assent of Vatican’s secretary of the state, the Pope’s trusted aide Cardinal Domenico Tardini.

This profound conviction of John XXIII, with regard to the supernatural inspiration of the idea, led him to look beyond the “serious difficulties,” as he himself recognized, that would be faced by such an immense undertaking as an ecumenical council.

Just a few days after that meeting with Cardinal Tardini, the Pope announced his idea to a larger group of cardinals and to the world at large. This pronouncement would come shortly after Mass on that Jan. 25, 1959, which commemorated the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul and the end of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Before those cardinals gathered in the chapter room of the Benedictine abbey next to the Basilica, the Pope’s gaze looked out to the world as a whole.

He recognized, as he said, that the eyes of the world were upon him — some kind and others not so friendly. He was aware, as he indicated in his address, that the world looked for the pastoral response which he, as Bishop of Rome and Pastor of the Universal Church, would offer to the spiritual needs of the time.

Interestingly, in making an announcement of such global import, John XXIII’s attention looked first to the local. He spoke of the city of Rome which, as he noted, had been completely transformed from the time he had first come to know it, in his youth. The vast influx of persons into the city, from all over Italy and all over the world, had made the city into a true “human beehive,” with an uninterrupted buzz of confused voices, in search of harmony. Such voices “easily intertwine and unravel,” he observed, making it difficult to find the unity needed for the religious, civil and social life of the Eternal City.

Here, at the local level, we could see a microcosm of the broader challenges that the Pope would recognize in the world as a whole. The Holy Father was convinced, at this local level as well as at the global level, that the challenges of a changing world required the help of Our Lord and the coordination of the efforts of both individuals and groups.

Such a desire would be met, as the Pope announced later in his speech, by a Diocesan Synod for Rome. John XXIII was well acquainted with the value of diocesan synods from his pastoral work in the Italian Diocese of Bergamo, as well as from his research on Milan archbishop St. Charles Borromeo. He realized that any effort at renewal in the Church as a whole needed to begin with a collegial effort at the local level.

With this assessment of the pastoral reality of Rome, the Pope lifted his gaze to the state of the world. There, he saw a great drama of God’s action and the sad reality of sin. He rejoiced, on one hand, on how “the grace of Christ continues to multiply fruits and wonders of spiritual elevation, of salvation, and of holiness in the entire world.”

On the other hand, he recognized the tragic situation of man who, misusing his freedom and under the inspiration of “the prince of this world,” rejects faith in Christ and turns toward the “so-called goods of the world.” The Pope acknowledged frankly the temptation to seek after material goods and technological progress, and the way in which such “progress … weakens the energies of the spirit” and leads to spiritual and moral decay.

In the face of these dramatic circumstances, John XXIII expressed his firm decision to respond to the present by drawing on the Church’s past. He spoke of the resolution, which came from his heart, to look to ancient forms of doctrinal and pastoral action which, “in the history of the Church, in times of renewal, gave fruits of extraordinary efficacy” for their thought, their consolidation of unity and their strengthening of Christian fervor.

Such fruits were not purely spiritual, as he asserted, but also redounded to the good of man’s well-being here on earth.

Having painted in broad strokes this panorama of the life of the city of the Rome and the world as a whole, the newly elected Pope proceeded to his historic declaration:

Dear brothers and beloved children! We announce, before you, certainly trembling a little with emotion, but together with the humble decisiveness of purpose, the name and the proposal of a double celebration: of a Diocesan Synod for the City, and of an Ecumenical Council for the Universal Church.

He added that these assemblies would lead to an update of the Code of Canon Law, which would accompany and “crown” the work of the Synod and the Council.

After expressing his openness to any suggestions the bishops might offer regarding his plan, he raised his deeply collegial attitude to the celestial sphere by asking for the intercession of “the Immaculate Mother of Jesus and our Mother,” along with St. Peter and St. Paul and the multitude of saints in heaven. From them he asked God for a good beginning, continuation and happy success to the great undertaking which he had proposed, “for the edification and joy of all the Christian people,” and for a renewed invitation to separated Christians to come to a deeply desired unity. After an affectionate greeting, echoing the affectionate supernatural greetings of St. Paul and St Leo the Great, as well as a concluding blessing, his brief speech came to an end.

With those words, the Pope initiated a historic moment in the Church’s saving mission in the world. As he himself recalled later, the cardinals listened in an “impressive, devout silence.” They seemed to realize, as the Holy Father would comment to those pilgrims from Venice, that his proposals were not simply a prudent plan worthy of congratulations and comments.

Rather, the action of the Holy Father was a supernatural initiative to be contemplated.

Ironically, yet perhaps fittingly, the cardinals were not actually the first to hear the announcement of the Council. Minutes before the Pope’s words, the press office of the Vatican had issued a radio announcement informing the world of John XXIII’s historic announcement, unaware of a delay in the Mass at St. Paul’s Basilica. In a way, it was a fitting turn of events. That initiative which had originated so deeply in the Tradition of the Church, and in the heart of “The Good Pope,” as John XXIII was known, was indeed directed to the world at large.

The ecclesiastical authorities would need some more time to grasp the grand vision the Holy Father had for this new ecumenical council, the first of the 20th century. But at least the first step in an epic journey, inspired by the Holy Spirit, had begun.