In October 1962, almost 60 years ago this month, Pope St. John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council. The First Vatican Council had been cut short and left unfinished in 1870 by the War of Italian Unification. Prior to that Council was the Council of Trent, which was the Catholic Church’s response to the crisis of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century. Less than 20 years after the worst war the world had ever seen, and in the midst of a Cold War that would continue for another 30 years, Pope John XXIII announced that the time had come to gather the bishops of the world together for a Council.
Pope John’s opening speech to those gathered at St. Peter’s Basilica is called Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, or “Mother Church Rejoices.” In it, the pope refers to the contemporary state of the world, and the very serious political and economic issues that “so preoccupy people that they turn their cares and thoughts away from the religious affairs which are the concern of the Church’s teaching authority.” It was the pope’s hope that the Council would proclaim anew the perennial teachings of the Church “in the way demanded by our times,” and to help the people of the world turn their eyes and order their lives once more to the things of God. He describes Catholic doctrine as “the common heritage of humanity,” and declares that “our task is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with an antiquity,” but also to share the treasure of the Faith, “eagerly and without fear.” To a world still reeling from the horrors of world war and living under constant threat of nuclear devastation, Pope John described the Church as a “loving mother,” who “distributes the goods of heavenly grace which, since they raise people to the dignity of children of God, are so effective a protection and aid for them to live a more human life.” Along with the life of grace, the Church also shares its teaching, which illumines the minds of those touched by grace to understand who they are and the noble life to which they’re called. This includes sharing what we have received, dispelling “seeds of error” and promoting “concord, a just peace, and fraternal unity among all,” through our lives of Christian charity.
Church historians often say that it takes about a century for a Council to be fully integrated into the life of the Church. Pope St. John XXIII’s decision to convoke the Second Vatican Council was, without a doubt, one of the most consequential actions of the past century, and it continues to affect the life of the Church both internally and in its relationship with the world. As Pope John said in his opening address: “Christ Jesus still stands at the center of history and life: people either embrace Him and His Church and so enjoy the benefits of light, goodness, order, and peace, or they live without Him or act against Him and deliberately remain outside the Church, so that confusion arises among them, their relationships are embittered, and the danger of bloody wars impends.” Sixty years later, this message remains essential. On his feast day (Oct 11), we ask good Pope St. John to pray for the Church, that it might fulfill its mission of being both the guardian and beacon of Truth in the midst of growing confusion, and the bearer of divine life to those who live in the sadness of spiritual death.