October 8, 2012

When Blessed Pope John XXIII began his speech to open the Second Vatican Council on Oct. 11, 1962, many, perhaps most, of the bishops in St. Peter's Basilica expected to receive their marching orders for the council.

What they heard was something far different – a speech that many at first viewed as a disappointment, but one which has come to be recognized as perhaps the most important address in the Catholic Church in the 20th century.

It had already been a long day, beginning at 8:30 a.m. with an hour-long procession of 2,500 bishops into the basilica for the opening Mass. With considerable pomp, the cardinals and patriarchs individually vowed their obedience to the pope before the lengthy Mass began.

At 1 p.m., Yves Congar, who was to become one of the most influential theologians at the council, left the basilica, dismayed with all the triumphalism and an interminable liturgy that did not even include the distribution of Communion.

Eventually, at about 3:30 p.m., the 80-year-old Pope John got his chance to speak.

The council, he said, was not to be concerned with discussing or reaffirming points of doctrine that are already well-established, a not-too-subtle jab at the mountains of documents that had been prepared for approval at the council. Rather the Church "desires to show herself to be the loving mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness toward the brethren who are separated from her."


Instead of condemning errors of Protestantism or within the Catholic Church itself, "Nowadays, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity."


Pope John XXIII enters St. Peter's Basilica for the opening session of the Second Vatican council Oct. 11, 1962.

What Pope John did condemn were "prophets of doom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were imminent." These prophets of doom "see in modern times nothing but prevarication and ruin. They keep saying that as compared with past ages, ours is getting worse."

The council, the pope predicted, would lead men and women to turn their minds to heavenly things. "The Church . . . will become greater in spiritual riches and . . . she will look to the future without fear."

The pope wrote in his diary that throughout his speech, he kept glancing to "my friend at my right" – Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the head of the Holy Office and leader of the minority faction that resisted virtually every reform that the council put forward.

Pope John had appointed Ottaviani to his powerful position. Was he now telling the cardinal to start viewing the Church and the world through a different lens?

In any event, the fathers of Vatican II were at first cool to the pope's opening speech.


They had been hoping that John XXIII would tell them what to do; instead, he suggested the spirit in which they might do it. Have a positive outlook on the world and the Church. Avoid gloominess. Accentuate heavenly things and avoid the spirit of condemnation. Build bridges with other Christians. View the future with hope.

The speech defined the spirit of Vatican II. If today it might sound like a collection of superficial clichés, in 1962 it marked a dramatic shift from the spirit of fear and condemnation that had characterized the upper echelons of Church leadership for at least 130 years.

Many times during that period, there had been good reasons for the Church to adopt a defensive posture. Pope John was now saying that that attitude had to change. He wanted the council to be pastoral and a pastor relies on "the medicine of mercy" rather than the wagging finger of condemnation.

Pope John knew the importance of his speech. He had written and rewritten it in his own hand. Delivering that talk was perhaps his finest hour.


Yet at first, few caught the spirit of the thing. It had been a long day and the pope had not given the council fathers what they had hoped to hear – a set of instructions for negotiating the untravelled and unmarked road ahead.

While the papal speech did not contain a road map for the council, it did hint at some themes. Ecumenism was to be one of its keynotes.

So too was the need to rethink the theology of the Church. Much more needed to be said about the nature of the Church than could be encompassed in the First Vatican Council's teaching on papal infallibility.

The council was also called on to describe a more positive relationship with the modern world.

Within a few days, some of the council's leading lights began to get the significance of what the pope had said in his opening speech. He had opened the door to a very different sort of council than anything that had been previously envisaged.

By then, other dynamics had also come into play. In next week's article, we will look at the crucial Day Two of the Second Vatican Council.