Year of Faith

As the Year of Faith approaches together with the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Fr Adrian Graffy examines the inspiration given to the Council by its two Popes, Blessed John XXIII and Pope Paul VI in an article for Faith Today.

Pope John opens the Council

Blessed John XXIII set the tone for the Second Vatican Council when, on the morning of 11th October 1962, in St Peter’s Basilica, he addressed the assembled Bishops in a speech which began with the words Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (‘Mother Church Rejoices’). Pope John began by emphasising that this twentyfirst Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church would address not only all Catholics, or all Christians, but all the inhabitants of the world. Some people see nothing but disaster and trouble in society, and consider that the present age is far worse than earlier centuries. Pope John declares: ‘We must resolutely disagree with these prophets of doom.’ (4.3) We should be aware rather of the mysterious plans of God which are being worked out in the world. Despite the absence of many prelates, from places where the Church was persecuted, the Church was experiencing a new freedom and would be able to raise up its voice in the Council in a way never seen before.

For Pope John the principal aim of the Council is to explain the Christian faith in a more effective way. New situations demand new ways of preaching the Gospel. Pope John makes a clear distinction between the deposit of faith and the way in which that faith is to be announced in the modern age. The Church will continue to confront error, but in these new times ‘the Spouse of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy’ (7.2). The Church is to explain with greater clarity the value of her teaching, showing herself to be ‘a most loving mother of all, kind, patient, moved by compassion and goodness towards those separated from her’ (7.3). Another cause dear to Pope John is the promotion of unity. The unity of Catholics must shine out to attract others. Pope John says: ‘Venerable brothers, this is the aim of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, that, while it gathers together the Church’s best energies and strives that people welcome more favourably the good tidings of salvation, this Council should prepare and consolidate the path toward that unity of mankind which is required as a necessary foundation, in order that the earthly city may be brought to resemble that heavenly city where truth reigns, charity is the law, and whose extent is eternity.’ (8.4)

Pope Paul opens the Second Session

The first session of the Council ended in December 1962. It was to reconvene in the following autumn. Meanwhile, after much suffering, Blessed Pope John XXIII died on 3rd June 1963. The new pope, Giovanni Battista Montini, who took the name Paul VI, gave his backing to the continuation of the Council, and addressed the Council when it reopened on 29th September 1963.

In the speech (Salvete, fratres ‘Greetings, brothers’) Pope Paul welcomes the Council Fathers from all parts of the globe. He speaks warmly of Pope John, whose opening words to the Council ‘still echo in our memory and in our consciousness showing the direction in which the Council must move’ (2.2). In taking forward its task, which is to speak of the Church, the Council must start with Christ. ‘Christ is our beginning, our guide and our way. Christ is our hope and our goal.’ (3.3)

Pope Paul identifies with great clarity four purposes of the Council. The first is to define more precisely what the Church is. He recalls the great biblical images of the Church as the house of God, the flock of God, the vineyard, the field, the city, the Spouse of Christ and his mystical Body. In more recent times the Church’s own self-awareness has developed. Among all the issues relating to the Church which require attention the first concerns the Bishops of the Church. Fully respecting the dogmatic declarations of the First Vatican Council, this Council should develop the teaching on the episcopate, on its tasks and on its relationship with the Pope. Paul VI looks forward to ‘a stronger and more deliberate collaboration’ (4.9) of the Bishops with the Pope. Episcopal collegiality is firmly on the agenda.

The second task is to be the renewal of the Church. The Church must seek out its defects and correct them by returning to Christ. The Council must bring ‘a new spring, which awakens in the Church immense new energies and potential’ (5.5). This renewal obviously is not designed to undermine the life of the Church or to break with its traditions in what is essential and venerable, but to free these traditions from what is distorted, to make them more authentic and more fruitful.

The most serious task of the Council is to seek unity with other Christians. At this point the Pope offers a warm greeting to the delegates of other Christian communities present at the Council, and sends greetings to their communities. He asks pardon for any faults in the Catholic Church which have led to separation and division. Serious questions must be addressed in the search for perfect unity. Pope Paul acknowledges that other Christians have also developed the understanding of the ancient Christian faith.

Finally, the Council should establish a bridge with contemporary human society. Pope Paul recalls that the first action of the Council in October 1962 had been to open wide the doors of the assembly by sending a fraternal greeting of hope to all people. ‘The distinctive characteristic of this Council,’ affirms Pope Paul, ‘is love.’ (7.3) This love cares more for the good of others than for its own good.

Amid these clear aims for the Church of Christ, Paul VI is also fully aware of the suffering Church. As in the first session of the Council, many Bishops have been prevented from attending owing to persecution and imprisonment. He affirms that Catholics are not enemies, but honest and hard-working citizens of the countries to which they belong. The Church faces many problems in the modern world, but the attitude of the Church towards the world is ‘not to dominate but to serve, not to despise but to enhance, not to condemn but to offer comfort and salvation’ (7.8). Pope Paul takes forward the inspiration of John XXIII. He develops and clarifies it, so that the Council, this ‘new Pentecost’, becomes the most extraordinary gift of God for the Church of our times.

This article was published in Faith Today, Summer 2012:  See the article in its original print format (PDF).

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