On 14 November 1960, Pope John delivered a major speech to the cardinals, bishops, prelates, priests and religious who had been called to take part in the ten Preparatory Commissions for the Council.
He began by noting that “the Ecumenical Councils of the past responded mainly to concerns of doctrinal accuracy, various and important about the lex credendi, to the extent that heresies and errors tried to penetrate the ancient Church in the East and the West.”
He highlighted the contributions of five previous major Councils of Nicaea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, Trent and Vatican I. He added that “the occasion for the gathering of the other fifteen Ecumenical Councils… was offered by various circumstances, and by the concern to safeguard, yes, the purity of the Church’s teaching on various points of doctrine, but also to the affirmation and direction of consciences disturbed in the face of events of a religious and political nature, in different nations or contingencies, referring however almost always to the supreme tasks of the ecclesiastical magisterium, at the service of order, balance, and social peace.”
Now, he continued, Vatican II needed to face the challenges of the modern world:
“In the modern age of a world with a profoundly changed physiognomy, and struggling to sustain itself amid the charms and dangers of the almost exclusive search for material goods, in the oblivion or in the languishing of the principles of the spiritual and supernatural order, which characterized the penetration and ‘to expand over the centuries of Christian civilization, in the modern age, therefore, rather than to one point or another of doctrine or discipline that should be referred to the pure sources of Revelation and tradition, it is a question of restoring value and splendor , the substance of human and Christian thinking and living of which the Church has been the custodian and teacher over the centuries.
“On the other hand, the deploration of the deviations of the human spirit tempted and pushed towards the sole enjoyment of the goods of the earth, which the modernity of scientific research now places easily within the reach of the children of our time, is certainly serious and even necessary. God guard us, however, not to exaggerate its proportions, to the point of making us believe that God’s skies are now definitively closed above our heads, that truly tenebrae factae sint super universam terram , and that there is nothing left to do but sprinkle our tiring journey of tears.
“Instead, we must take courage,” he said.
Great things were expected in fact, he continued:
“Great things indeed – we love to repeat – We expect from this Council, which wants to be able to reinvigorate faith, doctrine, ecclesiastical discipline, religious and spiritual life, and also a great contribution to the reaffirmation of those principles of the Christian order, on which the developments of civil, economic, political and social life also inspire and govern. The law of the Gospel must reach there and envelop and penetrate everything, everything, even what comes to us de rore caeli et de pinguedine terrae(11). Yes: to go there, which involves a conscious, elevated, sincere participation of all the components of the social order – priesthood and laity; established authorities; intellectual activities: work – social order completely occupied by the concern for the perfect union of the relations between heaven and earth: between uncertain and dangerous present life, and future eternal and very happy life in the proportion of our correspondence as men and Christians to the gifts of mercy of the Lord.’
Address of the Holy Father John XXIII to the cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, prelates, priests and religious, called to be part of the preparatory commissions and secretariats of the II Vatican Council, Vatican Basilica, Monday 14 November 1960 (Vatican website)