On 11 October 1962 in the presence of 2540 bishops from around the world, Pope John XXIII officially opened the First Session of Vatican II.
In his speech, he emphasised that the Council’s primary purpose was not to discuss “the themes of ecclesiastical doctrine” but to examine, deepen and expound it “according to what is required by our times.”
“We must not only guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity,” the pope warned, “but, without fear, we must continue in the work that our age demands, following the path that the Church has traveled for almost twenty centuries.”
“Great importance should be attached to this method and, if necessary, applied with patience; that is, one must adopt that form of exposition which most corresponds to the magisterium, whose nature is predominantly pastoral,” stated.
John XXIII, Solemn Opening of the Second Vatican Council, Speech of the Holy Father (Vatican.va)
Opening General Congregation
October 11, 1962
Pope John XXIII set the tone for the Second Vatican Council by declaring at its solemn opening that it would be a council of hope and a preparation for Christian unity.
Pope John declared that the Church “considers it her duty to work actively” toward the realization of Christ’s prayer for Christian unity.
He also stressed that the prophets of disaster are not to be heeded and that the ecumenical council will concentrate on emphasizing the validity of the Church’s teaching rather than concern itself with condemning heresies.
The Pope proclaimed his fearless hope that the council “will bring the Church up-to-date where required.” He assured the cardinals and bishops gathered around him near the tomb of St. Peter that the council will compel “men, families and peoples everywhere to turn their minds toward heavenly things.”
He confessed that he has frequently been bothered by prophets of doom, who with misplaced zeal have tried to convince him that the modern world is lost in a “morass of prevarication and ruin.”
These prophets, the Pope noted, say that our era in comparison with past ages is constantly growing worse. Such men have learned nothing from history, Pope John said, for they seem to believe that “in the past, particularly at the time of former councils, everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and way of life and for proper religious liberty.”
In actual fact, the Pope said, these prophets of disaster are wrong. Divine Providence is guiding the Church today, he continued, “toward a new order in human relations wherein — by men’s own efforts and even beyond their greatest expectations — the superior and inscrutable designs of God’s will are being fulfilled.”
The Pope said that he sees even in the constant differences among men advantages that lead to the greater good of the Church.
Pope John expressed his gladness that the ecumenical council can meet in an atmosphere of freedom from the political pressures exerted on past councils.
Even though the majority of mankind today is locked in controversy over the direction in which political and economic order should be pursued, he said, and although vast numbers have no time or regard for spiritual reality, “the new conditions of modern life have at least this advantage: They have eliminated those innumerable obstacles by which at one time the sons of this world impeded the free action of the Church.”
The Pope noted with sorrow the absence of many bishops restrained by godless governments. But he said that he foresees that the Church, untrammeled by political considerations, will “from this Vatican basilica, as if from a second apostolic cenacle, now through the intervention of her bishops, raise her voice anew with resonant majesty and greatness.”
The principal concern of the new council is to discover methods whereby the deposit of Christian doctrine will be both safeguarded and taught more effectively, he continued. It will teach men how to fulfill their duties as citizens both of heaven and earth, he said.
Commenting on Christ’s words, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His justice,” the Pope cautioned that the second part of this quotation – “and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6, 33) — must constantly be kept in mind. This means, he said, that those who seek evangelical perfection with all their might must not fail to make themselves useful to society.
While the doctrine of the Church is to influence human activities in all fields, it is necessary that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers, he said, adding:
“At the same time, however, she must ever look to the present, to new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new, avenues to the Catholic apostolate.”
The 2lst ecumenical council, drawing on the wealth of the Church’s juridical, liturgical, apostolic and administrative experience, will transmit to the world without distortion the doctrines of the Church, he said.
But the key point of the council, the Pope declared, is not the discussion of one article or another the fundamental doctrine of the Church. He noted that what as been taught by the Fathers and theologians is presumed to be familiar to all.
Rather, he said, what the world expects is “a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciences, in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought.” The Church desires that the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith should now be conveyed in an effective “pastoral” manner, he declared.
Referring to the question of the condemnation of heresies, Pope John said: “While the Church has always repressed errors and frequently in the past condemned them with great severity, today the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.
“She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching, rather than by condemnation.”
In fact, he said, the fallacious opinions and dangerous concepts that must always be guarded against are so evidently in contrast with the truth, that “by now it would seem that men of themselves are inclined to condemn them, particularly those ways of life which despise God and His law or place excessive confidence in technical progress and a well-being based exclusively on the comforts of life.”
Noting the presence of many important personalities from all over the world, the Pope assured them of a new hope which, seconding the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, would certainly make the council “a revolutionary event not merely for the well-being of the Church but for the progress of human society.”
Msgr. James I. Tucek
NC Rome bureau chief
Pope Opens Council, Says Prophets of Doom Should Be Ignored (Vatican II @ 50)