Pope John's Opening Speech to the Council
On October 11, 1962, the first day of the Council, Pope John delivered
this address in St. Peter's Basilica.
Mother Church rejoices that, by the singular gift of Divine Providence,
the longed-for day has finally dawned when -- under the auspices of the
virgin Mother of God, whose maternal dignity is commemorated on this
feast -- the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council is being solemnly opened
here beside St. Peter's tomb.
THE ECUMENICAL COUNCILS OF THE CHURCH
The Councils -- both the twenty ecumenical ones and the numberless
others, also important, of a provincial or regional character which have
been held down through the years -- all prove clearly the vigour of the
Catholic Church and are recorded as shining lights in her annals.
In calling this vast assembly of bishops, the latest and humble
successor to the Prince of the Apostles who is addressing you intended
to assert once again the magisterium (teaching authority), which is
unfailing and endures until the end of time, in order that this
magisterium, taking into account the errors, the requirements, and the
opportunities of our time, might be presented in exceptional form to all
men throughout the world.
It is but natural that in opening this Universal Council we should like
to look to the past and to listen to its voices whose echo we like to
hear in the memories and the merits of the more recent and ancient
Pontiffs, our predecessors. These are solemn and venerable voices,
throughout the East and the West, from the fourth century to the Middle
Ages, and from there to modern times, which have handed down their
witness to those Councils. They are voices which proclaim in perennial
fervour the triumph of that divine and human institution, the Church of
Christ, which from Jesus takes its name, its grace, and its meaning.
Side by side with these motives for spiritual joy, however, there has
also been for more than nineteen centuries a cloud of sorrows and of
trials. Not without reason did the ancient Simeon announce to Mary the
mother of Jesus, that prophecy which has been and still is true: "Behold
this child is set for the fall and the resurrection of many in Israel,
and for a sign which shall be contradicted" ( Lk. 2: 34 ) . And Jesus
Himself, when He grew up, clearly outlined the manner in which the world
would treat His person down through the succeeding centuries with the
mysterious words: "He who hears you, hears me" (Ibid. 10:16), and with
those others that the same Evangelist relates: "He who is not with me is
against me and he who does not gather with me scatters" (Ibid. 11 :23).
The great problem confronting the world after almost two thousand years
remains unchanged. Christ is ever resplendent as the center of history
and of life. Men are either with Him and His Church, and then they enjoy
light, goodness, order, and peace. Or else they are without Him, or
against Him, and deliberately opposed to His Church, and then they give
rise to confusion, to bitterness in human relations, and to the constant
danger of fratricidal wars.
Ecumenical Councils, whenever they are assembled, are a solemn
celebration of the union of Christ and His Church, and hence lead to the
universal radiation of truth, to the proper guidance of individuals in
domestic and social life, to the strengthening of spiritual energies for
a perennial uplift toward real and everlasting goodness.
The testimony of this extraordinary magisterium of the Church in the
succeeding epochs of these twenty centuries of Christian history stands
before us collected in numerous and imposing volumes, which are the
sacred patrimony of our ecclesiastical archives, here in Rome and in the
more noted libraries of the entire world.
THE ORIGIN AND REASON FOR THE SECOND VATICAN ECUMENICAL COUNCIL
As regards the initiative for the great event which gathers us here, it
will suffice to repeat as historical documentation our personal account
of the first sudden bringing up in our heart and lips of the simple
words, "Ecumenical Council." We uttered those words in the presence of
the Sacred College of Cardinals on that memorable January 25, 1959, the
feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, in the basilica dedicated to him.
It was completely unexpected, like a flash of heavenly light, shedding
sweetness in eyes and hearts. And at the same time it gave rise to a
great fervour throughout the world in expectation of the holding of the
There have elapsed three years of laborious preparation, during which a
wide and profound examination was made regarding modern conditions of
faith and religious practice, and of Christian and especially Catholic
vitality. These years have seemed to us a first sign, an initial gift of
Illuminated by the light of this Council, the Church -- we confidently
trust -- will become greater in spiritual riches and gaining the
strength of new energies therefrom, she will look to the future without
fear. In fact, by bringing herself up to date where required, and by the
wise organization of mutual co-operation, the Church will make men,
families, and peoples really turn their minds to heavenly things.
And thus the holding of the Council becomes a motive for wholehearted
thanksgiving to the Giver of every good gift, in order to celebrate with
joyous canticles the glory of Christ our Lord, the glorious and immortal
King of ages and of peoples.
The opportuneness of holding the Council is, moreover, venerable
brothers, another subject which it is useful to propose for your
consideration. Namely, in order to render our Joy more complete, we wish
to narrate before this great assembly our assessment of the happy
circumstances under which the Ecumenical Council commences.
In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to
listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning
with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure.
In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin.
They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse,
and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which
is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the
time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian
idea and life and for proper religious liberty.
We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always
forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.
In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new
order of human relations which, by men's own efforts and even beyond
their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfilment of God's
superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human
differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.
It is easy to discern this reality if we consider attentively the world
of today, which is so busy with politics and controversies in the
economic order that it does not find time to attend to the care of
spiritual reality, with which the Church's magisterium is concerned.
such a way of acting is certainly not right, and must justly be
disapproved. It cannot be denied, however, that these new conditions of
modern life have at least the advantage of having eliminated those
innumerable obstacles by which, at one time, the sons of this world
impeded the free action of the Church. In fact, it suffices to leaf even
cursorily through the pages of ecclesiastical history to note clearly
how the Ecumenical Councils themselves, while constituting a series of
true glories for the Catholic Church, were often held to the
accompaniment of most serious difficulties and sufferings because of the
undue interference of civil authorities. The princes of this world,
indeed, sometimes in all sincerity, intended thus to protect the Church.
But more frequently this occurred not without spiritual damage and
danger, since their interest therein was guided by the views of a
selfish and perilous policy.
In this regard, we confess to you that we feel most poignant sorrow over
the fact that very many bishops, so dear to us are noticeable here today
by their absence, because they are imprisoned for their faithfulness to
Christ, or impeded by other restraints. The thought of them impels us to
raise most fervent prayer to God. Nevertheless, we see today, not
without great hopes and to our immense consolation, that the Church,
finally freed from so many obstacles of a profane nature such as
trammeled her in the past, can from this Vatican Basilica, as if from a
second apostolic cenacle, and through your intermediary, raise her voice
resonant with majesty and greatness.
PRINCIPLE DUTY OF THE COUNCIL: THE DEFENSE AND ADVANCEMENT OF TRUTH
The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that he sacred
deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more
efficaciously. That doctrine embraces the whole of man, composed as he
is of body and soul. And, since he is a pilgrim on this earth, it
commands him to tend always toward heaven.
This demonstrates how our mortal life is to be ordered in such a way as
to fulfil our duties as citizens of earth and of heaven, and thus to
attain the aim of life as established by God. That is, all men, whether
taken singly or as united in society, today have the duty of tending
ceaselessly during their lifetime toward the attainment of heavenly
things and to use. for this purpose only, the earthly goods, the
employment of which must not prejudice their eternal happiness.
The Lord has said: "Seek first the kingdom of Cod and his justice" (Mt.
6:33). The word "first" expresses the direction in which our thoughts
and energies must move. We must not, however, neglect the other words of
this exhortation of our Lord, namely: "And all these things shall be
given you besides" (Ibid. ). In reality, there always have been in the
Church, and there are still today, those who, while seeking the practice
of evangelical perfection with all their might, do not fail to make
themselves useful to society. Indeed, it from their constant example of
life and their charitable undertakings that all that is highest and
noblest in human society takes its strength and growth.
In order, however, that this doctrine may influence the numerous fields
of human activity, with reference to individuals, to families, and to
social life, it is necessary first of all that the Church should never
depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers. But
at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new
conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world, which
have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate.
For this reason, the Church has not watched inertly the marvellous
progress of the discoveries of human genius, an has not been backward in
evaluating them rightly. But, while following these developments, she
does not neglect to admonish men so that, over and above sense --
perceived things -- they may raise their eyes to God, the Source of all
wisdom and all beauty. And may they never forget the most serious
command: "The Lord thy God shall thou worship, and Him only shall thou
serve" (Mt. 4:10; Lk. 4:8), so that it may happen that the fleeting
fascination of visible things should impede true progress.
The manner in which sacred doctrine is spread, this having been
established, it becomes clear how much is expected from the Council in
regard to doctrine. That is, the Twenty-first Ecumenical Council, which
will draw upon the effective and important wealth of juridical,
liturgical, apostolic, and administrative experiences, wishes to
transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or
distortion, which throughout twenty centuries, notwithstanding
difficulties and contrasts, has become the common patrimony of men. It
is a patrimony not well received by all, but always a rich treasure
available to men of good will.
Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were
concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest
will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us, pursuing
thus the path which the Church has followed for twenty centuries.
The salient point of this Council is not, therefore, a discussion of one
article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church which has
repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern
theologians, and which is presumed to be well known and familiar to all.
For this a Council was not necessary. But from the renewed, serene, and
tranquil adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and
preciseness, as it still shines forth in the Acts of the Council of
Trent and First Vatican Council, the Christian, Catholic, and apostolic
spirit of the whole world expects a step forward toward a doctrinal
penetration and a formation of consciousness 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 substance of the ancient doctrine of the
deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is
another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great
consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in
the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly
pastoral in character.
HOW TO REPRESS ERRORS
At the outset of the Second Vatican Council, it is evident, as always,
that the truth of the Lord will remain forever. We see, in fact, as one
age succeeds another, that the opinions of men follow one another and
exclude each other. And often errors vanish as quickly as they arise,
like fog before the sun The Church has always opposed these errors.
Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays
however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of
mercy rather than that of severity. She consider that she meets the
needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching
rather than by condemnations Not, certainly, that there is a lack of
fallacious teaching, opinions, and dangerous concepts to be guarded
against an dissipated. But these are so obviously in contrast with the
right norm of honesty, and have produced such lethal fruits 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. They are ever more deeply convinced
of the paramount dignity of the human person and of his perfection as
well as of the duties which that implies. Even more important,
experience has taught men that violence inflicted on others, the might
of arms, and political domination, are of no help at all in finding a
happy solution to the grave problems which afflict them.
That being so, the Catholic Church, raising the torch of religious truth
by means of this Ecumenical Council, 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. To mankind, oppressed by so
many difficulties, the Church says, as Peter said to the poor who begged
alms from him: "I have neither gold nor silver, but what I have I give
you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise and walk" (Acts 3:6).
In other words, the Church does not offer to the men of today riches
that pass, nor does she promise them merely earthly happiness. But she
distributes to them the goods of divine grace which, raising men to the
dignity of sons of God, are the most efficacious safeguards and aids
toward a more human life. She opens the fountain of her life-giving
doctrine which allows men, enlightened by the light of Christ, to
understand well what they really are, what their lofty dignity and their
purpose are, and, finally, through her children, she spreads everywhere
the fullness of Christian charity, than which nothing is more effective
in eradicating the seeds of discord, nothing more efficacious in
promoting concord, just peace, and the brotherly unity of all.
THE UNITY OF THE CHRISTIAN AND HUMAN FAMILY MUST BE PROMOTED
The Church's solicitude to promote and defend truth derives from the
fact that, according to the plan of God, who wills all men to be saved
and to come to the knowledge of the truth (l Tim. 2:4), men without the
assistance of the whole of revealed doctrine cannot reach a complete and
firm unity of minds, with which are associated true peace and eternal
Unfortunately, the entire Christian family has not yet fully attained
this visible unity in truth.
The Catholic Church, therefore, considers it her duty to work actively
so that there may be fulfilled the great mystery of that unity, which
Jesus Christ invoked with fervent prayer from His heavenly Father on the
eve of His sacrifice. She rejoices in peace, knowing well that she is
intimately associated with that prayer, and then exults greatly at
seeing that invocation extend its efficacy with salutary fruit, even
among those who are outside her fold.
Indeed, if one considers well this same unity which Christ implored for
His Church, it seems to shine, as it were, with a triple ray of
beneficent supernal light: namely, the unity of Catholics among
themselves, which must always be kept exemplary and most firm; the unity
of prayers and ardent desires with which those Christians separated from
this Apostolic See aspire to be united with us; and the unity in esteem
and respect for the Catholic Church which animates those who follow non-
In this regard, it is a source of considerable sorrow to see that the
greater part of the human race -- although all men who are born were
redeemed by the blood of Christ -- does not yet participate in those
sources of divine grace which exist in the Catholic Church. Hence the
Church, whose light illumines all, whose strength of supernatural unity
redounds to the advantage of all humanity, is rightly described in these
beautiful words of St. Cyprian:
"The Church, surrounded by divine light, spreads her rays over the
entire earth. This light, however, is one and unique and shines
everywhere without causing any separation in the unity of the body. She
extends her branches over the whole world. By her fruitfulness she sends
ever farther afield he rivulets. Nevertheless, the head is always one,
the origin one for she is the one mother, abundantly fruitful. We are
born of her, are nourished by her milk, we live of her spirit' (De
Catholicae Eccles. Unitate, 5).
Venerable brothers, such is the aim of the Second Vatican Ecumenical
Council, which, while bringing together the Church's best energies and
striving to have men welcome more favourably the good tidings of
salvation, prepares, as it were and consolidates the path toward that
unity of mankind which is required as a necessary foundation, in order
that the earthly city may be brought to the resemblance of that heavenly
city where truth reigns, charity is the law, and whose extent is
eternity (Cf. St. Augustine, Epistle 138, 3).
Now, "our voice is directed to you" (2 Cor. 6:11 ) venerable brothers in
the episcopate. Behold, we are gathered together in this Vatican
Basilica, upon which hinges the history of the Church where heaven and
earth are closely joined, here near the tomb of Peter and near so many
of the tombs of our holy predecessors, whose ashes in this solemn hour
seem to thrill in mystic exultation.
The Council now beginning rises in the Church like daybreak, a
forerunner of most splendid light. It is now only dawn. And already at
this first announcement of the rising day, how much sweetness fills our
heart. Everything here breathes sanctity and arouses great joy. Let us
contemplate the stars, which with their brightness augment the majesty
of this temple. These stars, according to the testimony of the Apostle
John (Apoc. 1:20), are you, and with you we see shining around the tomb
of the Prince of the Apostles, the golden candelabra. That is, the
Church is confided to you (Ibid.).
We see here with you important personalities, present in an attitude of
great respect and cordial expectation, having come together in Rome from
the five continents to represent the nations of the world.
We might say that heaven and earth are united in the holding of the
Council -- the saints of heaven to protect our work, the faithful of the
earth continuing in prayer to the Lord, and you, seconding the
inspiration of the Holy Spirit in order that the work of all may
correspond to the modern expectations and needs of the various peoples
of the world.
This requires of you serenity of mind, brotherly concord moderation in
proposals, dignity in discussion, and wisdom of deliberation.
God grant that your labours and your work, toward which the eyes of all
peoples and the hopes of the entire world are turned, may abundantly
fulfil the aspirations of all.
Almighty God! In Thee we place all our confidence, not trusting in our
own strength. Look down benignly upon these pastors of Thy Church. May
the light of Thy supernal grace aid us in taking decisions and in making
laws. Graciously hear the prayers which we pour forth to Thee in
unanimity of faith, of voice, and of mind.
O Mary, Help of Christians, Help of Bishops, of whose love we have
recently had particular proof in thy temple of Loreto, where we
venerated the mystery of the Incarnation dispose all things for a happy
and propitious outcome and, with thy spouse, St. Joseph, the holy
Apostles Peter and Paul St. John the Baptist and St. John the
Evangelist, intercede for us to God.
To Jesus Christ, our most amiable Redeemer, immortal King of peoples and
of times, be love, power, and glory forever and ever.