Vatican II: A Walk-Through - The Council Opens
The Second Vatican Council opened on October 11th, 1962. More than two thousand five hundred Fathers were present at the opening Mass -- the greatest gathering at any Council in
the history of the Church. After the Mass, Pope John addressed the Fathers, showing them
the way in which the Council must move, and the spirit which must animate it. The way was
to be a renewal, the spirit was to be that of men who place all their trust in God. In the past,
Pope John said, the Church felt it necessary to use severity and condemnation. What is
required now is mercy and understanding and, above all, an outpouring of the riches which
the Church has received from Christ. The task of the Council must be to find ways by which
the Church can present itself to the world of today, and can reach into the minds and hearts
of men. The Council must not become a school where theologians can perfect their
formulation of Catholic truth.
Inspired by the words of Pope John, the Fathers began their work. Viewed from outside, in
the manner in which a reporter might comment on Parliamentary debates, the impression
was of two groups -- the "progressives" and the "reactionaries," radically and bitterly
opposed to one another. Those bishops whose only concern, it seemed, was to safeguard
the Church's teaching were labelled reactionaries; those, on the other hand, who showed
concern for pastoral needs were called progressives. In reality, however, a Council is not a parliament. The bishops are united in the Faith and in their love of Christ. In the second
Vatican Council, all have tried to find, in the riches of the Church's teaching, those truths
which must be stressed and emphasized in the modern world, and to decide how these
truths may best be set forth for the good of all -- of those who are unbelievers as well as
those who believe in Christ.
Cardinal Montini (who was soon to succeed Pope John in the chair of Peter) wrote to his
people in Milan on November 18th, 1962, to explain the two "tendencies" of the bishop.
The Council, he said, was an assembly of many with complex religious problems. The unity
of the Church, and its universality; the old and the new; what is fixed and what develops;
the inner value of a truth, and the way in which it is to be expressed; the search for what is
essential and care for particular details; principles and their practical application -- religious problems can be considered from so many different aspects. Discussion of these problems
will often be animated and lively -- yet all the bishops are united by that very love which
they have for the truth.
Another observer shows how the two "tendencies" were like two voices. One voice was
uttered by those bishops who wanted, above all else, to preserve the Faith whole and entire;
the other voice spoke for the bishops who had the same concern for preserving the Faith
committed by Christ, but who also felt the great pastoral need to express that faith in a
language which the modern world could understand and appreciate. This observer
(Jean Guitton) found in the two voices a poetic image of the Cross of Christ. The upright
pillar of the Cross, fixed into the ground, tells the Christian of the unity, integrity and
unchanging truth of the Faith; the cross-bar, on which Christ stretched out his arms,
tells the Christian that the Faith is open to all men, that it is universal. Just as the Cross
unites its two parts, so also the two "voices" or tendencies are united in the Christian faith.
From the beginning, the Second Vatican Council has shown that the great majority of the
bishops are concerned with the pastoral needs of the Church. They have shown that concern
in many different ways -- in the enthusiasm with which they have welcomed Oecumenical
dialogue with non- catholic Christians and with Orthodox Churches; in the interest with
which they have followed the historic visits of Pope John Paul VI to the Holy Land and to
India; and above all in the overwhelming approval which they gave to the "Constitution on
the Sacred Liturgy," in the second session of the Council (December 1962).
Next: The Council and the Liturgy
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