Opening General Congregation
September 29, 1963
Pope Paul VI reopened the Second Vatican Council with a plan for the work at hand and a plea to non-Catholics for brotherly peace and pardon.
He said that the “principal concern” of this second session would be to “examine the intimate nature of the Church.”
From this examination will come a definition, or a less solemn declaration, which “will reveal the Church’s real fundamental nature” and its mission.
Some 2,500 council Fathers in white ceremonial robes heard the Pope list three further objectives of the council: reform of the Church, Christian unity and the “dialogue of the Church with the contemporary world.”
In the muted splendor of the reopening ceremony, Pope Paul recalled the figure and voice of the late Pope John XXIII, who conceived the council and launched it at a brilliant ceremony last Oct. 11.
Pope Paul addressed Pope John as a living presence rather than as a memory. He continued in this fashion for a good five minutes, addressing the late Pope with gratitude and veneration.
“You have gathered up the broken thread of the First Vatican Council,” he said, “and by that very fact you have banished the fear which was wrongly deduced from that council, as if the supreme powers conferred by Christ on the Roman Pontiff to govern and vivify the Church were sufficient, without the assistance of ecumenical councils.”
To the more than 50 non-Catholic observers seated in a place of honor near the main altar of St. Peter’s basilica, the Pope spoke as “father and brother.”
He told of his “deep sadness” at the “prolonged separation” of their Churches and the Catholic Church.
“If we are in any way to blame for that separation, we humbly beg God’s forgiveness and ask pardon too of our brethren who feel they have been injured by us,” he said.
“For our part, we willingly forgive the injuries which the Catholic Church has suffered, and forget the grief endured during the long series of dissensions and separations. May the heavenly Father deign to hear our prayers and grant us true brotherly peace.”
The Pope’s 62-minute address ended the second session’s opening ceremony of just over four hours.
The splendor and pomp of last October’s opening session itself was missing. Crowds were appreciably smaller and there was no solemn procession of bishops, cardinals, Pope and papal household through a teeming St. Peter’s Square.
Most noticeable, if least palpable, was the lack of that electric sense of expectation or rather of realization that charged the atmosphere at the opening of the first session.
Council Fathers had their choice of entering in procession with the Pope and cardinals, or of going to their seats singly and informally. They started to arrive about 9. As they mounted the steps to their seats, some shook the hands of their neighbors and waved to those at a distance.
The procession entered the basilica at 9:45 a.m., 45 minutes behind schedule, and left at 1 p.m.
As the procession entered the basilica, first came a sergeant of the Swiss Guard and a colorful contingent of members of the papal household.
Most of the council Fathers who took part in the procession were dressed in white. But many Fathers from the Eastern Churches dressed in black.
Each cardinal, dressed in the vestments of his order (bishop, priest or deacon) in the Sacred College, was accompanied by another cleric.
Behind the cardinals came Pope Paul. He was carried down the royal stairs of the Apostolic Palace and along the porch of the basilica on his portable throne. But he came down from the throne at the door of St. Peter’s and walked the rest of the way, flanked by fan-bearers.
Behind the Pope came his official physician, the dean of the Roman Rota (Philadelphia’s Msgr. Francis J. Brennan), chanters singing the hymn to the Blessed Virgin, Ave Maris Stella, and other members of the papal household.
When the Pope reached the main altar, he knelt, without his miter, and intoned the Veni Creator Spiritus, a traditional hymn asking for the help of the Holy Spirit.
At 10:17, the Pope stood at the foot of the altar for the opening prayers of the Mass with Eugene Cardinal Tisserant, who as dean of the College of Cardinals offered the Mass. He also offered the Mass at last October’s opening ceremony.
During the Mass, bishops and people joined in singing the responses, the Gloria, the Credo, and the Sanctus. The Mass took about an hour. Then, with the ceremony of the obedience of the council Fathers, the second session of the council began.
During the symbolic obedience ceremony, 100-year-old Archbishop Alfonso Carinci, retired secretary of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, haltingly approached the Pope’s throne. He was one of two prelates chosen to represent archbishops. Pope Paul stood to receive the centenarian prelate and, still standing, blessed him three times.
New council Fathers — those who were made bishops or otherwise became eligible to participate in the council since the first session — then made a public profession of faith.
Pope Paul began his address at 11:49 in clear Latin diction. He delivered his address almost as if he were speaking in his native tongue: emphasizing a point here, asking a question there, speaking in tones of deep feeling — especially when addressing the non-Catholic observers.
Early in his address, the Pope said that he had intended, “as hallowed custom prescribes for us,” to write an encyclical inaugurating his pontificate. But he said that the opening address gave him a “singular and happy opportunity” to do that by word of mouth. He promised, however, to write an inaugural encyclical “once these toilsome days are past.”
Pope Paul stressed that the Church must be seen as totally Christ-centered if the main objectives of the ecumenical council are to be properly understood. Then he listed the council’s goals:
“For reasons of brevity and better understanding we enumerate here those objectives in four points: the knowledge, or — if you prefer — the awareness of the Church; its reform; the bringing together of all Christians in unity; the dialogue of the Church with the contemporary world.”
Concerning knowledge of the nature of the Church, Pope Paul said that Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ “has in part answered the Church’s longing to express her nature in a full doctrinal form, but has also served to spur her to give herself a more exhaustive definition.”
After observing that the First Vatican Council touched on the subject of the Church’s nature, he said:
“It should not come as a surprise that, after 20 centuries in which both the Catholic Church and the other Christian bodies distinguished by the name of church have seen great geographical and historical development, there should still be need to enunciate a more precise definition of the true, profound and complete nature of the Church which Christ founded and the Apostles began to build.
“The Church is a mystery; she is a reality imbued with the Divine Presence and, for that reason, she is ever susceptible of new and deeper investigation …
“The time has now come, we believe, when the truth regarding the Church of Christ should be examined, coordinated and expressed. The expression should not, perhaps, take the form of a solemn dogmatic definition, but of declarations making known by means of the Church’s magisterium [teaching authority], in a more explicit and authoritative form, what the Church considers herself to be.”
The Pope said the first question to be examined concerning the nature of the Church is the place the bishops themselves hold in her. He said he expects the council “to develop the doctrine regarding the episcopate, its function and its relationship with Peter.” He added that such an exploration would aid him in exercising his office as universal pastor:
“For us personally it will provide doctrinal and practical standards by which our apostolic office, endowed though it is by Christ with the fullness and sufficiency of power, may receive more help and support, in ways to be determined, from a more effective and responsible collaboration with our beloved and venerable brothers in the episcopate.”
Such a clarification of the nature of the Church, the Pope continued, would also cast new light on the relationship within the Mystical Body of priests, Religious, the faithful and also other Christians.
Of the general council’s second aim, reform, Pope Paul said:
“Yes, the council aims at renewal. Note well, however, that in saying and declaring that, we do not imply that the Catholic Church of today can be accused of substantial infidelity to the mind of her Divine Founder …
“The reform at which the council aims is not, therefore, a turning upside down of the Church’s present way of life or a breaking with what is essential and worthy of veneration in her tradition. It is, rather, an honoring of tradition by stripping it of what is unworthy or defective …”
The Pontiff said he hoped that the question of the liturgy, which was the first topic under consideration last fall at the council’s first session, will “be brought to a happy conclusion” during the second session.
But he said that other matters will probably carry the council beyond this session.
He styled the council’s third aim, Christian unity, as “its spiritual drama.”
After appealing for pardon for whatever guilt Catholics may bear for the divisions in Christianity, and expressing the Catholic Church’s willingness to forgive and forget injuries she has suffered, Pope Paul said that obstacles in the way of unity are problems which “require many conditions before satisfactory solutions can be reached — conditions which are as yet premature.”
He asserted that the “firm attachment” Catholics have for their Faith “does not constitute an obstacle to the desired understanding with our separated brothers, precisely because it is the truth of the Lord and therefore the principle of union, not of distinction and separation.”
He went on to say that Catholics “look with reverence upon the true religious patrimony” they share in common with other Christians, “which has been preserved and in part even well developed among our separated brothers.
He encouraged ecumenical studies and urged prayer, genuine Christian living and the practice of charity as means of eventual union.
Turning to the fourth of the objectives, he called the council’s resolve to build a bridge to the contemporary world a “singular phenomenon.” He referred here to the message the council Fathers addressed “to all men and to all nations” last Oct. 20 at their third working session. In it they called for peace and social justice for all mankind and proclaimed that “all men are brothers irrespective of the race or nation to which they belong.”
Pope Paul told the Fathers that in issuing that message, they “unexpectedly determined to treat no longer of your own limited affairs but rather those of the world, no longer to conduct a dialogue among yourselves but rather to open one with the world.”
But he went on to say that in the world of today “we ought to be realists, not hiding the savagery that from many areas reaches even into this universal synod. Can we be blind and not notice that many seats in this assembly are vacant?”
The Pope spoke of his grief at the sight of “so many acts of injustice against goodness and the free profession of one’s religious faith.” He urged “all who may be responsible for these evils to put aside with a noble heart their unjustified hostility toward the Catholic religion.”
To Catholics suffering for their Faith, he voiced “our affectionate greetings, and for them we invoke special divine assistance.”
Paul VI said that the Church looks at the world “with the sincere intention not of conquering it, but of serving it.”
Before coming to the conclusion of his address, Pope Paul spoke of “the window of the council, opened wide upon the world.” To many in Rome it seemed that his speech was not merely opening windows onto the world but breaking down walls between the Church and the world, between the Roman Church and other churches, between brother and brother.
NCWC Rome correspondent