This is a translation of Pope Paul’s letter dated Sept. 1, 1964, to Eugene Cardinal Tisserant, dean of the council of presidents of the ecumenical council, asking that the whole Church join in prayer and penance for the council on Sept. 23, 25, 26 and 27.
To our Venerable Brother: Health and Apostolic Benediction.
The resumption of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council is now at hand. The third session, as already decided and announced, will begin on Sept. 14, the day which the liturgy devotes to the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. This date for the resumption of the conciliar work was not arrived at by chance, but, as it were, to indicate the source from whence springs our salvation and whence the Church draws its trust in the happy outcome of this great synod — that is to say, from the Passion of our most merciful and most beloved Redeemer.
We wish to give due honor to this great mystery, celebrating its perennial and salutary memory, by offering to God at the opening of the conciliar session the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass which represents and renews in an unbloody manner the work of our redemption. We intend to perform this sacred rite as a first and essential act of the ecumenical council, which is about to assemble again, by means of a solemn concelebration by 24 conciliar Fathers chosen from various orders and regions, and united to us.
We wish this for the council so that the infusion of hearts and souls may be more evident to all and more efficacious in the sight of God, forming “one heart and one soul” (Acts 4, 32) of all those who are taking part in the holy assembly. We wish also through it to implore divine assistance for our common labors — that assistance which is our supreme guide in the arduous and humble search for the divine will on the part of the whole Catholic Church. In fact, the ecumenical council convened around the successor of St. Peter is, as everyone knows, a true representation of the universal Church, a fact which was stated by the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council.
We write this to you, our venerable brother and dean of the Sacred College, so that you whom we have confirmed in the very high office of first member of the Council of Presidents of the Second Vatican Council, may exhort, in our name and authority, the conciliar Fathers to come punctually to the ecumenical synod itself, and to prepare their souls for it, as for an exceptional moment in the life of the Church.
The Church can hope all the more to be inspired and led by the Holy Spirit the more intensely, the more harmoniously and the more humbly are souls mutually disposed to receive grace. Such an extraordinary moment must be lived with inner meditation, with intense fervor, with humble piety, with absolute faithfulness to the precepts of Christ, with vigilant attention to the needs of the Church and the world.
Nor should your exhortation be limited to the conciliar Fathers to celebrate the great event with spiritual fullness. We desire that you extend it also, through the pastors whom you address, to all the faithful: to priests first of all; to Religious men and women; to all the family of Catholics who aspire to live in conscious and close communion with the Church; also to those afflicted with disease of mind or body, who are already joined to the Church; and to innocent boys and girls — the joy and adornment of the Church.
It is necessary indeed that each member of the Mystical Body of Christ consider this singular and historic event of the ecumenical council as pertaining to himself, and that each participate in the council with an attentive and ardent fellowship. True, when the earlier sessions of the ecumenical council began, an invitation of this sort went out to the whole Church. However, it seems wise to reiterate it — on the one hand because people’s interest can diminish the more accustomed they become to this assembly — and against this we must guard; and on the other hand because the gravity of the council’s acts and decisions is increasing as the discussions of the various topics suggested for study and deliberation by that body are being brought to conclusion.
There are two forms, proven by usage as is evident, whereby the faithful as individuals as well as the Church in community can join spiritually in an event of such religious and moral value, and contribute to its success: penance and prayer. By the former, man is disposed to remove the obstacles from his soul — that is to say, sins and perverse tendencies — which stand in the way of his reconciliation with God. By the latter, he is prepared to receive the abundance of heavenly mercy.
Both are opportune to make way for the divine action of renewal, and each contributes to that ineffable meeting, so to speak, of two wills: the will of man which is purified when it submits itself in humility and is prompted urgently to ask and to hope; and the Will of God, which can penetrate freely the vacuum of man’s heart and, in that encounter, infuses and inflames it with Love transcending nature.
We should like, therefore, that from your own voice, Venerable Brother, as if it were the voice of the whole council, the whole Catholic Church might be exhorted to some special acts of penance and of prayer.
This is our suggestion: This year, let the Ember days which fall on Sept. 23, 25 and 26 be sanctified. Let those who can fast on these days do so, and let everyone regard it as an obligation to practice some exercise of mortification and penance. And let all feel it a duty to address the Lord special prayers of expiation and supplication. And on Sunday, Sept. 27, throughout the world, in every gathering of the faithful and in every ecclesiastical community, universal prayers should be recited for the successful outcome of the ecumenical council. This could be accomplished significantly through a solemn recitation of the “Our Father.”
As everyone knows, we regard as a happy outcome of the council the renewal of the spirit of Jesus Christ in His Church, the reincorporation into its unity of the brothers who are still separated from us, the reawakening of the religious conscience in the world, the strengthening of justice and peace among men. These are aims for the highest and general good. No one, we hope, will fail to share the strong desire for the fulfillment of these wishes, for which you, Venerable Brother — a proponent as authoritative as you are benevolent — will certainly be given sincere and prompt adherence by pious and generous-hearted people.
For this understanding which we all share, we express our gratitude to you in advance, while we grant you, as well as to the universal Church and to the world, our apostolic benediction.