Opening General Congregation
September 14, 1964
Pope Paul VI opened the third session of the ecumenical council with a ringing reassertion of the role of the Church’s bishops as “the teachers, rulers and sanctifiers of the Christian people.”
As if to back up his words by a striking action, he concelebrated the session’s opening Mass with 24 council Fathers, including two Americans, Archbishops Lawrence J. Shehan of Baltimore and John J. Krol of Philadelphia.
Several times and in several ways he said in his opening address that the principal task of the third session will be the central task of the Second Vatican Council itself — to round out the First Vatican Council’s incomplete teaching on the nature of the Church by explaining the nature and function of the bishops as successors of the apostles.
(The First Vatican Council [1869-70] defined only the primacy and the infallibility of the Pope.)
“The present council’s deliberations on this subject will certainly be what distinguishes this solemn and historic synod in the memory of future ages,” Pope Paul declared.
The Second Vatican Council has already made history by the Pope’s declared intention of bringing women into its deliberations and by the actual presence of delegated observers from other Christian churches and communities.
Although the Pope expressly welcomed these “first women in history to participate in a conciliar assembly” in his speech, their names had not yet been announced.
The Pope also addressed non-Catholic observers, begging them not “to take it in bad part” when he invited them to “enter into the fullness of truth and charity.”
Just as the Second Vatican Council will balance the First Vatican Council’s definition of papal primacy with a clarification of the role of the bishops in the universal Church, Pope Paul balanced his own affirmation of the authority of the bishops with a forthright assertion of the pope’s authority and of the Church’s need for centralization. He said:
“If our apostolic duty obliges us to impose restrictions, to define terms, to prescribe modes of action, to regulate the methods which concern the exercise of episcopal authority, you realize that this is done for the good of the entire Church, for the Church which has proportionately greater need of centralized leadership as its worldwide extension becomes more complete, as more serious dangers and more pressing needs threaten the Christian people in the varying circumstances of history, and, we may add, as more rapid means of communication become operative in modern times.”
Before the session began, all the council Fathers — except the cardinals, members of the papal household and the 24 concelebrants of the Mass with the Pope — were in their places in the nave of St. Peter’s basilica.
When the papal procession entered, the choir began to sing the papal salute, Tu Es Petrus. The cardinals — about 50 of them — were followed by members of the papal household and then came the concelebrants who, like the Pope, were vested in miter and red chasuble. Only Father Anastasio Ballestrero, O.C.D., superior general of the Discalced Carmelites, wore his hood as he has no miter. He and Abbot Benno Gut, O.S.B., abbot primate of the Benedictine Confederation, led the procession of concelebrants.
Pope Paul opened his arms in greeting as he entered on the portable throne. His face remained serious. Clapping broke out, but he subdued it immediately with a decisive gesture, and began to bless the council Fathers as he was borne up the aisle.
But an irresistible storm of applause broke upon him when he came within view of the assembled lay people and lesser clergy. His gesture asking for quiet produced little perceptible result.
The Pope descended from the portable throne, doffed his miter and immediately began the Mass with the prayers at the foot of the altar. Behind him in a great semicircle were his concelebrants, including Eugene Cardinal Tisserant, who as first of the presidents of the council had been the celebrant of the Masses which opened the previous sessions of the council.
Although all 24 Fathers recited the prayers along with the Pope, only his rich and unmistakable voice was audible over the basilica’s loudspeaking system.
The Pope, as is customary in his Masses in St. Peter’s, faced the nave of the church from the Altar of the Confession. The entire congregation — bishops, priests and people — gave responses in Latin and also sang the Ordinary of the Mass in well-known Gregorian melodies.
Father Ballestrero, the lowest in precedence of the concelebrants, chanted the Epistle. Cardinal Tisserant, the highest in precedence next to the Pope, chanted the Gospel.
A high point of the Mass came with recitation of the “people’s prayer” introduced into the liturgy by the council at its last session.
Pope Paul himself began this series of prayers: “We humbly beseech God the Father Almighty, beloved brothers, that He who has called together the pastors of the Church in the Holy Spirit, may pour forth abundantly on all of them the gifts of His holiness, through His only begotten Son.”
The choir then took up the petitions, singing them in the chant made familiar in the litany of the saints. The congregation answered from the same litany.
The chant of petition rose up for the Church, the Pope, the bishops, the clerics, the Religious and the entire Christian people, for “those who do not yet believe in Christ,” for civil officials and all peoples.
Immediately afterward, at the Offertory, the concelebrants mounted the altar and took places around the Pope. Archbishops Shehan and Krol stood next to each other at the Pope’s right. Archbishop Krol was one of two concelebrants who presented bread and wine to the Pope.
All 25 voices joined in the words of consecration, with the Pope’s voice slightly predominating because the microphone was nearer to him. At the celebrants’ Communion, the 24 moved in procession to the Pope and each took a segment of the same consecrated Host.
Each concelebrant carried his fragment of the sacred Host back to his place, supporting it over a paten. At a given moment, all consumed the sacred fragment together.
Then they moved again to the side of the Pope to partake of the Precious Blood. All dipped into the chalice with the same golden spoon.
The Pope distributed Communion to the lay auditors, including James Norris, assistant to the director of Catholic Relief Services-National Catholic Welfare Conference.
The Pope gave the final blessing of the Mass. The concelebrants blessed themselves but did not give the final blessing with the Pope.
There was no last Gospel. This omission is prescribed when other ceremonies are to follow the Mass.
At the end of the Mass Archbishop Pericle Felici, general secretary of the ecumenical council, led the new council Fathers in the profession of faith, which is the oath against modernism.
Pope Paul then launched into his hour-long speech which, except for a final hymn, the Veni Creator Spiritus and a final papal blessing, concluded the morning’s ceremonies. The Pope, addressing the council Fathers, began by pointing out that the session was opening “under the sign of the Holy Cross” (Sept. 14 is the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross).
He then declared: “The Church is present here. We are the Church.”
He explained, “We are the Church as members of the Mystical Body of Christ. …
“We are the Church since we are ministers of the Church itself, priests invested with a special character … a hierarchy entrusted with functions meant to perpetuate in time and to extend on earth the saving mission of Christ.
“We are the Church, finally, because as teachers of the faith, pastors of souls … we represent here the entire Church, not representing it as delegates or deputies of the faithful … but as fathers and brothers who personify the communities entrusted to the care of each of us, and as a plenary assembly legitimately convoked by the Holy Father.”
The Pope asserted that because the council recapitulates the universal Church “in our persons and in our functions” it is therefore ecumenical. He further declared that the Church’s four marks — oneness, universality, holiness and apostolicity — are to be found in the council.
Further exploring the ramifications of his statement that “the Church is present here,” the Pope said:
“Now if the Church is here, here also is the Spirit, the Advocate, whom Christ promised to His apostles for the building up of the Church. … For there are, as we know, two factors which Christ has promised and disposed in different ways to continue His mission. … These two factors are the apostolate and the Spirit. …
“These two agents, the apostolate which is entrusted to the sacred hierarchy, and the Spirit of Jesus, which uses the hierarchy as its ordinary instrument in the ministry of the word and the sacraments, cooperate with one another.”
For emphasis he repeated three times “the Spirit is here.” He urged the council Fathers to reflect on “this present reality.”
He said the Church, exploring its consciousness and uncovering the teaching of the Holy Spirit, must give a definition of itself.
“Thus must be completed the doctrine that the First Vatican Council was preparing to enunciate, but which external obstacles prevented it from defining, except in its first part dealing with the head of the Church, the Roman pontiff, and his sovereign prerogatives regarding primacy of jurisdiction and infallibility of teaching.”
“The discussion on this doctrine,” he continued, “remains to be completed in order to explain the mind of Christ on the whole of His Church and especially on the nature and function of the successors of the apostles, that is, of the episcopate. …
“The council has many other important subjects to treat of, but this one seems to us to be the weightiest and most delicate. The council’s deliberations on this subject will certainly be what distinguishes this solemn and historic synod in the memory of future ages.”
Pope Paul said the council, in dealing with this subject, must take up some difficult theological issues:
—The nature and mission of the Church’s pastors.
—The episcopate’s “constitutional prerogatives.”
—Relations between the world’s bishops and the Holy See.
—The “constitutional idea of the Church under its differing Eastern and Western expressions.”
—The hierarchical organization of the Church.
The Pope said the council must make this last point clear not only to Catholics “but also for the separated brethren.”
The Pope then said the third session’s “central objective” is “to investigate and clarify the doctrine of the nature of the Church.” This clarification would integrate the work already done in the council’s two previous sessions.
He said the “principal objective” of the council itself would be that of “describing and honoring the prerogatives of the episcopacy.”
The “wholeness of Catholic truth,” he said, calls for a clarification of the doctrine of the episcopacy, in consonance with the papacy.
But he pointed out that as the successor of Peter and therefore as possessor “of full power over the entire Church,” he has “the duty of heading the body of the episcopate.”
He emphasized that his position as pope “in no way defrauds you, our brother bishops, of your due authority.”
After observing that the Church, as it extends throughout the world, has a greater need of centralized leadership, he said:
“No one should regard such centralization as a device put together by pride. It surely will always be tempered and balanced by an alert and timely delegation both of authority and of faculties for local pastors. We assure you, our brothers in the episcopate, that this centralization is rather a service and a manifestation of the unifying and hierarchical spirit of the Church.”
The Pope added that centralization “strengthens rather than weakens the authority of bishops, whether that authority be considered in the individual bishop or in the collegiality of bishops.”
It was recalled that on the eve of the council’s second session, the Pope indicated his willingness to bring local bishops into the Church’s central administration if the council expressed its desire for this.
The Pope wound up his speech by greeting all dioceses and parishes represented by the council Fathers, all priests, Religious, Catholic laity, the poor, the persecuted and the suffering, and especially “those whom the lack of freedom still prevents from coming to this council.”
He also welcomed the lay auditors. Then he added his welcome to the as yet unnamed women among the auditors: “And we are delighted to welcome among the auditors our beloved daughters in Christ, the first women in history to participate in a conciliar assembly.”
He said the invitation to the auditors was prompted by his “desire to give to the Christian community an ever-increasing sense of harmony, collaboration and charity.”
He then turned to the non-Catholic observers “with reverence and esteem.” He welcomed them and thanked them, and assured them of his intention of removing “every obstacle, every misunderstanding, every hesitancy.”
He said that St. Paul’s words, “all things to all men,” might today be described as “pluralism in practice.”
At the same time he drew attention to the same apostle’s exhortation to “preserve the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” because there is only “one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all.”
He continued: “We shall therefore strive, in loyalty to the unity of Christ’s Church, to understand better and to welcome all that is genuine and admissible in the different Christian denominations that are distinct from us. And at the same time we beg them to try to understand the Catholic faith and life better and, when we invite them to enter into the fullness of truth and charity which, as an unmerited blessing but a formidable responsibility, Christ has charged us to preserve, we beg them not to take it in bad part, but as being prompted by respect and brotherly love.”
The Pope then asked the observers to convey his greetings to the Christian communities they represent. He added: “May our respectful regard also reach those which are not represented here.” He said the separated churches — “churches that are so far and yet so close to us” — are the churches of his “sleepless nights.”
Finally he turned his thoughts “to the world about us, with its own interests, also with its indifference, perhaps even its hostility.”
Before giving his apostolic blessing, he invited all the council Fathers to join him in invoking the help of the Holy Spirit on the labors that lie before them in the council’s third session.
NCWC News Rome correspondent
List of Concelebrants
Two Americans, a Canadian and a Mexican were among the 24 council Fathers who concelebrated Mass with Pope Paul VI to open the council’s third session (Sept. 14). Three of the 24 were cardinals.
The Americans were Archbishop Lawrence J. Shehan of Baltimore and Archbishop John J. Krol of Philadelphia.
Also concelebrants were Archbishop Marie-Joseph Lemieux, O.P., of Ottawa and Archbishop Miguel Miranda y Gomez of Mexico City.
Eugene Cardinal Tisserant, dean of the College of Cardinals; Giacomo Cardinal Lercaro of Bologna, Italy, and Arcadio Cardinal Larraona, C.M.F., prefect of the Congregation of Rites.
Archbishops Pericle Felici, general secretary of the ecumenical council; Matthew Beovich of Adelaide,Australia; Pedro Santos Songco of Caceres, Philippines; Jose de Almeida Batista of Brasilia, Brazil; Casimiro Morcillo Gonzalez of Madrid; Juan Aramburu of Tucuman, Argentina; Bernard Yago of Abidjan, Ivory Coast; Adrianus Djajasepoetra, S.J., of Jakarta, Indonesia; Pius Kerketta, S.J., of Ranchi, India, and Joseph Malula of Leopoldville, the Congo; Coadjutor Archbishop Jean Villot of Lyons, France.
Bishops Wilhelm Kempf of Limburg, Germany; Policarpo da Costa Vaz of Guarda, Portugal; Laurentius Satoshi Nagae of Urawa, Japan, and Stanislaus Lokuang of Tainan, Formosa.
Abbot Benno Gut, O.S.B., abbot primate of the Benedictine Confederation, and Father Anastasio Ballestrero of the Most Holy Rosary, O.C.D., superior general of the Discalced Carmelites and president of the Roman Union of Religious Superiors.