Opening General Congregation
September 14, 1965
Pope Paul VI opened the fourth and final session of the ecumenical council by announcing that he will establish a senate of bishops to consult and collaborate with him in governing the Church.
He also issued another of his often-repeated appeals for peace and spoke of his visit on Oct. 4 to United Nations headquarters in New York. He said: “May peace among men triumph — that peace which in these days is being wounded and is bleeding.”
The opening plenary meeting of the fourth session saw more than 2,000 bishops gathered in St. Peter’s basilica to join in the Mass concelebrated by the Pope and council officials at the high altar. The ceremonies began 20 minutes late when Pope Paul walked down the main aisle of the church wearing a miter and carrying the crucifix-crosier, which he has chosen as a symbol of his office as bishop of Rome.
The two hours of ceremonies were climaxed with the Pope’s almost 3,000-word discourse. Reading in a firm voice, the Pope sat on a throne facing the twin tiers of seated bishops and flanked by non-Catholic observers, the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, the press and thousands of priests, Religious and laymen.
Most of the papal speech was devoted to an analysis of the nature of a council in terms of its significance for the Church and for the world.
The Pope noted he had deliberately avoided discussing matters yet to be acted on by the council.
“As you see, venerable brothers, we have not touched on any of the themes which will be submitted to examination by this assembly,” he said. “Our silence has been deliberate. It is to be interpreted as a sign of our unwillingness to compromise by any words of ours your freedom of opinion with regard to the matters to be presented to you.”
Then he spoke of the suggestion that a senate of bishops be formed to assist the Pope in guiding the Church. He also briefly mentioned his trip to the U.N.
Pope Paul said he was happy to announce the “setting up, according to the wishes of the council, of an episcopal synod.” He said this synod would be “composed of bishops to be chosen for the greater part by (national) episcopal conferences and approved by us.”
He said this synod of bishops would be “convened according to the needs of the Church by the Roman pontiff for consultation and collaboration when for the general good of the Church this will seem opportune to us. We consider it superfluous to add that this collaboration of the episcopate is meant to turn out to be of the greatest help to the Holy See and to the whole Church.”
Pope Paul noted that this body can “in a special way be of use in the day-to-day work of the Roman curia to which we owe so much gratitude for its effective help.”
The Pope, who has announced his intention to reform and reorganize the Roman curia, the general offices in Rome which carry out the work of governing the universal Church, pointed out to the bishops that just as they need a diocesan curia to assist them, “so we too always need the curia for carrying out our apostolic responsibilities.”
With that he ended his comments on the new body except to say that “further details will as soon as possible be brought to the notice of this assembly.”
Referring to his coming U.N. trip, Pope Paul noted that he will make the trip in relation to that body’s 20th anniversary “to bring with respectful homage to the representatives of the nations there assembled a message of peace. We would like to believe our message will have your unanimous support, for our only intention is that through us may be heard your voices.”
The Pope made a last-minute insert in his prepared speech. Shortly before beginning to speak of the synod of bishops and his U.N. trip, he made still another appeal for peace among nations as newspapers headlined new clashes in the undeclared war between India and Pakistan. He said:
“May peace among men triumph — that peace which in these days is being wounded and is bleeding between peoples so sorely in need of peace! We cannot, even in this moment, hide our most fervent wish that war may end, that mutual respect and concord may return among men, and that soon peace may come back and may always triumph.”
Pope Paul began his discourse by declaring that he was happy to proclaim the opening of the fourth session of the Second Vatican Council and said that “in this unique event — which evolves with a regular annual rhythm in this basilica consecrated to St. Peter, the visible foundation of the Church of Christ — the Catholic hierarchy has expressed, strengthened and illustrated the bonds which unite it in a loyal and unambiguous communion.”
Among those listening to his words were some 90 cardinals, most of the diplomatic corps at the Holy See and hundreds of non-Catholic observers and lay auditors. With the lay auditors were 15-year-old Guadeloupe and 14-year-old Luz Maria Alvarez Icaza, children of Mr. and Mrs. Luz Alvarez Icaza, recently appointed as lay observers. The couple’s other 10 children had remained at home in Mexico.
During his speech, Pope Paul was applauded only once, after he had spoken of his U.N. trip. Applause also greeted the end of his speech.
The council’s secretary general, Archbishop Pericle Felici, then announced that the proposed statement on religious liberty would be the first matter to be discussed at the business meeting the next day. This drew warm applause from the bishops.
Following Archbishop Felici’s announcements, the Pope left his throne and walked out of the basilica. He caught his close aides off balance when he waved away the portable throne that had been readied to carry him out. Swiss Guards and prelates of the Pope’s immediate household had to hastily re-form in front of him when he abandoned the traditional portable throne and began walking out. As he passed sections of the bishops, waves of applause accompanied his passage from the church.
In the major portion of his speech, Pope Paul stressed the need for the council to “listen, to harken to the mysterious voice of the Paraclete … to let the Holy Spirit infuse into our hearts that charity which expresses itself in wisdom, that is, in rectitude of judgment according to the highest norms of knowledge.”
Charity formed the principal theme of the Pope’s analysis of the council and its significance for the Church and the world. “This development in charity ought to characterize the conclusion of our ecumenical council. … In our search for truth, whether doctrinal or disciplinary, let love guide us.”
The Pope then assigned to the council characteristics of a “great threefold act of love: for God, for the Church and for humanity.”
Pope Paul said the council is an act of love for God because it has stirred up a renewal within His Church. The council, he continued, “has reawakened in us the full consciousness of our vocation and our mission. It has stirred hidden powers within us. … It has aroused in us the realization of our need, yes, of our duty, to proclaim our faith, to sing praises of God, to bind ourselves to Christ, to announce to the world the mystery of revelation and redemption. Is this renewal anything less than love?”
The council is an act of love for the Church, the Pope said, because “never before from the earliest days … has the Church to the same degree affirmed, lived and enjoyed, prayed for and desired that real and spiritual unity which is given to her by Christ as in the holding of this present-day council.
“In the confusion of contemporary events, in anticipation of more upheavals to come, in the midst of the repeated experience of disillusionment which follows upon the never-ending strife among men, caught up in the irresistible movement of all men toward unification, we had a need to verify experimentally the unity which makes of us all the family and temple of God, the Mystical Body of Christ. We needed to meet and know each other really as brothers, to exchange the kiss of peace, to love one another, in a word, as Christ loved us.”
Moreover, the Pope said, the council is an act of love for the Church since “the Church of the Second Vatican Council loved with an ecumenical heart, that is to say, with open liberality, humility and affection toward all Christian brothers who are still outside perfect communion with our holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
“If there has been a recurring and moving note in the deliberations of this council, it is certainly the one regarding the great problem of reintegrating all Christians in the unity willed by Christ with all its difficulties and hopes. Is this not, venerable brothers and reverend and dear observers, a mark of charity?”
The Pope said the council is also an act of love for humanity since the “love that animates our communion does not isolate us from men. It does not make us exclusivists or egotists. … The Church in this world is not an end in herself. She is at the service of all men. She must make Christ present to all, both to individuals and to peoples as widely and as generously as possible.”
The Pope stressed that the Church offers mankind “a panoramic view of the world” and noted that “while other currents of thought and action proclaim other principles for building up human civilization — such as power, wealth, science, struggle, self-interest and the like — the Church proclaims love. The council is a solemn act of love for humanity.”
Pope Paul then turned his thoughts toward the bishops and Catholics in countries persecuting the Church. “Not a few of those who ought to have taken their places with you, venerable brothers, have been unable to accept our invitations because they are unjustly prevented from coming,” he said.
“This is an indication of the dire oppression which in not a few countries weighs upon the Catholic Church and with cold calculation aims at stifling and suppressing her.”
While sending his and the council’s affection to the oppressed, Pope Paul declared that “this council will indeed remain firm and unambiguous in matters dealing with right doctrine. Toward those, however, who by blind anti-religious prejudice and unjustified opposition cause her so much suffering, the Church, instead of condemning, will entertain feelings only of love. For them she will pray — yes and inspired with love we all will pray that God may show them that same mercy which we implore for ourselves. For all of us may it be love alone that prevails.”
James C. O’Neill
NCWC Rome correspondent