Text of Paul VI’s Speech Opening Fourth Session of Council

This is a translation of the speech delivered by Pope Paul VI at the opening of the fourth session of the ecumenical council on Sept. 14.

Venerable Brothers, in the name of the Lord we are happy to proclaim the opening of the fourth session of the Second Vatican Council.

Let us give praise and thanks to God our Father Almighty, through Jesus Christ His Son and our Savior, in the Holy Spirit the Paraclete who animates and guides the Holy Church, for having happily brought us to the present final session of this sacred ecumenical council. We come to it with a strong and common determination of loyalty to the word of God, in a deep brotherly adhesion to the Catholic faith. We meet for a free and fervent study of the manifold problems regarding our religion and particularly the nature and the mission of the Church of God. We unanimously desire to forge stronger bonds of union with those Christian brethren who are still separated from us. We mean to address to the world a heartfelt message of friendship and salvation. With humble and firm confidence we expect from the divine mercy all the graces which, though undeserved, are necessary to us for fulfilling our pastoral mission with loving and generous dedication.

This council is indeed a great event. We are filled with joy by so solemn a celebration of the unity of the visible Church — a unity which we have experienced and professed in the sessions not only exteriorly but even more within our hearts, coming to know one another and carrying on an intense dialogue in prayer, reflection, discussion and final agreement. We are desirous and happy to reflect and promote that mystical unity which Christ left to His Apostles as the most precious and authentic heritage and as His supreme exhortation.

In this unique celebration — 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. Such a communion might seem impossible in view of the manifold diversity of our human origins and the implacable divisions which separate men from one another. Yet before our eyes and through our persons it is a happy reality, the mysterious actual Catholic reality.

We are reminded of the words of that eminent doctor, our ancient and holy predecessor, Leo the Great:

“When I see this distinguished gathering of so many of my fellow priests, I have the impression that with so many saints we are in an assembly of angels” (Sermo I— De Anniversario).

Let the whole Church rejoice with us, her pastors and representatives, in the knowledge that by her assent she is gathered with us in a kind of spiritual harmony that not only pervades the entire Church, but even enraptures her, if only she be alert to such inspiration.

This council is indeed a great event. The regular repetition of its sessions may weaken the sense of novelty in this historic meeting; yet we should not therefore be less aware of its extraordinary character. Rather the habituation produced by the succession of meetings should enable us better to explore its great, complex and mysterious significance. Let not this solemn hour pass by almost unnoticed, lost among the many ordinary events which constitute the warp and woof of our normal lives. This is a unique experience. Let us remember that we are not alone to meet here: With us is Christ in whose name we are gathered (cf. Matt. 18, 20) and whose assistance always accompanies us on our journey through time (cf. Matt. 28, 20).

The obligation of living this final phase of the council with full application constitutes a responsibility which each one must weigh in his own conscience and which demands of each one certain moral and spiritual attitudes. It should not be irksome, venerable brothers, before entering upon the manifold and absorbing work that awaits us, to set aside a moment for reflection and to put ourselves in the dispositions most favorable for that mysterious conjunction of the divine and the human action which is necessary in a council. This conjunction is indeed always operative in the domain of grace, but it is so in a special form and measure when the future of the Church is being decided, as happens in the holding of a council. Here we can fully apply to ourselves the words of St. Paul: “For we are God’s helpers” (1 Cor. 3, 9) — not indeed because we can presume to give efficacy to the work of God, but because we hope that our humble and willing effort may draw vigor and merit from the divine action.

This assembly, as we know, will have the privilege to use for its decisions the sacred and formidable formula used by the Apostles: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15, 28). We must therefore endeavor earnestly to bring it about that the action of the Holy Spirit may unite itself with ours, pervade, illumine, strengthen and sanctify it. And what kind of endeavor is called for, we also know. Seven times in the book of the Apocalypse (2, 7-3, 22) the message of the Apostle is enjoined on the pastors — called angels — of the primitive churches: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to churches.”

To listen, to harken to the mysterious voice of the Paraclete, this must be our first duty during the coming days of the final session of the council; 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. By this wisdom the human mind reascends to God from whom it has received this ineffable gift. Every one of its thoughts, every one of its actions becomes love, becomes charity. The charity that comes down from God becomes charity that rises up to God, and tends to return from man to God.

This development in charity ought to characterize the conclusion of our ecumenical council. Now more than ever before, we should be enabled to complete within ourselves this process of growth in charity in order to manifest the full meaning and importance of this juncture fraught with vital consequences for the life of the Church. From charity we should derive inspiration and orientation toward those truths which we intend here to clarify and toward those proposals which we wish here to set forth, truths and proposals which not only cannot fail to be expressions of charity, but which have already been proclaimed by this council, the instrument of supreme pastoral authority which is exercised in the spirit of the deepest love. Therefore, in our search for truth, whether doctrinal or disciplinary, let love guide us and let us always remember the brilliant statement of St. Augustine: “Nothing good is perfectly known without being perfectly loved” (De Diversis Quaest., 83-P.L. 40, 24).

It does not seem difficult to signalize our ecumenical council with the characteristics of an act of love, of a great threefold act of love for God, for the Church and for humanity.

1) Venerable brothers, let us first look at ourselves. How can one describe the situation in which we have been placed by the convocation of the council? Is not that situation to be termed a state of tension, of spiritual struggle? The summoning of the council has dislodged us from the torpor of ordinary life. It has reawakened in us the full consciousness of our vocation and of our mission. It has stirred hidden powers within us. It has kindled in our souls the spirit of prophecy which is proper to the Church of God. It has aroused in us a realization of our need, yes, of our duty to proclaim our faith, to sing the praises of God, to bind ourselves to Christ, to announce to the world the mystery of revelation and of redemption.

Is this renewal anything less than love? Summoned to this council, where one contemplates the contemporary world shrouded with the mists of doubt and with the shadows of irreligion, we seem to have stepped forth into the realm of the light of God. It seems that we, who are no more than the companions and brothers of the people among whom we live, have mounted to this spiritual vantage point, risen above the earth with its involvements and ruins, and attained a view of the clear warm light of the sun of life — and that life was the light of men (John 1, 4) — and even that we speak in spirit and in truth to God our Father with words that spring from a humble, filial and joyous soul, and that through our songs and tears we tell Him our praise of the greatness of His glory which has today become more evident to us because of advances in our knowledge of His cosmos. It seems that we thank Him for our good fortune in that He had revealed to us His name, His kingdom, and His will, and finally that we express to Him the world’s burden of sorrow, of toil, of miseries and of spreading errors. But here more than ever we feel ourselves strengthened in the certainty which makes our hearts beat with peculiar strength, and which reminds us that we are the defenders of spiritual values, the guides of human destiny, the interpreters of genuine hopes. Is not this true love, which Sacred Scripture expresses so magnificently and so vividly: “We have believed in the love which God brings us” (1 John 4, 16)?

In fact, this council is being written into the history of the modern world as the most lofty, most illuminating and most humane affirmation of a religion which is ennobling, which was not invented by men but rather revealed by God, and which consists of the elevating relationship of love which our indescribable Father, through the mediation of His Son and our Brother, has established with the human race through the life-giving action of the Holy Spirit.

2) We come now to the second object of the love which should characterize the council. From what has just been said, we must realize that we are not alone, that we are a people, the people of God, the Catholic Church, a unique society which is visible and spiritual at the same time. The council makes us realize more clearly that our Church is society founded on the unity of faith and on the universality of love.

The search for a perfect and higher form of social living constitutes the fundamental and seemingly insoluble problems of society, even if we consider merely the never-ending vicissitudes of Babylonia which are being so tragically repeated in our own times. But at least in its basic principles, this search has ended for us, even though, in point of fact, the search has been only virtually completed. We know that the solution which we possess cannot be proven false. That solution is the unity which binds us together and which we are proclaiming. It cannot be proven false, because it is based not on any norms that imply the deification either of the individual or of society, but rather on the unassailable religious principle of love, a love for men which is rooted not in their merits or our interests, but in the love of God.

Never before, from the earliest days when the Church “was of one mind and one heart” (Acts 4, 32), 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 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.

And our love here has already been and will be expressed in ways which characterize this council in the history of today and of the future. These expressions will one day give an answer to the questions of whoever will try to define the Church in this decisive and critical moment of her existence. He will ask: What was the Catholic Church doing at that moment? The answer will be: She loved! She loved with a pastoral heart, as everyone knows, even if it is quite difficult to fully understand the depths and the riches of this love, a love which Christ called forth three times from the repentant and ardent heart of Simon Peter. [Do you remember? “Jesus said to Simon Peter: ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to Him: ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He (Jesus) said to him: ‘Feed my lambs’” (John 21, 15)]. Yes, the mandate, flowing from the love of Christ, to feed His flock still continues to exist and is the basis for the existence of this See, just as it continues through time and is the basis, venerable brothers, for the existence of each of your Sees. And today this mandate is affirmed with full awareness and new power. This is what the council says: The Church is a society founded on love and governed by love. What they will say of the Church, of the Second Vatican Council is that she loved, loved with a heart filled with missionary zeal.

All know that this holy synod has summoned every good Catholic to be an apostle and has emphasized the universality of apostolic zeal, stressing that it must embrace all men, all races, all nations and all classes. Whenever universal love conquers the forces which persecute it or demands of a Catholic complete and heroic dedication, such love by this very reason has received its solemn expression. And may this always happen!

Yes, and 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 the 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 not this, venerable brothers and reverend and dear observers, a mark of charity?

3) Nor can this conciliar assembly, concentrated as it is on the name of Christ and of His Church and having therefore well-defined characteristics and objectives, be described as complacent, closed in, ignorant or unconcerned about the interests of others, of those innumerable masses of men who do not share our good fortune of being welcomed as we are, without any merit on our part, in this blessed kingdom of God which is the Church.

No, not at all. The love that animates our communion does not isolate us from men. It does not make us exclusivists or egotists. On the contrary, since love which comes from God gives men the sense of universal brotherhood, our truth urges us toward charity. Remember the warning of the Apostle: “Practicing the truth in love,” we move on in our practice of the truth toward charity (Eph. 4, 15). And here in this assembly the expression of such a law of love has a sacred and serious name: responsibility. St. Paul would speak of urgency: “The love of Christ urges us” (2 Cor. 5, 14). We feel ourselves responsible toward the entire human family. We are under obligation to all (cf. Rom. 1, 14). 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. This is her mission. She is the bearer of love, the messenger of true peace. She re-echoes the words of Christ: “I came to cast fire upon the earth” (Luke 12, 49). This is something else the Church needed to become aware of and to declare. And the council gave her the occasion to do so.

Can we indeed forget that here passes the centuries-long flow of salvation history, the earthly history of heavenly love? Shall we pass over the fact that this council has given to the Church herself a fuller and deeper awareness of the reasons for her existence, the mysterious reasons of God “who loved the world” (John 3, 16), and of the reasons for her mission, a mission always rich and productive of the ferments of renewal and life for humanity.

The council offers to the Church, especially to us, a panoramic view of the world. Can the Church, can we ourselves, do anything but look upon it and love it? (cf. Mark 10, 21). Such a contemplation will be one of the chief activities of the present session of the council. Again, and above all, love; love toward all men of today whoever they are or wherever they are. 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. Christ is helping it in order that this may really be so.

At this point we are struck by a thought which seems to go counter to this gentle yet forceful expression of this Christian and human sympathy of ours toward all persons and all peoples on earth. We know very well by bitter and always current experience that even love, and perhaps especially love, meets with and provokes indifference, opposition, contempt and hostility. There is no drama, no tragedy, comparable to the sacrifice of Christ who precisely because of His love and because of the hostility of others had to suffer the cross. The art of loving often transforms itself into the art of suffering. Will the Church, then, withdraw from her mission of love because of the risks and difficulties involved?

Listen once more to the words of St. Paul: “Who then shall ever separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom. 8, 35). Ponder the list of afflictions which he defiantly sets down to remind us that nothing can, that nothing should separate us from the love of God. And so this council humbly begs of Our Lord the grace to rejoice in being accounted worthy, like the first Apostles (cf. Acts 5, 41), to suffer reproach for the name of Jesus. And the council begs this grace because, although filled with good will toward all, it has to bear with grievous wrongs.

Not a few of those who ought to have taken their places with you, venerable brothers, have been unable to accept our invitation, because unjustly prevented from coming. 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. Our heart is grieved at the thought, for it reveals how far the world still remains from justice, liberty and love — that is to say, how far removed from true peace, to use the words of our venerated predecessor, John XXIII (cf. Encycl. Pacem in Terris).

Faithful, however, to the spirit of this council, our answer will be a twofold one of love. Our love goes out first of all to our brothers in their affliction. Oh, may the angels of God be the bearers of our greeting, of our remembrance and our affection. May the knowledge that their sufferings and their example bring honor to the Church of God be their consolation. Instead of giving way to grief, may they draw renewed hope from the common bonds of charity which unite her to them.

Toward those also who oppose Christ and His Church, who intimidate and restrict the liberty of those who believe in God, we wish to testify our love, that humble and unrivaled love taught us by the Divine Master: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5, 44). 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 will all pray that God show them that same mercy which we implore for ourselves.

For all of us, may it be love alone that prevails.

May peace among men triumph — that peace which is in these very days being wounded and is bleeding between peoples so sorely in need of peace! We cannot, not 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.

We have come now to the end of our address. The only purpose of what we have said has been to point out the significance of this last session of the council and to give it renewed energy. As you see, venerable brothers, we have not touched on any of the themes which will be submitted to the examination of this assembly. 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.

Nonetheless there are some matters we cannot pass over in silence.

The first is our gratitude toward all who have worked so assiduously on the commissions and subcommissions to improve the composition of the schemas soon to be discussed. Whatever be your final judgment on these schemas, the study, time and labor that have gone into their preparation deserve our admiration and grateful recognition.

In the second place, there is the announcement which we are happy to make to you of the setting up, in accordance with the wishes of the council, of an episcopal synod composed of bishops to be chosen for the greater part by the episcopal conferences and approved by us, which will 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. And in a special way it can be of use in the day-to-day work of the Roman curia to which we owe so much gratitude for its effective help. Just as the bishops in their dioceses, so we too always need the curia for carrying out our apostolic responsibilities. Further details will as soon as possible be brought to the notice of this assembly. We did not wish to deprive ourselves of the honor and pleasure of making this brief announcement to you, in order to give you a further proof of our confidence and brotherly esteem. We are placing under the protection of Mary Most Holy this new proposal, which is full of such splendid possibilities.

The third matter is one of which you are already aware, namely, the decision to accept the invitation extended to us to visit the New York headquarters of the United Nations Organization on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of that worldwide body. And this we will do, please God, during the present session of the council, absenting ourselves briefly in order to bring with respectful homage to the representatives of the nations there assembled a message of peace. We would like to believe that our message will have your unanimous support. For our only intention is that through us may be heard your voices, which in obedience to and by virtue of the apostolic mission entrusted by Christ to you as well as to us, are raised in a plea for harmony, justice, brotherhood and peace among men of good will, among men beloved of God.

We desire to avail ourselves of this opportunity of extending to all of you who are gathered together from the East and from the West, the Fathers of this council and our brothers, our respectful and heartfelt greetings. We wish to welcome the members of the diplomatic corps with particular sentiments of pleasure and esteem. We extend our welcome likewise to each of the observers, happy and honored at having them with us. We greet also our dear auditors, ladies as well as gentlemen, the periti and all those whose assistance contributes to the successful progress of the council, with a special word for the press, radio and television.

To all, our apostolic benediction.

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