Pope John's Opening Speech to the Council
On October 11, 1962, the first day of the Council, Pope John delivered this
address in St. Peter's Basilica.
Mother Church rejoices that, by the singular gift of Divine Providence, the
longed-for day has finally dawned when -- under the auspices of the virgin
Mother of God, whose maternal dignity is commemorated on this feast -- the
Second Vatican Ecumenical Council is being solemnly opened here beside St.
THE ECUMENICAL COUNCILS OF THE CHURCH
The Councils -- both the twenty ecumenical ones and the numberless others,
also important, of a provincial or regional character which have been held
down through the years -- all prove clearly the vigor of the Catholic Church
and are recorded as shining lights in her annals.
In calling this vast assembly of bishops, the latest and humble successor to
the Prince of the Apostles who is addressing you intended to assert once
again the magisterium (teaching authority), which is unfailing and perdures
until the end of time, in order that this magisterium, taking into account
the errors, the requirements, and the opportunities of our time, might be
presented in exceptional form to all men throughout the world.
It is but natural that in opening this Universal Council we should like to
look to the past and to listen to its voices whose echo we like to hear in
the memories and the merits of the more recent and ancient Pontiffs, our
predecessors. These are solemn and venerable voices, throughout the East and
the West, from the fourth century to the Middle Ages, and from there to
modern times, which have handed down their witness to those Councils. They
are voices which proclaim in perennial fervor the triumph of that divine and
human institution, the Church of Christ, which from Jesus takes its name,
its grace, and its meaning.
Side by side with these motives for spiritual joy, however, there has also
been for more than nineteen centuries a cloud of sorrows and of trials. Not
without reason did the ancient Simeon announce to Mary the mother of Jesus,
that prophecy which has been and still is true: "Behold this child is set
for the fall and the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which
shall be contradicted" ( Lk. 2: 34 ) . And Jesus Himself, when He grew up,
clearly outlined the manner in which the world would treat His person down
through the succeeding centuries with the mysterious words: "He who hears
you, hears me" (Ibid. 10:16), and with those others that the same Evangelist
relates: "He who is not with me is against me and he who does not gather
with me scatters" (Ibid. 11 :23).
The great problem confronting the world after almost two thousand years
remains unchanged. Christ is ever resplendent as the center of history and
of life. Men are either with Him and His Church, and then they enjoy light,
goodness, order, and peace. Or else they are without Him, or against Him,
and deliberately opposed to His Church, and then they give rise to
confusion, to bitterness in human relations, and to the constant danger of
Ecumenical Councils, whenever they are assembled, are a solemn celebration
of the union of Christ and His Church, and hence lead to the universal
radiation of truth, to the proper guidance of individuals in domestic and
social life, to the strengthening of spiritual energies for a perennial
uplift toward real and everlasting goodness.
The testimony of this extraordinary magisterium of the Church in the
succeeding epochs of these twenty centuries of Christian history stands
before us collected in numerous and imposing volumes, which are the sacred
patrimony of our ecclesiastical archives, here in Rome and in the more noted
libraries of the entire world.
THE ORIGIN AND REASON FOR THE SECOND VATICAN ECUMENICAL COUNCIL
As regards the initiative for the great event which gathers us here, it will
suffice to repeat as historical documentation our personal account of the
first sudden bringing up in our heart and lips of the simple words,
"Ecumenical Council." We uttered those words in the presence of the Sacred
College of Cardinals on that memorable January 25, 1959, the feast of the
Conversion of St. Paul, in the basilica dedicated to him. It was completely
unexpected, like a flash of heavenly light, shedding sweetness in eyes and
hearts. And at the same time it gave rise to a great fervor throughout the
world in expectation of the holding of the Council.
There have elapsed three years of laborious preparation, during which a wide
and profound examination was made regarding modern conditions of faith and
religious practice, and of Christian and especially Catholic vitality. These
years have seemed to us a first sign, an initial gift of celestial grace.
Illuminated by the light of this Council, the Church -- we confidently trust
-- will become greater in spiritual riches and gaining the strength of new
energies therefrom, she will look to the future without fear. In fact, by
bringing herself up to date where required, and by the wise organization of
mutual co-operation, the Church will make men, families, and peoples really
turn their minds to heavenly things.
And thus the holding of the Council becomes a motive for wholehearted
thanksgiving to the Giver of every good gift, in order to celebrate with
joyous canticles the glory of Christ our Lord, the glorious and immortal
King of ages and of peoples.
The opportuneness of holding the Council is, moreover, venerable brothers,
another subject which it is useful to propose for your consideration.
Namely, in order to render our Joy more complete, we wish to narrate before
this great assembly our assessment of the happy circumstances under which
the Ecumenical Council commences.
In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen,
much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are
not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern
times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our
era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as
though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the
teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils
everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper
We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always
forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.
In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new
order of human relations which, by men's own efforts and even beyond their
very expectations, are directed toward the fulfilment of God's superior and
inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the
greater good of the Church.
It is easy to discern this reality if we consider attentively the world of
today, which is so busy with politics and controversies in the economic
order that it does not find time to attend to the care of spiritual reality,
with which the Church's magisterium is concerned. such a way of acting is
certainly not right, and must justly be disapproved. It cannot be denied,
however, that these new conditions of modern life have at least the
advantage of having eliminated those innumerable obstacles by which, at one
time, the sons of this world impeded the free action of the Church. In fact,
it suffices to leaf even cursorily through the pages of ecclesiastical
history to note clearly how the Ecumenical Councils themselves, while
constituting a series of true glories for the Catholic Church, were often
held to the accompaniment of most serious difficulties and sufferings
because of the undue interference of civil authorities. The princes of this
world, indeed, sometimes in all sincerity, intended thus to protect the
Church. But more frequently this occurred not without spiritual damage and
danger, since their interest therein was guided by the views of a selfish
and perilous policy.
In this regard, we confess to you that we feel most poignant sorrow over the
fact that very many bishops, so dear to us are noticeable here today by
their absence, because they are imprisoned for their faithfulness to Christ,
or impeded by other restraints. The thought of them impels us to raise most
fervent prayer to God. Nevertheless, we see today, not without great hopes
and to our immense consolation, that the Church, finally freed from so many
obstacles of a profane nature such as trammeled her in the past, can from
this Vatican Basilica, as if from a second apostolic cenacle, and through
your intermediary, raise her voice resonant with majesty and greatness.
PRINCIPLE DUTY OF THE COUNCIL: THE DEFENSE AND ADVANCEMENT OF TRUTH
The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that he sacred
deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more
efficaciously. That doctrine embraces the whole of man, composed as he is of
body and soul. And, since he is a pilgrim on this earth, it commands him to
tend always toward heaven.
This demonstrates how our mortal life is to be ordered in such a way as to
fulfil our duties as citizens of earth and of heaven, and thus to attain the
aim of life as established by God. That is, all men, whether taken singly or
as united in society, today have the duty of tending ceaselessly during
their lifetime toward the attainment of heavenly things and to use. for this
purpose only, the earthly goods, the employment of which must not prejudice
their eternal happiness.
The Lord has said: "Seek first the kingdom of Cod and his justice" (Mt.
6:33). The word "first" expresses the direction in which our thoughts and
energies must move. We must not, however, neglect the other words of this
exhortation of our Lord, namely: "And all these things shall be given you
besides" (Ibid. ). In reality, there always have been in the Church, and
there are still today, those who, while seeking the practice of evangelical
perfection with all their might, do not fail to make themselves useful to
society. Indeed, it from their constant example of life and their charitable
undertakings that all that is highest and noblest in human society takes its
strength and growth.
In order, however, that this doctrine may influence the numerous fields of
human activity, with reference to individuals, to families, and to social
life, it is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from
the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers. But at the same
time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms
of life introduced into the modern world, which have opened new avenues to
the Catholic apostolate.
For this reason, the Church has not watched inertly the marvellous progress
of the discoveries of human genius, an has not been backward in evaluating
them rightly. But, while following these developments, she does not neglect
to admonish men so that, over and above sense -- perceived things -- they
may raise their eyes to God, the Source of all wisdom and all beauty. And
may they never forget the most serious command: "The Lord thy God shalt thou
worship, and Him only shalt thou serve" (Mt. 4:10; Lk. 4:8), so that it may
happen that the fleeting fascination of visible things should impede true
The manner in which sacred doctrine is spread, this having been established,
it becomes clear how much is expected from the Council in regard to
doctrine. That is, the Twenty-first Ecumenical Council, which will draw upon
the effective and important wealth of juridical, liturgical, apostolic, and
administrative experiences, wishes to transmit the doctrine, pure and
integral, without any attenuation or distortion, which throughout twenty
centuries, notwithstanding difficulties and contrasts, has become the common
patrimony of men. It is a patrimony not well received by all, but always a
rich treasure available to men of good will.
Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were
concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest
will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us, pursuing
thus the path which the Church has followed for twenty centuries.
The salient point of this Council is not, therefore, a discussion of one
article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church which has
repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians,
and which is presumed to be well known and familiar to all.
For this a Council was not necessary. But from the renewed, serene, and
tranquil adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and
preciseness, as it still shines forth in the Acts of the Council of Trent
and First Vatican Council, the Christian, Catholic, and apostolic spirit of
the whole world expects a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a
formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the
authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through
the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought.
The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing,
and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that
must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary,
everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium
which is predominantly pastoral in character.
HOW TO REPRESS ERRORS
At the outset of the Second Vatican Council, it is evident, as always, that
the truth of the Lord will remain forever. We see, in fact, as one age
succeeds another, that the opinions of men follow one another and exclude
each other. And often errors vanish as quickly as they arise, like fog
before the sun The Church has always opposed these errors. Frequently she
has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays however, the Spouse
of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of
severity. She consider that she meets the needs of the present day by
demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations Not,
certainly, that there is a lack of fallacious teaching, opinions, and
dangerous concepts to be guarded against an dissipated. But these are so
obviously in contrast with the right norm of honesty, and have produced such
lethal fruits that by now it would seem that men of themselves are inclined
to condemn them, particularly those ways of life which despise God and His
law or place excessive confidence in technical progress and a well-being
based exclusively on the comforts of life. They are ever more deeply
convinced of the paramount dignity of the human person and of his perfection
as well as of the duties which that implies. Even more important, experience
has taught men that violence inflicted on others, the might of arms, and
political domination, are of no help at all in finding a happy solution to
the grave problems which afflict them.
That being so, the Catholic Church, raising the torch of religious truth by
means of this Ecumenical Council, desires to show herself to be the loving
mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness toward the
brethren who are separated from her. To mankind, oppressed by so many
difficulties, the Church says, as Peter said to the poor who begged alms
from him: "I have neither gold nor silver, but what I have I give you; in
the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise and walk" (Acts 3:6). In other
words, the Church does not offer to the men of today riches that pass, nor
does she promise them merely earthly happiness. But she distributes to them
the goods of divine grace which, raising men to the dignity of sons of God,
are the most efficacious safeguards and aids toward a more human life. She
opens the fountain of her life-giving doctrine which allows men, enlightened
by the light of Christ, to understand well what they really are, what their
lofty dignity and their purpose are, and, finally, through her children, she
spreads everywhere the fullness of Christian charity, than which nothing is
more effective in eradicating the seeds of discord, nothing more efficacious
in promoting concord, just peace, and the brotherly unity of all.
THE UNITY OF THE CHRISTIAN AND HUMAN FAMILY MUST BE PROMOTED
The Church's solicitude to promote and defend truth derives from the fact
that, according to the plan of God, who wills all men to be saved and to
come to the knowledge of the truth (l Tim. 2:4), men without the assistance
of the whole of revealed doctrine cannot reach a complete and firm unity of
minds, with which are associated true peace and eternal salvation.
Unfortunately, the entire Christian family has not yet fully attained this
visible unity in truth.
The Catholic Church, therefore, considers it her duty to work actively so
that there may be fulfilled the great mystery of that unity, which Jesus
Christ invoked with fervent prayer from His heavenly Father on the eve of
His sacrifice. She rejoices in peace, knowing well that she is intimately
associated with that prayer, and then exults greatly at seeing that
invocation extend its efficacy with salutary fruit, even among those who are
outside her fold.
Indeed, if one considers well this same unity which Christ implored for His
Church, it seems to shine, as it were, with a triple ray of beneficent
supernal light: namely, the unity of Catholics among themselves, which must
always be kept exemplary and most firm; the unity of prayers and ardent
desires with which those Christians separated from this Apostolic See aspire
to be united with us; and the unity in esteem and respect for the Catholic
Church which animates those who follow non-Christian religions.
In this regard, it is a source of considerable sorrow to see that the
greater part of the human race -- although all men who are born were
redeemed by the blood of Christ -- does not yet participate in those sources
of divine grace which exist in the Catholic Church. Hence the Church, whose
light illumines all, whose strength of supernatural unity redounds to the
advantage of all humanity, is rightly described in these beautiful words of
"The Church, surrounded by divine light, spreads her rays over the entire
earth. This light, however, is one and unique and shines everywhere without
causing any separation in the unity of the body. She extends her branches
over the whole world. By her fruitfulness she sends ever farther afield he
rivulets. Nevertheless, the head is always one, the origin one for she is
the one mother, abundantly fruitful. We are born of her, are nourished by
her milk, we live of her spirit' (De Catholicae Eccles. Unitate, 5).
Venerable brothers, such is the aim of the Second Vatican Ecumenical
Council, which, while bringing together the Church's best energies and
striving to have men welcome more favorably the good tidings of salvation,
prepares, as it were and consolidates the path toward that unity of mankind
which is required as a necessary foundation, in order that the earthly city
may be brought to the resemblance of that heavenly city where truth reigns,
charity is the law, and whose extent is eternity (Cf. St. Augustine, Epistle
Now, "our voice is directed to you" (2 Cor. 6:11 ) venerable brothers in the
episcopate. Behold, we are gathered together in this Vatican Basilica, upon
which hinges the history of the Church where heaven and earth are closely
joined, here near the tomb of Peter and near so many of the tombs of our
holy predecessors, whose ashes in this solemn hour seem to thrill in mystic
The Council now beginning rises in the Church like daybreak, a forerunner of
most splendid light. It is now only dawn. And already at this first
announcement of the rising day, how much sweetness fills our heart.
Everything here breathes sanctity and arouses great joy. Let us contemplate
the stars, which with their brightness augment the majesty of this temple.
These stars, according to the testimony of the Apostle John (Apoc. 1:20),
are you, and with you we see shining around the tomb of the Prince of the
Apostles, the golden candelabra. That is, the Church is confided to you
We see here with you important personalities, present in an attitude of
great respect and cordial expectation, having come together in Rome from the
five continents to represent the nations of the world.
We might say that heaven and earth are united in the holding of the Council
-- the saints of heaven to protect our work, the faithful of the earth
continuing in prayer to the Lord, and you, seconding the inspiration of the
Holy Spirit in order that the work of all may correspond to the modern
expectations and needs of the various peoples of the world.
This requires of you serenity of mind, brotherly concord moderation in
proposals, dignity in discussion, and wisdom of deliberation.
God grant that your labors and your work, toward which the eyes of all
peoples and the hopes of the entire world are turned, may abundantly fulfill
the aspirations of all.
Almighty God! In Thee we place all our confidence, not trusting in our own
strength. Look down benignly upon these pastors of Thy Church. May the light
of Thy supernal grace aid us in taking decisions and in making laws.
Graciously hear the prayers which we pour forth to Thee in unanimity of
faith, of voice, and of mind.
O Mary, Help of Christians, Help of Bishops, of whose love we have recently
had particular proof in thy temple of Loreto, where we venerated the mystery
of the Incarnation dispose all things for a happy and propitious outcome
and, with thy spouse, St. Joseph, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul St. John
the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, intercede for us to God.
To Jesus Christ, our most amiable Redeemer, immortal King of peoples and of
times, be love, power, and glory forever and ever.