On January 25, 1959, just elected, John XXIII surprised the Roman Curia and the whole world by announcing his project of aggiornamento of the Church through an ecumenical council, Vatican II. A look back at this day which marks a historic turning point for the Catholic Church.
“Venerable brothers and beloved sons. We present to you, certainly trembling a little with emotion, but at the same time with humble resolution, the name and the proposal of the double celebration: of a Diocesan Synod for the city, and of an Ecumenical Council for the Universal Church.” It is with these words, greeted in the stunned silence of the 17 cardinals present in the chapter room of the Saint-Paul hors-les-murs abbey, that Pope John XXIII announced, on January 25, 1959, his project of open the Second Vatican Council . The shock is great: no cardinal applauds.
On this feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul , the pontiff is at the basilica of Saint Paul outside the walls to attend the conclusion of the octave of prayer for Christian Unity. Then he participates in mass, celebrated by the father-abbot of the Benedictine abbey adjoining the basilica, before joining the chapter room with the cardinals present. After listening to a presentation of the situation of the diocese of Rome by the cardinal vicar Clemente Micara, the Pope, elected only three months previously, then delivered his speech to the heads of the congregations of the Roman Curia. Affirming to feel “the double responsibility of bishop of Rome and pastor of the universal Church”, he expressed the wish for a “clear and precise correspondence of the new pontificate with the spiritual needs of the present hour”.
The abuse and compromise of man
The Bishop of Rome then describes the effects of urbanization on the Italian capital, which has become a “veritable human hive from which comes an uninterrupted hum of confused voices”, a sign of the transformative developments in this post-war period , society and the world. While recognizing that there are places “where the grace of Christ continues to multiply its fruits”, he expresses his sadness at the “abuse and compromise of man”. In these years when Italy and the West are experiencing an economic boom and the birth of the consumer society, the pontiff regrets seeing modern man turned “entirely towards the pursuit of earthly goods”, the latter being exalted by “the progress of modern technology”.
Recall certain ancient forms of doctrinal affirmation and wise orders of ecclesiastical discipline.
These developments, argues Peter’s successor, cause “serious harm” to what constituted “the force of resistance of the Church and its children” in the face of the risks of “fatal and disastrous divisions”, of “spiritual decadence and morality” and “ruin of nations”. It is in this perspective that he invites us to “recall certain ancient forms of doctrinal affirmation and wise orders of ecclesiastical discipline” which were able to bear fruit in the history of the Church. It was then that the sovereign pontiff announced the opening of an ecumenical council for the universal Church and a synod for the diocese of Rome. He places particular emphasis on the ecumenical dimension, which results from a growing need for unity between Christian confessions.
A pope who surprises
These two events, inspired by “the Spirit of the Lord”, must also allow a “hoped and expected update of the Code of Canon Law” of 1917. In the same spirit, John XXIII even announces the “next promulgation” of the Code of Eastern Canon Law. These two projects did not come to fruition until much later, years after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965): it was in fact necessary to wait until 1983 for the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law, and 1990 for that of the Code of Eastern Canon Law. The pontiff finally asks the cardinals for their support and confidence, while enjoining them to exercise discretion. But a twenty-line press release was finally published a few hours later by the Holy See. The information was picked up by all the newspapers, without the scope of the gesture being always understood by journalists at the time.
“John XXIII has definitely not ceased to amaze us,” comments the Jesuit Robert Rouquette in the March 1959 issue of the journal Études , ironic about those who announced “a transitional pope, capable of giving to the Church for a few years a rest.” After a long period of preparation, the Second Vatican Council opened two and a half years later, on October 11, 1962.