Pope John XXIII on Feb. 2, 1962, set Oct. 11 as the opening date for the long-heralded ecumenical council.
In so doing he chose to tie it to the memory of the Council of Ephesus in 431, whose decisions upheld belief in the Virgin Mary as Mother of God, which remains today a keystone in the belief of both Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Oct. 11 is the feast of the Divine Maternity of Mary.
The Pope said his main hopes for the results of the council, to be known as the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, are “that the Church, Spouse of Christ, may strengthen still more her divine energies and extend her beneficial influence in still greater measure to the minds of men.” He added:
“In this way there is further reason to hope that all people—especially those whom we so sorrowfully see suffering because of misfortune, discords and mournful conflicts—turning their eyes more trustfully toward Christ…may finally achieve true peace in respect for mutual rights and duties.”
Pope John announced the date for the council on Feb. 2, the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin—three years and eight days after he first revealed his intention to summon all the Catholic bishops of the world for a 21st ecumenical council.
He made the date known in a “motu proprio,” a document drawn up and issued on his own initiative and personally signed by him. The document is not an actual summons to the council, and does not spell out to whom invitations to the council will be sent. Nor does it state what topics will be discussed. These things are left for later action by the Pope.
The motu proprio recalls that Pope John issued a statement last Christmas Day announcing that the council would take place in 1962, and states that the date for the opening is being announced now so that the participants can plan their schedules accordingly.
The Pope again appealed for prayers for the success of the council. “We can do no less,” he said, “than exhort once more all our sons, together with all the clergy and the Christian people who await it with great anticipation, to intensify ever more their prayers to God for the happy success of this undertaking…”
The time lag between Pope John’s initial announcement of the council—on Jan. 25, 1959—and the date for the opening is well under the five years which elapsed for the last council—the Vatican Council of 1869-70. Pope Pius IX first revealed his intention to convoke a council on Dec. 6, 1864. It did not open until Dec. 8, 1869.
That council lasted 316 days. It was adjourned suddenly on Oct. 20, 1870, after Rome had been taken by Piedmontese troops, thus ending the Papal States.
Pope John in June, 1960, set up a dozen preparatory commissions and three secretariats to lay the groundwork for it, and he has personally attended their meetings to spur their work.
Longest of the ecumenical councils was the 19th, the Council of Trent. It dragged on from 1545 to 1563, during the reigns of three popes. In contrast, none of the first four councils lasted as long as four months. One of them, the fourth, at Chalcedon, lasted only three weeks. Shortly after becoming Pope in 590, St. Gregory the Great referred to the first four councils—Nicea in 325, Constantinople in 381, Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon in 451—and declared:
“On these as on a foursquare stone rises and stands the structure of faith and of each one’s life and action. Whosoever does not cling to their solidity, even though he be a stone, lies outside the structure.”
In setting Oct. 11 for the opening of the council, the Pontiff put major stress on the ancient doctrine that Mary is Mother of God rather than on more modern Marian definitions, which are viewed by some Christians as a stumbling block to unity.
“We have especially chosen this date,” the Pope said, “because it links us with the memory of the great Council of Ephesus, which was of extreme importance in the history of the Church.”
Actually, the Council of Ephesus—held in the early Christian center which had been visited by St. Paul, and whose ruins are located about 30 miles southeast of the western Turkish city of Izmir—opened on June 22, 431, and concluded that September.
Three other ecumenical councils—Chalcedon in 451, Constantinople in 869 and Vienne in 1311—opened within a week before or after Oct. 11.
From Council Daybook: Vatican II, Sessions 1 and 2, Floyd Anderson, ed. © 1965 by The National Catholic Welfare Conference, Inc. Used by permission of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the successor organization to the NCWC. All rights reserved.