History is in the making here.
The greatest meeting of Church dignitaries in all the Christian era is in session in St. Peter’s basilica.
In many ways already one of the great assemblies of all time, its full impact is expected to be felt far in the future. Events of enormous importance, probably unfolding slowly over many years, will be traced to it.
Gathered about Pope John XXIII are cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops and bishops from the farthest corners of the earth to the number of some 2,600. Together they constitute the Fathers of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. Theologians and other expert consultants swell the number of those present to about 3,000.
It is an ecumenical council, and only the 21st ever to be convened. The first met in 325 in Nicea in Bithynia (now a part of Turkey) with 318 persons taking part. The last previous one, the First Vatican Council, was held here more than 90 years ago. There have been many more than a score of large and important meetings in the two Christian millenia, but to date only 21 have been accorded the rank of general councils.
An ecumenical, or general, council is a solemn assembly of the bishops of the world called by the pope to consider and decide, under the presidency of the pope, matters concerning the whole of Christendom.
The current ecumenical council is by far the largest, the best prepared for, the most widely heralded, the most enthusiastically received of all general councils.
In a motu proprio issued almost on the eve of the meeting’s opening, Pope John said, “The coming ecumenical council by virtue of the number and variety of those who will participate in its meetings evidently will be the greatest of the councils held by the Church so far.”
The Pontiff also expressed the expectation that the council will prove to be the “most moving and most solemn spectacle offered to the world of angels and of man.”
The largest previous meeting of this kind was the First Vatican Council, which convened here on Dec. 8, 1869, and recessed prematurely on July 18, 1870, when Garibaldi and his insurgents approached the City of Rome. Pope Pius IX subsequently became a voluntary “prisoner in the Vatican” and the council was never reconvened.
The First Vatican Council had 737 attending its opening sessions. The council met in the right transept of St. Peter’s which had been closed off and furnished to accommodate such a meeting.
The Second Vatican Council is meeting in the much larger nave of St. Peter’s. The Fathers of the council are seated in chairs set in two tiers, each 10 rows high, which rise on either side of the nave. In their robes, the bishops form a veritable canyon of color extending more than 360 feet from the inner doors of the basilica to the tomb of St. Peter under the great dome.
The throne of Pope John, elevated so that he is visible to every council Father, is situated in the nave at St. Peter’s tomb. Places for 88 cardinals and nine patriarchs are in a special section at the Pope’s right.
The ecumenical council now in progress has special and interesting facets seemingly without number. To mention only some:
Never before, not even in the time of its empire, has Rome been the focal point of interest for so many people in such scattered and far-flung places round the world.
No council before ever had available to it electric lights, telephones, typewriters and so many other devices that people of today take for granted. What’s more, loudspeakers make the voice of a speaker heard everywhere in the council hall, and electronic machines tabulate the ballots.
This council is receiving far greater coverage from news media of every description than any previous council received. It is the first, of course, whose news is being reported by radio and television.
It is only the second general council in which bishops from the United States have taken part, yet it is estimated that these bishops constitute the second largest group from any one nation. Only the bishops here from various parts of Italy are more numerous.
A bench of five cardinals presided over the general congregations, or working sessions, of the First Vatican Council. At this council 10 cardinals from nine nations, including Cardinal Spellman of New York, are taking turns presiding over the meetings at which the Pope is not present.
This, it has been said, is the first council in history to meet free of interference by any secular government. It is the first since the eighth-century beginning of the Papal States to meet under circumstances of complete separation of Church and State in Italy.
It is attended by representatives from more places in the world than were present at any other council.
It is the first since the Protestant Reformation to be attended by non-Catholic observers officially delegated by their church authorities.
This ecumenical council will not have to deal with a question of heresy, though it is expected to refute errors that are circulated concerning the Christian view of mankind.
It was on Jan. 25, the last day of the Chair of Unity Octave, in 1959, that Pope John XXIII, saying that he was “trembling a little with emotion,” first revealed his intention to convoke “an ecumenical council for the Universal Church.” On that occasion, the Pontiff spoke confidentially to 17 cardinals who had been present with him at Mass in the Basilica of St. Paul-Outside- the-Walls. He requested them to remain silent on the matter until cardinals throughout the world could be advised.
Subsequently, the Holy See sought opinions and suggestions from 2,594 members of the hierarchy in 134 nations, and received an enormously impressive 80% response.
On June 5, 1960, Pope John issued his motu proprio, Superno Dei Nutu, in which he appointed 10 commissions and two secretariats to prepare for the council. In short order, more than 1,000 bishops and expert consultants began more than two years of intensive and unrelenting labor, sifting, studying and discussing some 2,000 pages of material submitted from all round the world.
Out of these labors came the agenda which is before the council now in session here.
In February, 1962, Pope John announced that the council would open on Oct. 11, the feast of the Divine Maternity of Mary. He also said the meeting would be known formally as the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. He added that his hopes for the council are “that the Church, the Spouse of Christ, may strengthen still more her divine energies and extend her beneficial influence in still greater measure to the minds of men.”
The Pope made this announcement on Feb. 2, 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 the 21st ecumenical council.
These were among the final actions taken in preparation for the council. Shortly afterwards, bishops began to arrive in Rome. What was at first a mere trickle of traffic swelled into an impressive stream. As the time grew short, hundreds of prelates arrived in a single day. Well over 200 came from the United States.
For purposes of convenience and identification, each Father of the council has been assigned a numbered seat which he will occupy at all sessions. The prelates are seated in groups of six, not according to country, but according to the order of their appointment to the hierarchy. Thus it is a rare thing that two bishops from the same country are seated next to each other.
Each group of six seats is separated by aisles. Between every two groups of six seats is a microphone in the front tier for the convenience of those who wish to rise and speak from their places. Those who address the council formally and at some length speak from a pulpit erected at the left of the Pope’s throne.
Latin is the official and exclusive language of the council.
Six Americans are among the specially selected and trained stenographers—seminarians and priests doing graduate work in Rome—who work in relays to take down every word of the proceedings. As insurance, they are backed up by tape recorders.
One of the oldest institutions in the more than 1,900-year-old Church has been convoked for the first time in nearly a century.
It was said of the First Vatican Council that it was a meeting such as only the Catholic Church could arrange. That can be said with even more force concerning the council now in session, a meeting whose purpose is to present to the modern world the ancient Church in its true light.
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.