This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations, Part 2.
Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the Patriarch of Venice, was 76 years old when his brother cardinals elected him pope on October 28, 1958. It has been said the cardinals elected Roncalli because, after the long pontificate of Pius XII, they wanted a pope who would have a short and uneventful reign. Roncalli, who took the name John XXIII, did indeed have a short reign—less than five years. But, though his reign was short, it was not uneventful, for it led to dramatic changes in the Catholic Church.
Few even among the cardinals present expected the pope’s announcement on January 25, 1959, that he would call an ecumenical council. The announcement was a surprise, for ecumenical councils are usually called to clarify some doctrinal point that is in question or to address a crisis. Pope Pius IX had called the Vatican Council because of the challenges Liberalism, rationalism, and materialism posed for the Church. What was Pope John’s purpose in calling a new council?
In his opening speech to the council fathers, who had gathered in the Basilica of St. Peter’s in the Vatican on October 11, 1962, Pope John declared he had called the council so that the Church might be “enriched with spiritual riches.” He said he hoped that by “drawing the strength of new powers” from the council, the Church could “look to future times without fear.” The Church, he indicated, might need to undergo “timely changes,” but only in order that she might help “men, families, and nations really turn their minds to those things that are above.”
Pope John said he wanted the beauty of Christ and his Church to shine forth to all mankind, for only with Christ and in the Church, he said, can mankind “enjoy the goods of light, sweetness, right order, and peace.” To achieve this for the Church, the pope said the council should first and foremost work so that “the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be more effectively guarded and taught.” Pope John said the council was not to teach any new doctrines or change old ones. Instead, it was to find new ways of expressing the Church’s teachings to the world. In this way, Pope John wanted the Church to experience an aggiornamento—an “updating” that would not change the essence of the Church but make her better able to spread the Gospel to the world.
Pope John XXIII displayed great optimism about the world of his time. He did not deny its many problems and errors, but he thought people had learned to have great respect for human dignity and had come to see that war and “political domination” cannot solve the great difficulties of the modern world. The pope said he disagreed “with those prophets of gloom” in the Church “who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world was at hand.” All times have their evils, said the pope, and previous ages were not times of full triumph for the Church.
In a word, the pope wanted the council to help the Church open herself to the modern world and, instead of condemning all its errors, show forth to it the truth of Christ. Pope John did not live to see the Second Vatican Council complete its work (he died almost eight months later, on June 3, 1963), but he gave the council the basic direction it would follow until it ended on December 8, 1965.
Under Pope John XXIII and his successor, Pope Paul VI, the Second Vatican Council explored what the Church is, calling her both the Body of Christ and the People of God. The council spoke about how the pope and bishops together rule and guide the Church. It discussed the various ways the Church can speak to and work with the people of the modern world. It called for dialogue with non-Catholic Christians and, even, people of other religions. It gave new direction on how to renew the worship of the Church by preserving ancient traditions, while at the same time making the Mass and administration of the Sacraments more comprehensible to modern people. But in everything the council taught and commanded, it had one great goal—to help all people come to know Jesus Christ by entering into full communion with the Catholic Church.