Just last week, on the feast of St. Pope John XXIII, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, which occurred on Oct. 11, 1962. Some of us are very familiar with the council, having lived before, during and after this significant event in the life of the Church. Many of us grew up during the days of the council and the implementation of its work. Others of us do not know personally the years of the council and, having grown up after it, are familiar with it only as history. However, no matter our living relationship to the Second Vatican Council, it continues to have a profound influence upon our lives of faith as members of the Catholic Church.
At the opening of the council, St. Pope John XXIII delivered an address which set the tone for the deliberations. This talk, titled “Gaudet Mater Ecclesia” (“Mother Church Rejoices”), would not only set the council’s tone but also the implementation of the council’s deliberations. Pope John XXIII said, “Mother Church rejoices that, by a singular gift of Divine Providence, the much-desired day has now dawned, on which, under the auspices of the Virgin Deipora, whose maternal dignity is commemorated today in a festive rite, here at the tomb of the Blessed Peter, the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican begins solemnly.”
One of the points that St. Pope John XXIII made abundantly clear at the opening of the Second Vatican Council was that its greatest concern was to clearly present the teaching of the Church, which was not subject to any change. However, that teaching had to be presented in a manner understandable to a changing world. The condition of the world changes, but the teaching of the Church does not. The substance of the deposit of faith is one thing, but the manner in which it is presented is another. The pope stated so well, “The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more effectively. … In order, however, that this doctrine may influence the many facets of human activity and be meaningful to individuals, to families and to societies, it is necessary that the Church should never depart from the sacred treasure of truth inherited 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.”
As the pope spoke to the Council Fathers, he made clear that the Church rejoiced in the council and the work it was about to undertake. However, the history of the Church and the council have made clear that the Church also rejoices always in her vigor, in her peace and in her prayer. Vigor, peace and prayer are hallmarks of the Church, which are essential to our daily lives.
The Church rejoices in her vigor. The Church is vigorous because she is the people of God. The Second Vatican Council revived the biblical notion of the Church as the people of God. “Hence, the Universal Church is seen to be a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (“Lumen Gentium,” 4). God is with His people, and “They that hope in the Lord will renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31). The vigor of God’s people is divine life and nothing less. Many today may understandably lament the difficulties the Church is facing and fear she is faltering. However, historical perspective shows us that the Church has faced worse times than these, and the vigor of the people of God has always endured through God’s grace. In his opening address to the Council Fathers, the pope said, “The prophets of doom always talk as though the present, in comparison to the past, is becoming worse and worse. But I see mankind as entering upon a new order and perceive in it a divine plan.” How fitting are his words for today. The Church rejoices in her vigor.
The Church rejoices in her peace. The Church is a place where peace is to be found. The message of Christ is a message of peace. On Oct. 20, 1962, the Council Fathers, at the direction of the pope, delivered a message to the world. One of the calls that the Fathers placed before us is that of peace. They said, “There is no one who does not detest war, no one who does not ardently desire peace. This is the greatest wish of the Church as mother of all. … We proclaim that all men are brothers, regardless of the race or nation to which they belong.” The Church, as the people of God, rejoices in the peace of Christ which she wishes to foster among all people. How much today our world, facing war, terrorism and the violation of the right to life, needs this message of peace. The Church is an instrument of peace. When we recognize our equality as made in the image and likeness of God, then peace becomes more attainable for us. That peace must radiate from our individual lives. The Church rejoices in her peace.
The Church rejoices in her prayer. Prayer is where we most deeply enter into the mystery of ourselves and of God. Prayer is where we renew our vigor and find our peace. Above all, the Eucharist, the prayer of the Church, is where we are united with Christ and each other most intimately. In the Eucharist, we are fed with the Body and Blood of Christ so that the living people of God truly become the living Body of Christ. In prayer, the Church rejoices most earnestly.
On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Francis celebrated Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The pope spoke insightful words, well summed up, as he said, “Let us rediscover the council’s passion and renew our own passion for the council! Immersed in the mystery of the Church, Mother and Bride, let us also say, with St. John XXIII: Gaudet Mater Ecclesia! May the Church be overcome with joy. If she should fail to rejoice, she would deny her very self, for she would forget the love that begot her. Yet how many of us are unable to live the faith with joy, without grumbling and criticizing? A Church in love with Jesus has no time for quarrels, gossip and disputes. May God free us from being critical and intolerant, harsh and angry! This is not a matter of style but of love. For those who love, as the apostle Paul teaches, do everything without murmuring (cf. Phil 2:14). Lord, teach us your own lofty gaze; teach us to look at the Church as you see her. And when we are critical and disgruntled, let us remember that to be Church means to bear witness to the beauty of your love.”
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
October 21, 2022