On January 25, 1959, on the occasion of a week of prayer for Christian unity, a religious ceremony was held in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, in the Vatican. The newly elected Pope John XXIII (1881-1963) invites the cardinals present to gather after mass. They are only seventeen years old to have made the trip, the other guests thinking it was just a small, unimportant ceremony. But to everyone’s surprise, the sovereign pontiff made a sensational announcement.
“Venerable brothers and beloved sons! We make before you, with a certain fear and a little emotion in our voices, but also with a humble resolution of words, the project of a double celebration: a diocesan synod for the City. [Rome] and an ecumenical council for the universal Church”she declares to her audience that, according to several testimonies, she is amazed.
The last ecumenical council, Vatican I (1869-1870), was not even a century old and the previous one, the Council of Trent (Italy), dated from the Renaissance (1545-1563). Hardly anyone expected such an announcement. Three years later, on October 11, 1962, the Second Vatican Council was inaugurated, a world event whose echo is still felt today.
Why did John XXIII decide to open Vatican II?
Nothing presaged the slightest change within the Church. Certainly, since the 1930s, various voices, in particular theologians, had spoken out to anchor it in modernity and demand changes in the field of the liturgy, ecumenism or the role of the laity. But all had been strongly condemned by the Vatican, censored and banished from the institution. John XXIII himself distinguished himself by condemning the “working priests”those ecclesiastics who wanted to get closer to the laity by going to work in factories.
Beneath the good-natured air of John XXIII was actually hiding a good diplomat
So how can this sudden decision be explained? In his last writings, John XXIII explains that he had a ” inspiration “, which he attributes to the divine. Several sources report that when his entourage asked him the reasons for his decision, he would have gone to open the windows in response, to “ventilate the Church”.
Cold War, nuclear threat, secularization… The announcement does not occur in any context. “The problems around the world were immense. We did not know each other and we did not know the different situations, even in the Catholic world. John XXIII suddenly thinks: a council would be needed there”recalls Loris Capovilla, then the Pope’s private secretary, in a documentary broadcast by Le Jour du Seigneur.
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