On January 25, 1959, on the occasion of a week of prayer for Christian unity, a religious ceremony was held at the Basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura, in the Vatican. Pope John XXIII (1881-1963), newly elected, invites the cardinals present to meet after mass. Only seventeen made the trip, the other guests think it was just a small, unimportant ceremony. But to everyone’s surprise, the sovereign pontiff made a sensational announcement.
“Venerable brothers and dear children! We make before you, with a certain fear and a little emotion in our voices, but also with 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 “he declares to his audience that, according to various testimonies, he 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), dates back to the Renaissance (1545-1563). Hardly anyone expected such an announcement. Three years later, on 11 October 1962, Vatican II opened, a world event whose echo can still be heard today.
Why did John XXIII decide to open Vatican II?
Nothing foreshadowed the slightest change within the Church. Certainly, since the 1930s, various voices, in particular theologians, had spoken out to anchor it to modernity and to demand changes in the field of liturgy, ecumenism or the role of the laity. But they had all been strongly condemned by the Vatican, censored and banned from the institution. John XXIII himself distinguished himself by condemning the “worker priests”those clergymen who wanted to get closer to the laity by going to work in factories.
In reality, a good diplomat was hiding under the good-natured air of John XXIII
So how can this sudden decision be explained? In his later 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 go to open the windows in response, to “Ventilate the Church”.
Cold war, nuclear threat, secularization … The announcement does not take place in any context. “The problems in the world were immense. We did not know each other and did not know the different situations, even in the Catholic world. John XXIII suddenly thinks: a council would be needed there “recalls Loris Capovilla, the pope’s private secretary at the time, in a documentary broadcast by Le Jour du Seigneur.
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