When he was elected as pope, the electing cardinals assumed Pope John XXIII, at 77, would do nothing out of the ordinary. Imagine their shock, when three months later he announced the calling of the Second Vatican Council, with the goal of bringing the church into the 20th century.

Share story

Fifty years ago this week the genial Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council. He was elected pope in 1958 at the age of 77, and the electing cardinals assumed that this elderly man would be a transition pope — someone to steady the ship, but certainly not do anything out of the ordinary.

Imagine their shock, when just three months after his election, John XXIII announced the calling of the Second Vatican Council. He called for an aggiornamento, a soft Italian word that literally means an “updating,” but it took on a strong sense of reforming the church so that its message was contemporary, and so that it welcomed all people of faith.

Rather than fleeing the world, John affirmed that the church should not oppose the world. It should not be suspicious of freedom of conscience, freedom of the press and freedom of religion, but rather it should reach out to the world and transform it by love.

In a word, he suggested the church live by the Gospel, that it reach out to the broken, the sinner, the outcast, even the unbeliever, just as Jesus had, and welcome all into table fellowship, that is, to sit down to a meal in a gesture of hospitality to all those who would normally not be welcomed or included.

So in January 1959, when he first announced the council, he said that “throwing open the doors and windows of the Church” would allow the Holy Spirit to bring about a “new Pentecost.”

Over the next 3 ½ years, the central offices of the Vatican prepared drafts and documents. Most of these sought a narrow, rigid updating of the council, along the lines of the First Vatican Council, 1869-1870, which had ended abruptly when Garibaldi’s forces invaded Rome and united the Papal States with all of the rest of Italy.

But when the Second Vatican Council opened Oct. 11, 1962, all these preparatory documents were quickly cast aside. A few of the leading European cardinals, from outside the Roman Curia or the central bureaucracy, rose up in the first session to declare that these documents did not reflect the sense of the council and that drafting committees should all be reconstituted to reflect the diversity among the bishops themselves. Bewildered, even befuddled, the presiding cardinal abruptly adjourned the first gathering after only 15 minutes. And from then on, nothing was ever the same again.

The windows had indeed been thrown open, and the Holy Spirit was alive and animating these bishops from all over the world.

In his opening address, the Pope (speaking in Latin) had encouraged the council fathers (all bishops) to be open and responsive to three dimensions for reform: 1) that the council learn from and embrace the best that science, technology and human knowledge had to offer; 2) that the church seek an ecumenical understanding with all people of faith; and 3) that the church become a church with and for the poor (rather than identifying with the wealthy elite).

Once again, it was Pope John who had modeled this ecumenical outreach. In the early 1930s, he had been the Vatican’s representative in Bulgaria, hardly an attractive diplomatic post, but it had allowed him to develop deep friendships with Eastern Orthodox leaders.

Then during World War II he was the Vatican’s representative to Turkey where he acted as a conduit for many Jews escaping Nazism. He encouraged nuns in Hungary, for instance, to issue false baptismal certificates so that Jewish refugees could make the dangerous passage to Palestine.

So once the council opened, it didn’t take long for the bishops to pick up John’s spirit of reconciliation and ecumenical friendship. And the next three years, 1962-1965, proved to be a major shake-up and transformation of the Catholic Church.

Note: Just last week, anticipating the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, St. James Cathedral, Seattle, unveiled a new statute of Blessed John XXIII reaching out in a gesture of openness, welcome and prayer. The statue is the work of Seattle sculptor John Sisko.

Fr. Patrick Howell SJ is the rector (religious superior) of the Jesuit Community at Seattle University and professor of pastoral theology. Readers may send feedback to faithcolumns@seattletimes.com.