Endings and Beginnings

Fifty years ago this month, on Dec. 4, Pope Paul VI presided over the solemn closing General Congregation of the Second Session of Vatican Council II. As we celebrate this “ending” of the Second Session, we find ourselves, as did those bishops 50 years ago, in the midst of Advent, preparing to celebrate the great feast Christmas and new beginnings in Christ. It therefore seems appropriate to review some of the highlights of Pope Paul’s message on that day, not only as an historical exercise, but as a reflection on where we have come from and what remains ahead.

To put Dec. 4, 1963, into perspective a little, at least from an American point of view, the United States, and U.S. Catholics in particular, were still reeling from the November assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In fact, on Tuesday, Dec. 3, the Warren Commission held its first meeting beginning its investigation into the assassination. On the following day, however, more than 2,000 bishops and more than 10,000 people packed into St. Peter’s Basilica for Mass and the promulgation of the first two documents of the Council.

Following Mass, the Holy Spirit was invoked, and the Constitution on the Liturgy and the Decree on Social Communication were formally presented to the bishops for final votes. The Constitution on the Liturgy was approved by a vote of 2,147 to 4; the Decree on Social Communication was approved 1,960 to 164. Pope Paul, who had remained in prayer while the votes were tabulated, then solemnly promulgated the two documents and addressed the Council Fathers.

The Pope thanked all the bishops for their efforts, especially those who were generously contributing funds to support the participation of bishops from poor countries who, otherwise, would not have been able to attend. He noted that the work of the Council was far from done (in fact, he hoped that the coming Third Session would be the concluding session), but that its works thus far were grains of wheat cast into the furrows “awaiting their effective and fruitful development” through divine goodness. He observed, “Let us rejoice, my brothers, for when was the Church ever so aware of herself, so in love with Christ, so blessed, so united, so willing to imitate Him, so ready to understand one another and to deal with one another, and, though we were almost strangers, through the process of union we have become friends.”

It was toward the end of his talk that the Pope pointed ahead to two significant developments. He referred to the frequent suggestions that a kind of “senate of bishops” be created to assist the Pope in governance, and that “experience will suggest how. . .the earnest and cordial collaboration of the bishops can more effectively promote the good of the Universal Church.” It was this openness that would lead him later to form the so-called synod of bishops, which now Pope Francis is developing further.

The second announcement was that Pope Paul would visit Jerusalem in January, as he wished to be “a pilgrim ourselves in the land of Jesus, our Lord.” The pope said, “Most humbly and rapidly we shall return there as an expression of prayer, penance and renovation to offer to Christ His Church, to summon to this One Holy Church our separated brethren, to implore divine mercy on behalf of peace among men, that peace which shows in these days how weak and tottering it is, and to beseech Christ Our Lord for the salvation of the entire human race.”

As we approach Christmas today, may we also re-commit ourselves as priests and deacons to work collaboratively and collegially with one another in ministry, and to join the Holy Father in offering ourselves to Christ, to implore divine mercy on behalf of peace among all people and for the salvation of the entire human race. May you all have a blessed, prayerful and peaceful Christmas.  

Deacon Ditewig, Ph.D., former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the USCCB, now teaches and ministers in the Diocese of Monterey, Calif. He writes and consults extensively on the subject of the diaconate and contemporary ministry.