Last month, we considered the call to find a “new way of thinking” (John Paul II) about our ministries as priests and deacons. However, this new way of thinking is no mere cognitive category; rather, it should inform and inspire our concrete daily actions. To continue this reflection, let us begin with the 50th anniversary of the opening of the second session of the Second Vatican Council, which occurred on Sept. 29, 1963.
The previous June, Pope John XXIII had died on Pentecost Sunday. Pope Paul VI had been elected and announced that the Council would continue; he even moved up the date of the opening session to signal his own enthusiasm for the Council and its work. He even moved up the date of the opening session to signal his own enthusiasm for the Council and its work. The former Cardinal Montini explained that he chose the name “Paul” to signal his dedication to spreading the Gospel to the whole world. Pope Paul, an experienced Vatican hand, took strong steps to streamline the rules governing the administration of the Council, included the Roman Curia as subject of reform, and expanded the number of official observers to the Council.
Pope Paul’s speech opening the second session is important because it reflects his own vision and priorities for the Council. In his lengthy speech, the Pope made four points. First, the Council needed to recommit itself to its relationship with Christ and proclaim that relationship clearly within the Church and to the world. Second, the Church must renew and reform herself as necessary, “by stripping itself of what is unworthy or defective,” and he used the image of pruning a vine in a way that preserves the fruitful nature of the vine while removing things that will prevent its future growth. His third point addressed the goal of Christian unity and, in a dramatic gesture, he turned to the area where the Protestant observers were seated and addressed them directly: “If we are to blame in any way for that separation, we humbly beg God’s forgiveness and ask pardon, too, of our brethren who feel themselves to have been injured by us.” This was a stunning and unprecedented act. Finally, the Pope’s fourth point referred to the relationship between the Church and the modern world. He spoke of the bishops unable to be present because of religious persecution, and he boldly proclaimed, “The Church today stands ready to aid the oppressed, the poor, and the suffering. Let the world realize that the Church looks on it with profound understanding and sincere admiration, with the frank desire not to conquer but to serve, not to despise but to appreciate, not to condemn but to comfort and save.”
That speech affirmed many of the ideas expressed by some of the Fathers during the first session of the Council; it further inspired the deliberations of the rest of the Council. One concrete example was the renewal of a diaconate permanent exercised, which was debated and voted upon during this second session. Many of the Fathers, in their interventions on the diaconate, referred to some of the same points made by the Pope in his speech: that a renewed diaconate would be a concrete expression of a servant Church in the contemporary world. In a previous article in Liturgical Ministry (Winter 2004), I once described the deacon as a “voice of lament and link to thanksgiving and justice.” While every Christian is called to serve and care for “the other,” we who are ordained carry the additional responsibility for apostolic leadership in service: inspiring, empowering and supporting concrete initiatives that “serve, appreciate, comfort and save.” This is a particular responsibility of the deacon, living as he does with one foot in secular society and the other in the sanctuary.
We have come far in the 50 years since Pope Paul VI challenged and inspired the Council to action; we still have much more to do. TP