Pope John XXIII's announcement of Vatican ii half a century ago on 25 January 1959 came as a great surprise, unexpectedly crossing the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church. The very next day, the Archbishop of Milan, who in 1963 was to become Pope Paul vi, defined the future Council as "a historical event of prime importance", that is, "important today, for tomorrow; important for human hearts and for the peoples of the world; important for the whole Church and for all humanity".
Cardinal Montini, who followed in the footsteps of his Predecessor, making the Council his own and taking over its guidance a guidance as discreet and patient as it was determined and firm immediately realized the historical and religious potential of Vatican II.
The most enormous assembly ever held in history was conceived and opened by a 78 year-old Pope, a century after the interruption of Vatican i (the Council had been convened by Pius ix when he was almost the same age), courageously bringing into the light of day an idea already tried during the Pontificates of Pius XI and Pius XII.
After the seven years of the preparation and celebration of the Council, (1959-65) the decades of its reception followed, which still is not concluded consider the period necessary for the application of the Decrees of the Council of Trent, which remodelled Catholicism. The same topic of its reception was the theme of a Synod Assembly called in 1985 by John Paul ii, who had been present at the Council as a young Bishop. Its reception has been controversial and difficult due to the effects of the Council's decisions regarding the life of the Church; the liturgy; mission; relationships with other Christian faiths, with Judaism and other religions; the affirmation of religious freedom and the attitude towards the outside world.
The last Pope to have taken full and passionate part in the Council as a young theologian was Benedict XVI. In 2005 he defined the Catholic interpretation of Vatican II. This event must be read not in the light of a discontinuity which, seen in absolute terms, would isolate it from tradition but rather in the light of a reform which opens it to the future. It was a Council that, like all others, must be considered in historical and not mythical terms, inseparable from its texts, which cannot precisely from the historical point of view be set in comparison with a supposed "spirit" of Vatican II.
The good fruits of the Council are innumerable, and among them we can now count the gesture of compassion towards the Bishops excommunicated in 1988. Benedict xvi's limpid offering was a gesture that would have pleased John xxiii and his Successors. A Pope of peace, Benedict has chosen to make the gesture public on the anniversary of the announcement of Vatican ii, with the clear intention of seeing a painful fracture soon healed an intention that will not be overshadowed by the unacceptable negationist opinions and attitudes towards Judaism of some members of the communities to which the Bishop of Rome extends his hand.
Half a century after its announcement, Vatican ii is alive within the Church. And thus, the Council remains in the hands of each of the faithful, so that the testimony throughout the world of those who believe in Christ may be clearer and stronger.
St. Peter’s Square
Nov. 14, 2019
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