When Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962, he repudiated “prophets of gloom” who lamented the state of the modern world, and said “… it is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world, which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate.”
The Council was almost a synonym for newness. It is less so now, after fifty years. Of the 2,860 who gathered then, only 70 survive and of those, only 12 were able to attend the golden anniversary celebrations.
Much of the Council’s teaching was warped by a heady optimism. The Council echoed Christ’s promise, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5), but some took that to mean a gullibility about all new things. Optimism as an attitude is a pale imitation of hope, which is based on fact, just as is faith, which is “the realization of what is hoped for and the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1). This is why Pope Benedict XVI chose the anniversary of the Council to begin a Year of Faith. Just as Pope John surprised the crowds in St. Peter’s Square in the moonlit evening of his October 11 by speaking in an informal and grandfatherly way, so did Pope Benedict speak with remarkable spontaneity in the same spot on his October 11:
“Today, too, we carry joy in our hearts, but I would say a joy that is more sober, a humble joy: in these fifty years we have learned and experienced that original sin exists, and that it translates itself into personal sins, which can become structures of sin, given that even in the Lord’s field there are also weeds, that even in Peter’s net there are bad fish, that human weakness is present even in the Church, that the ship of the Church is sailing with a contrary wind, with opposing threats, and sometimes we have thought that ‘the Lord is sleeping and has forgotten us.’”
Pope St. Gregory the Great once spoke of the danger “in the urgency of these barbarous times” of the failure of priests to preach the truth. Our own times, with their many barbarous attacks on the Church and on life itself, disabuse any naïveté about the state of our nation and the world. This is why the Holy Father has summoned a Year of Faith, “not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (1 Peter 3:9). Then, on the evening of the first day of the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict repeated the words of Pope John fifty years ago: “Give a caress to your children and say: this is the caress of the Pope.”