If tomorrow were not a Sunday, it would be the liturgical feast of Pope Saint John XXIII (1881-1963), who was Pope from 1858 to 1963. He is one of the more recently designated patron saints of the Paulist Fathers and is also the titular patron of the University Parish in Knoxville, where the Paulist Fathers have also ministered since 1973.
Within months of his election, Pope John announced his intention to convoke an ecumenical council – the 21st such council in the Church’s almost 2000-year history. After three years of preparation, the Second Vatican Council opened on October 11, 1962, and concluded four years later on December 8, 1865. The imminent 50th anniversary of the Council’s conclusion will be celebrated as the beginning of the Extraordinary Jubilee, the Holy Year of Mercy.
Mercy in fact has always been at the heart of our Christian experience. In his opening address to the Second Vatican Council on this date in 1962, Pope John XXIII said “the spouse of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than the weapons of severity; and, she thinks she meets today's needs by explaining the validity of her doctrine more fully rather than by condemning” (Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, 16). Then as now, the Church encountered many challenges in fulfilling its mission. As the 14th Ordinary Synod of Bishops meets in Rome these three weeks to discuss “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World,” we would do well to recall something else Saint John XXIII said at the Council’s opening session:
“It often happens, as we have learned in the daily exercise of the apostolic ministry, that, not without offense to Our ears, the voices of people are brought to Us who, although burning with religious fervor, nevertheless do not think things through with enough discretion and prudence of judgment. These people see only ruin and calamity in the present conditions of human society. They keep repeating that our times, if compared to past centuries, have been getting worse. And they act as if they have nothing to learn from history, which is the teacher of life, and as if at the time of past Councils everything went favorably and correctly with respect to Christian doctrine, morality, and the Church's proper freedom. We believe We must quite disagree with these prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster, as if the end of the world were at hand” (Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, 8).
This famous speech by Pope Saint John XXIII often brings my mind back to an earlier Council - very early in the Church's life, long before Nicea even, namely the apostolic Church's early experience of "synodality" in Acts 15. Faced with a situation which the first Christians had apparently not expected and for which it seemed a clear path had not been precisely set for them in advance, they nonetheless were confident that the Risen Lord had given the Holy Spirit to the Church to guide her to a correct solution and that the path to such a solution lay in deliberation and debate. Thus, when the way forward had been identified, it was announced as the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us.