By nine o’clock on the morning of October 12, 1962, a brilliant Italian sun had broken out after a torrential rain. Twenty-four hundred Roman Catholic bishops began a lone procession through St. Peter’s Square toward the Basilica for the solemn opening of the Second Vatican Council. Inside the splendidly appointed church, the bishops took their places in long rows to take part in the ceremony. Near the altar sat observers from other Christian communities invited to attend the council.

Pope John XXIII’s opening address had the character of a Magna Carta. He distanced himself from “prophets of doom” who could see nothing in the modern world but ruin. He invited the bishops to consider whether a new age might not be dawning for the church. Instead of condemning the ills of church and society, he called for a positive presentation of the Christian message based on a new appropriation of the Scriptures and tradition, and on a careful discernment of the needs and opportunities of the day. The basic content of the faith was one thing, he said; how it is presented is another, and the council was a great opportunity for a new, pastorally oriented exercise of the church’s teaching authority.

End of the Counter-Reformation?

Over two years had already gone into the preparation of the council, which John had announced on January 25, 1959. The most extensive consultation of the bishops in the history of the church had produced over nine thousand proposals for the agenda. On this basis, ten preparatory commissions had produced draft-documents for the bishops now to consider. Throughout this work, the prospect of the council had evoked widespread interest, not only among Catholics, but also among other Christians. The pope had regularly insisted ...

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