Dear Fellow Parishioners,
October is significant – especially this year – for three anniversaries: the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Loma Prieta Earthquake. Though they differ in character, they are important dates for those who lived through them, and whose effects continue to this day.
October 11th was the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, only the second great council since the Reformation in the 1500’s. The first, Vatican I (1869-70), was suspended prematurely due to the Franco–Prussian War. Its closing was not officially declared until 1960, after Vatican II had been announced. Vatican I defined Papal Infallibility, but left the status of bishops and the episcopacy undefined – which remained one of the expectations of Vatican II.
After St. John XXIII stated in 1959 his intent to call a church council, there was a 3-1/2 year preparation period before it could begin. The first document approved at the first session of the Council – on Liturgy – affected Catholics world-wide perhaps more dramatically than any other document in the three remaining annual sessions of the Council until its closure in 1965, and continues to be a point of controversy today.
St. John XXIII gave the opening address to the bishops, cardinals and others in attendance. It is still worth reading today:
“In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, We sometimes have to listen, much to Our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times, they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, nonetheless, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils, everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty. We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.”
Those last words became prophetic when, five days later, the Cuban Missile Crisis began. Over the following week, the crisis was revealed to the world as a moment of maximum nuclear danger. At that moment, Good Pope John was like a pastor to the world at the abyss, as a personal witness of God’s goodness and an assurance that the world would not destroy itself.
The third “October surprise” was the Loma Prieta Earthquake on October 18, 1989, which caused damage to churches, homes, businesses and bridges, as well as permanent changes to the Bay Area landscape.
These historical events are still relevant today: nuclear threats are again resurfacing and earthquakes are always a possibility. The history of Vatican II reminds us that 60 years for the Church are as brief as “a watch in the night,” and that the Church will not arrive at a settled interpretation of Vatican II during our lifetimes. Above all, history enables us to see more clearly the hand of Providence, which is “directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs.”
Fr. Bill Donahue