A recent volume by Alberto Melloni recounts the solemn opening of Vatican II through the two speeches the pope made on that occasion: the first, in the morning, in St. Peter’s Basilica, entitled Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, to the Council assembly and ecumenical observers; the other, in the evening, which has gone down in history as the “Discourse of the Moon,” to the faithful present at the torchlight procession in St. Peter’s Square. Although they are two different speeches – the first studied, in Latin, the second informal, off the cuff – both outline the reasons for the Council. Framing the two significant allocutions is an unpublished series of episodes and news items, which enrich Melloni’s work.
The announcement of the Council
On January 25, 1959, in the sacristy of St. Paul Outside the Walls, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Pope John, less than three months after his election, surprisingly announced a Diocesan Synod for Rome and the convocation of a General Council of the Church. The cardinals present gasped: they had not envisioned a Council would be summoned by “a transitional pope.” Many believed that, according to the Constitution Pastor Aeternus of Vatican I and its then-current interpretation, Councils were no longer necessary, since the Church had in the papal primacy “the power and grace” to decide everything. The cardinals also knew that that Council had been suspended sine die and some hoped that it would end with a series of condemnations. (Recall, in 1949, the excommunication of the Communists, renewed in 1959 by Cardinal Ottaviani, almost an omen of a future conclusion).