55th Anniversary of John XXIII’s Announcement of an Ecumenical Council

Today is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, and this year it marks the 55th anniversary of Blessed John XXIII’s announcement of his intention to convoke an ecumenical council. Some in the curia are perhaps nervous this year, for the Chair of St. Peter is occupied by a man who is as capable of surprise as John XXIII was. With Pope Francis, surprises have come to be expected.

On January 25, 1959 in the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Pope John XXIII shocked the world with his announcement of a council. Only a few months into his short pontificate, John XXIII set the Catholic Church, and all of the Christian world, on a new and exciting course. The Catholic Church was entering the modern world, whether or not the curia was ready.

Pope Francis made his own address today at the concluding Vespers for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. While no new council was called, today was nonetheless eventful. Pope Francis met this morning with an Italian women’s organization, the Italian Women’s Centre, and called for a greater role for women in the church. (But since this doesn’t mean ordination, one wonders what it does mean, since women are already doing much or most of the church’s work at the ground level.)

Pope Francis’ Vespers address reiterated the need for strong ecumenical dialogue. His mention of Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II (anyone missing here?), as well as Pope Paul VI’s meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople, tell us something about what is important to Francis. His support for greater collegiality is seen in his intriguing habit of referring to himself as “Bishop of Rome.”

Below is the text from this evening’s address.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

“Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor 1:13). The urgent appeal which Saint Paul makes at the beginning of his First Letter to the Corinthians, and which has been proclaimed at this evening’s liturgy, was chosen by a group of our fellow Christians in Canada as the theme for our meditation during this year’s Week of Prayer.

The Apostle was grieved to learn that the Christians of Corinth had split into different factions. Some claimed: “I belong to Paul”; while others claimed: “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas”, and others yet claimed: “I belong to Christ” (cf. v. 12). Paul could not even praise those who claimed to belong to Christ, since they were using the name of the one Saviour to set themselves apart from their other brothers and sisters within the community. In other words, the particular experience of each individual, or an attachment to certain significant persons in the community, had become a yardstick for judging the faith of others.

Amid this divisiveness, Paul appeals to the Christians of Corinth “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” to be in agreement, so that divisions will not reign among them, but rather a perfect union of mind and purpose (cf. v. 10). The communion for which the Apostle pleads, however, cannot be the fruit of human strategies. Perfect union among brothers and sisters can only come from looking to the mind and heart of Christ Jesus (cf. Phil 2:5). This evening, as we gather here in prayer, may we realize that Christ, who cannot be divided, wants to draw us to himself, to the sentiments of his heart, to his complete and confident surrender into the hands of the Father, to his radical self-emptying for love of humanity. Christ alone can be the principle, the cause and the driving force behind our unity.

As we find ourselves in his presence, we realize all the more that we may not regard divisions in the Church as something natural, inevitable in any form of human association. Our divisions wound Christ’s body, they impair the witness which we are called to give to him before the world. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, appealing to the text of Saint Paul which we have reflected on, significantly states: “Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communities present themselves to people as the true inheritance of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but they differ in outlook and go their different ways, as if Christ were divided”. And the Council continues: “Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the sacred cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 1).

Christ, dear friends, cannot be divided! This conviction must sustain and encourage us to persevere with humility and trust on the way to the restoration of full visible unity among all believers in Christ. Tonight I think of the work of two great Popes: Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II. In the course of their own lives, both came to realize the urgency of the cause of unity and, once elected to the See of Peter, they guided the entire Catholic flock decisively on the paths of ecumenism. Pope John blazed new trails which earlier would have been almost unthinkable. Pope John Paul held up ecumenical dialogue as an ordinary and indispensable aspect of the life of each Particular Church. With them, I think too of Pope Paul VI, another great promoter of dialogue; in these very days we are commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of his historic embrace with the Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople.

The work of these, my predecessors, enabled ecumenical dialogue to become an essential dimension of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, so that today the Petrine ministry cannot be fully understood without this openness to dialogue with all believers in Christ. We can say also that the journey of ecumenism has allowed us to come to a deeper understanding of the ministry of the Successor of Peter, and we must be confident that it will continue to do so in the future. As we look with gratitude to the progress which the Lord has enabled us to make, and without ignoring the difficulties which ecumenical dialogue is presently experiencing, let us all pray that we may put on the mind of Christ and thus progress towards the unity which he wills.

In this climate of prayer for the gift of unity, I address a cordial and fraternal greeting to His Eminence Metropolitan Gennadios, the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch, and to His Grace David Moxon, the personal representative in Rome of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and to all the representatives of the various Churches and Ecclesial Communities gathered here this evening.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us ask the Lord Jesus, who has made us living members of his body, to keep us deeply united to him, to help us overcome our conflicts, our divisions and our self-seeking, and to be united to one another by one force, by the power of love which the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts (cf. Rom 5:5).


His address is from Vatican Radio.



  1. Thomas Reese says that Francis has made the first mistake in his reform of the Curia by appointing four Curia members cardinals, even though three of those picks are key players in Team Francis:


    This is the first of what will be a regular column by Reese, probably to help fill the void of John Allen leaving. There is much need for some dispassionate sociological analysis of what is going on with Francis, and Reese has the credentials to do that.

    I agree with Reese that in the long run the status of the many of the curia officials needs to be downgraded in order for them to serve the worlds bishops much better. But there are many ways of doing that.

    However, in the short run Francis needs to have reform seen as originating as much from the Cardinals and his Council of Cardinals as from himself. He needs to let the Council of Cardinals, and the greater use of the Consistories and Synods begin to work and set a new framework endorsed by most of the participants. That will let any reforms have a greater chance of survival.

    The mistake of prior reforms of the Curia was to remove the reform from the cardinals and the bishops and keep it with the pope. No matter how the reform is done, that leaves the potential for a future pope to underdo the reform, or simply neglect to keep the Curia in check when it attempts a comeback.

    Some in the curia are perhaps nervous this year.

    Francis also seems to be using his unpredictability, symbolic gestures, and media catching phrases to keep them disorganized while moving slowly enough to give them hopes that it might not be as bad as they fear, or that he might not really accomplish that much.

  2. So interesting that he stresses visible unity. This is a strong indication that he wants to take more decisive steps forward. He has said as much before, that he is concerned that the ecumenical movement has not gone far enough.

    This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther, and I would not be at all surprised if Pope Francis collaborates in some significant way with the Lutherans who wish to heal the wounds of division — to name only one instance.

  3. In the 5th paragraph of his talk Francies refers to two great predecessors, John XXIII and JP II, and later he mentions Paul VI as “a great promoter of dialogue”. Hmm. Conspicuously unmentioned is Benedict the Rigid. Might Francis be starting to prepare us for some significant changes?

  4. 1. As usual, Pope Francis added a few off-the-cuff sentences to his prepared text, and the complete text has now been uploaded at the Vatican site: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/homilies/2014/documents/papa-francesco_20140125_vespri-conversione-san-paolo_en.html

    Among others, he used once again the imagery of everyone “walking and journeying together” to further drive the point home:

    “We have all been damaged by these divisions. None of us wishes to become a cause of scandal. And so we are all journeying together, fraternally, on the road towards unity, bringing about unity even as we walk; that unity comes from the Holy Spirit and brings us something unique which only the Holy Spirit can do, that is, reconciling our differences. The Lord waits for us all, accompanies us all, and is with us all on this path of unity…

    Unity will not come about as a miracle at the very end. Rather, unity comes about in journeying… If we do not walk together, if we do not pray for one another, if we do not collaborate in the many ways that we can in this world for the People of God, then unity will not come about! But it will happen on this journey, in each step we take…

    Which I thought was lovely.

    2. @ Jack Rakosky – comment #1

    “There is much need for some dispassionate sociological analysis of what is going on with Francis, and Reese has the credentials to do that.”

    Fr. Reese may be many things, but “dispassionate” he is, IMO, not. On the contrary, it seems like he’s becoming more and more one of those writers who think, unless the Pope follows their way to a tee, then he’s in the wrong.

    Which is a pity, and a bit surprising too, because he above all people I thought would “get” this pope. Oh well…

  5. If i remember right, Rita, Luther posted his 95 thesis on october 31, 1517. While not infallible and very human, Luther (and previous reformers like Huss, Tyndale and others) had to courage to question the Church’s view on non biblical teachings/doctrines in order to purify and reform the Church. Vat II also reminded us that reform is on-going and the quest for unity must continue with open minds, hands and hearts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.