Second Vatican Council

150,000 watch opening council procession

(The following is the complete reprint of a 1962 article run in The Criterion in the final days leading up to the Second Vatican Council)

Criterion logo from the 1960sVATICAN CITY—An estimated 150,000 people jostled and strained to witness the passing of history as the members of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council marched in procession across St. Peter’s Square and into the basilica to begin the council.

This high moment in the Church’s history started at 8:30 a.m. when the long procession of the world’s bishops made their way to the basilica walking in front of His Holiness Pope John XXIII, who was carried on his portable throne.

The Council Fathers had assembled at 8 a.m.: the cardinals in the Vatican’s Hall of Benedictions and the Borgia Apartments; the bishops in the Hall of Inscriptions, and the Pope in the Hall of Vestments. The Pope vested in mantle and jeweled miter, the cardinal bishops in copes, the cardinal priests in chasubles and the cardinal deacons in tunics.

The Oriental Rite patriarchs were vested in the solemn vestments of their own varying rites. The bishops, archbishops and abbot donned white copes. All—cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops and abbots—put on simple white miters with their double pointed crowns rising high on their heads. Oriental Rite prelates wore the episcopal crown, a tall bulbous metal head-dress, richly ornamented [and] modeled after the crown of the Roman Emperor Constantine.

When all were vested, the Pope entered the Pauline Chapel of the Vatican Palace where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed. There he intoned the antiphon, Ave Maris Stella (Hail Star of the Sea), and the solemn procession began.

Walking before the Pope, the long procession wound its way down the Royal Stairs, led by Crucifix and followed by the guards, the laymen and the ecclesiastics of the papal court. Behind them followed the officials of the Vatican’s courts, ministries and offices; then the representations of Religious orders, the abbots, the bishops, archbishops, patriarchs, cardinals and prince assistants at the papal throne—all in finery to befit the solemn event and following the sign of their Saviour.

The procession moved slowly through the great Bronze Doors and into St. Peter’s Square, passing between two lines of the assembled diocesan and religious clergy of Rome. They marched through the huge throng in the square, chanting the fifth-century hymn: “Singular Virgin, make us meek and chaste.”

Those in the front of the procession carried the chant into the basilica through its central door where others, who had already taken their seats, took up the song and sent it ringing through the gilt and brilliantly lighted vaults.

For a full hour the procession passed: every race and color and tongue, every rite, every degree of dignity, every circumstance of human existence, respected and persecuted, affluent and poor—all one in creed, by baptism, in purpose of salvation.

At the end, flanked by the immediate members at his court, borne on his portable throne, came Pope John. He was solemn faced and in prayer, no longer the Angelo Roncalli who walked barefoot to school, but entering this assembly as the supreme judge and legislator on earth of Christ’s Church.

The procession ended as the Pope stepped down from the portable throne and went to the altar erected before the tomb of St. Peter. There he intoned a second hymn, the Veni Creator Spiritus, by which he and all those present who took up the chant implored the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the work now begun.

The Pope went to his throne and Cardinal Eugene Tisserant, Dean of the College of Cardinals, began preparing to celebrate Mass in honor of the Holy Spirit as the assembly continued the hymn: “Enlighten our senses; implant love in our hearts.”

At the end of the Mass the Pope removed his miter and mantle and vested as for Mass. After a ceremony similar to the “dry Mass” of the former Good Friday ritual, the Gospel was read from the podium—the same which was used in the First Vatican Council—and then the book of the Gospels was placed in the center of the altar. It would, in a manner, reign there for the duration of the council.

Now the Fathers of the council went to the papal throne to make their obeisance to the Pontiff: first the cardinals, then the patriarchs, then two each of the archbishops, bishops and abbots representing the whole assembly.

All then in one voice made the profession of faith and recited a prayer together, asking God for the graces necessary to accomplish the work of the council. After the chanting of the litany of the saints, the Gospel was chanted in Greek and in Latin by cardinals, one of the Latin and one of an Eastern Rite.

The ceremony of the opening of the Second Vatican Council concluded with an allocution by the Pope.

After his allocution, the Pope ascended the portable throne and was borne out alone, accompanied only by the members of his personal service. The cardinals, patriarchs and the other council Fathers then filed out without procession.

The Second Vatican Council had now begun. Three years of preparation had come before this day. All the powers of heaven and earth had been summoned to assure a successful outcome of what would follow. What would follow was known only to the mind of God whose Holy Spirit was already at work.

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