Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

A Church Transformed

Oct. 11, 1962

They marched six abreast across the great square like some damask-clad, miter-capped army, the Cardinals in scarlet bringing up the rear. More than 2,600 bishops, the largest such gathering in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, took seats on 330-ft.-long bleachers in St. Peter's Basilica and craned like schoolboys for a view of the farmer's son who had called them here to ... talk. About what? "About everything," one prelate predicted. "And a few things besides."

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, Pope John XXIII, put on his steel-rimmed spectacles and spoke for 38 minutes, after which his invitees went on for three more years. John died after the first session of the Second Vatican Council, but his ideal of the church's aggiornamento, or updating, flowered in unforeseen ways. By the council's end, the bishops turned the priest toward his flock during Mass and allowed its celebration in local languages, concluded it was not the Jews who killed Jesus, and in 16 hotly debated documents wrestled an all-too-medieval institution toward modernity. The wrestling goes on. But on that first afternoon, John talked of the council's "beginning to rise in the church like the daybreak, the forerunner of the most splendid light." And the dawn was indeed inspiring, even if full illumination still tarries.