As the seemingly endless procession filed into St. Peter’s on Thursday, October 11, an audience of global dimensions caught its first glimpse, by television, of the Second Vatican Council. It also received a forecast of what the Council’s course will be.
Cardinal Léger had summed it up in a statement made for newspapermen in Montreal before he left for Rome: “To grasp fully what will happen at the next Council, it is necessary to consider it in terms of the modern world.” In the face of a changing world, the Canadian prelate predicted, “the Council will affirm that it is the will of the Church to meet new needs so that it may fulfill its mission of salvation.” What this spectacle of bishops drawn from a hundred lands and every race and color furnished was a graphic index of the problems posed by the very complexity and diversity, yet growing movement toward unity in today’s world.
Gathering within the Vatican’s precincts, these “fathers” of the Council were a living cross section of contemporary history. As one gazed about he might read, for instance, the troubled story of communism’s threat in the strong countenance of Poland’s Cardinal Wyszynski, the slow pace of exiled Chinese Cardinal Tien or the bowed head of Bishop Hamvas—the first member of the Hungarian hierarchy to reach Rome in 14 years. The emerging nations also had their story told, in the persons of towering Cardinal Rugambwa, Bishop Kiwanuka and other representatives of the relatively new Churches in Africa. And on every side, one saw the impress of the Americas, with more than 300 bishops on hand from Canada and the United States, and almost twice that number from the heavily Catholic nations of Latin America.
But the personnel of the Council at its opening session mirrored more than the diversity of the family of man. The number alone, compared with that assembled at any previous Council, pointed to another highly significant fact about our changing world. For just as there were almost three times as many bishops present as assisted at the start of the First Vatican Council, so the world’s population today far exceeds that of 1869.
More importantly, much of this growth has taken place in recent decades. Indeed, an estimated 600 million out of the present total of 3.1 billion men on earth were born in the past dozen years. And, with the exception of Latin America, the greatest rate of increase has been in lands where Catholics are proportionately few. One man in every three, at the present moment, dwells somewhere behind the Iron Curtain. Yet Catholics account for less than six per cent of that vast mass, and the chances for widespread conversions are slim indeed. More striking still is the estimate that the countries of Asia, in which only four out of a hundred persons are now Catholics, will number one out of every two human beings alive in the year 2000.
This, then, is surely a Council which cannot content itself with looking to the past. Written across the brow of the composite image of the Council projected by those rows of prelates seated in the central church of Christendom was an awareness that it must embrace, in Cardinal Léger’s words, “the interests of all men who believe in man and the moral values that make men great.” Hence, too, as a Council for our times it can be expected to take up mankind’s overarching concerns: “world peace; co-operation among unequally developed peoples; the growth of population; the liberty of man in today’s political, economic and social context.”