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Exploring the Mystery of the Church

Exploring the Mystery of the Church

Address of Pope Paul VI at the Close of the Third Session of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council November 21, 1964

At the end of two months of fraternal activity and effort, Venerable Brethren, let us offer thanks to God for the successful celebration of this Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, whose hard-working third session we are bringing to a close with this solemn and sacred gathering. We are overcome by the need to tell God that we are happy and mindful of His very special blessing in having allowed us to be present for this historic and providential event and, even more, humbly and happily to play the principal roles, in giving it force, meaning, and fullness. We really ought to feel as if the Lord's words had been spoken directly to us: "Blessed are your eyes for they see: and your ears for they hear!"


Here before our mind's eye is the Holy Church of God, represented by the Bishops, with their own flocks close by; this Church that has been divinely called together through the medium of Our voice. Here is the Catholic hierarchy, whose role it is to form and rule the holy people of God. It comes together here in one place, working with one mind, with one prayer, with one faith, with one charity on its lips and in its heart.

No greater sight

Look at this incomparable gathering. We never cease to admire it, nor can We ever forget it, for it strives for the glory of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and is intent upon recalling the lofty message of Revelation and examining its true and profound meaning. Look at these men gathered together into a body detached like no other from interest in its own gain and in vain things; striving like no other to give witness to the divine truth. These are men who are weak and subject to error, but who are firmly convinced that the truths they declare can in no way be called into question or perish; men, we say, of this day and age, sons of this earth, but raised up above time and place to take on their shoulders the burdens of their brethren, and to lead them to spiritual salvation; men with the will to give of themselves completely, inflamed with a love that is bigger than the hearts in which it burns, intent upon an effort that may seem rash but is marked by a serene confidence, to inquire into the meaning of human life and history and to give them force, magnitude, beauty, and unity in Christ only in Christ the Lord! All these things stir our admiration, Venerable Brethren, and the admiration of men gazing at us from outside. Could we ever behold a greater, more religious, more solemn sight, one more likely to stir men's souls?


And our joy grows, here in the final moments of this session of the Council, when we recall the matters that have been discussed and decided: the doctrine on the Church has been dealt with and explained. In this way, the work of the First Ecumenical Council of the Vatican has been completed, as far as doctrine is concerned. The mystery of the Church and the divine plan for its basic structures has been explored.

We say once again, let us give thanks to God for this happy outcome and let us with good reason allow our hearts to swell with joy. From now on it will be easier for us to understand God's mind as far as the mystical Body of Christ is concerned. We can draw upon this knowledge for clearer and surer guiding principles, for greater strength to help the Church's unceasing efforts to bring men to salvation, and for greater hope for the progress of Christ's kingdom in the world. And so, let us bless the Lord!

Painstaking revisions

There is a great deal to be said about the work that has been done: the devoted and exacting efforts to see to its full agreement with the truth of the Sacred Books and with genuine Church tradition; the labors to uncover the intimate nature and basic truth of the Church as it is constituted, in order to draw a distinction between what is unchanging and certain and what has developed from the principles according to a natural and legitimate process; finally, the effort to cast light from every angle upon the mystery of the Church so that light might be cast in a suitable fashion on the life of the Mystical Body of Christ, with all its parts, all its functions, all the goals it pursues.

Studying the episcopate

But the most difficult and memorable point in this spiritual labor had to do with the doctrine of the episcopate. We have good reason, then, to say a little about what We think on this particular matter.

We want to confess, first of all, that We were very pleased that this doctrine was made the subject of such full study and ample discussion, and that clear conclusions were reached. This was needed to complete the work of the First Ecumenical Council of the Vatican. And the right time had come. Witness the great advance in theological studies in our day, the spread of the Catholic Church throughout the world, the questions being raised for the Church in the everyday pastoral ministry, and finally the desires of many bishops who were looking forward to clarification of the doctrine pertaining to them.

Moreover, the way in which it was done was fitting, so that, taking into account the explanations that have been added to interpret the words used and to give the doctrine proposed its proper theological force according to the mind of the Council We do not hesitate, with God's help, to promulgate this Constitution on the Church.

Traditional doctrine made explicit

The best commentary that can be made on this promulgation seems to be that traditional doctrine has in no way been changed by it. What Christ wanted is what we want. That which was remains. What the Church has taught for centuries is what we teach. The only difference is that something that up to now could be found only in the vital activity of the Church is now clearly expressed as doctrine. Something that was a subject of consideration, dispute and partly even of controversy has been set forth in a doctrinal formula that is certain. We can declare that, in God's providential plans, a brilliant hour has shone upon us: an hour, We say, whose past approach was gradual, whose brilliance shines forth today, whose salvific power will surely enrich the future life of the Church with a new growth in doctrine, with increased powers, with better-suited means and instruments.

The holy people of God

It is also good to take note of the honor that this Constitution pays to the people of God. For nothing can please Us more than solemnly acknowledging the dignity of all Our brethren and Our sons who go to make up the holy people. The whole ministry of the sacred hierarchy has as its goal their vocation, their sanctification, their guidance, their eternal salvation.

And We are consoled just as much by what this Constitution has to say about Our brethren in the episcopate. How happy We are to see their dignity solemnly declared, their role celebrated, their power acknowledged! What profound thanks We offer God for happily making Us the one to adorn the sacred dignity of your ministry and the fullness of your priesthood with their due honor, and to affirm the mutual and binding relationship that exists between Us and you, Venerable and beloved Brethren.

The Supreme Pontiff's role

We were pleased and edified to note that the singular, universal, primary role that Christ the Lord conferred upon Peter and that is transmitted to his successors, the Roman Pontiffs an office that We fill today, despite Our unworthiness, is acknowledged often and at length in the solemn document We have just promulgated, and it is treated with reverence. This cannot help but please Us not because of the dignity that comes to Us from it, since We are awed by such a great office rather than being avidly desirous, of it, but because of the honor thus paid to the words of Christ, because of the harmonious confirmation of sacred tradition and the ecclesiastical magisterium that is involved, and finally because of the approval and support thus given to the work of safeguarding Church unity as well as to the consistent and effective action in directing the Church that absolutely must be guaranteed.

It was of supreme importance that these prerogatives of the Supreme Pontiff be clearly and definitively acknowledged at a time when the question of episcopal authority in the Church was being resolved, so as to make it clear that this authority is in no way opposed to but rather in full accord with the power of the Vicar of Christ and Head of the episcopal college, according to the nature of the Church as it is constituted.

Brother to the bishops, and their head

Because of this close connection based on the very nature of things, the episcopacy is a kind of single coherent body, finding in the Bishop who is the Successor of Blessed Peter not a different, external power, but rather its head and as it were its center. So We are impelled to be especially anxious to proclaim your rights together with Our own, to rejoice at the increase in them, to defend their preeminence, and to bring them as well as Our own to perfection.

For this reason, when We acknowledge the full force and effectiveness of the episcopal office, We can see growth in the communion of faith, charity, work, and mutual aid around Us. And so when We acknowledge and extol your authority, We have no fear that Our own will be diminished or impeded. Instead, We feel stronger because of the union of minds that makes us brothers. Again, We become better fitted to rule the universal Church when We know that each of you is working along with Us toward the same goal. Finally, We feel more confident of the aid of Jesus Christ when we are all more closely associated with each other in His name, and so We want us to be joined together in the future.

New uses for episcopal talents

It is not easy to say right now what effects the application of this doctrine will have in practice, but it is not difficult to foresee that it will be rich in spiritual insights and produce new canonical structures. The Ecumenical Council will end with the coming fourth session. But a number of post-conciliar commissions will have to be established to bring its decrees into effect, and obviously the episcopate will have to lend a hand in guiding and directing them.

Again, in handling those matters of general importance that are almost the mark of our times and are constantly arising, We will be prepared to summon some of you who will be chosen, at specified times, Venerable Brethren, to make use of your advice. Thus, We will not lack the consolation of your presence, the help of your wisdom and experience, the support of your counsel, and the voice of your authority. This will also be useful since the Roman Curia, whose reorganization is now undergoing careful study, will be able to make use of the experience of Shepherds of dioceses. Its functions, which are already being carried out effectively because of faithful service, may thus be perfected, with the help of the wisdom and charity of prelates from various parts of the world.

Difficulties inherent but not insuperable

With respect to carrying this into practice, the increase in the number of those offering opinions and voting may create a certain amount of difficulty, since there are greater problems when many people are involved than there are with a few individuals. But if this is more in keeping with the nature of the Church, which is at one and the same time monarchial and hierarchical, and if Our work will be lightened because of your aid, then we will overcome with wisdom and charity the difficulties inherent in a more complex organization of ecclesiastical government.

Clearer image of Church

We like to hope that the doctrine on the mystery of the Church that the Second Vatican Council has spelled out and proclaimed will now bring a great deal of good to the souls of men, and especially of Catholics. We mean by this that We hope that all the faithful will get a clearer picture of the true image of the Spouse of Christ; that they will come to see the beauty of their mother and teacher; that they will see the simplicity and majesty of this venerable institution. We hope that they will gaze upon this miracle, as it were, of historical faith, of outstanding social life, and of wonderful laws, this sign that points to steady progress in which the divine and human are so closely united as to make the plan of the Incarnation and the Resurrection abundantly clear in the society of men who believe in Jesus Christ, and, as St. Augustine puts it, to make the whole Christ, our Savior, abundantly clear.

There should be special exultation and joy about this most joyful of spectacles on the part of those who steadfastly profess Christian perfection in a unique way, the men and women Religious who are the finest members, the unselfish defenders, the beloved children of the Church.

And there should also be joy about this spectacle on the part of those of Our Brothers and Sons who live in areas where a just and dignified freedom of religion is either completely denied or else so restricted even now that they must be listed as part of what we have to call the Church of silence or of tears. They too will be delighted by the magnificent doctrine that sheds light upon the Church to which they give such splendid testimony by the hardships they undergo and the faith they display. Those who are doing so are achieving supreme glory, like to that of Christ, the victim for men's Redemption.

Ecumenical overtones

We hope that this doctrine on the Church will be received in a calm and friendly fashion by our brothers in Christ who are now separated from us. How We would like to see this doctrine which is rounded out by the explanations contained in the schema on Ecumenism which this Council has likewise approved stir their souls, like a kind of leaven of love, to acknowledge its counsels and its proposals in such a way that they would be moved more and more toward our communion and, finally, through the gift of God, be our equals in it.

But in the meantime, spurred on by this doctrine, it brings Us the greatest joy to note that the Church is not contracting but rather extending the boundaries of her charity when she traces out her profile, and that she is not repressing the many-sided activity of her catholicity, as it is called. Instead she is always moving forward, she is always inviting.

At this point We ask that the observers, who are delegates of Churches or Christian confessions separated from us, permit Us to offer Our respectful greetings and to express Our gratitude to them for coming to the Council meetings. We extend also Our best wishes for their prosperity.

The Church in the world

Finally, We want the sacred teaching on the Church to cast some reflection of her joyful light on the secular world in which she lives and which surrounds her; for she should show herself to be the sign raised among the nations to give safe guidance to all on their way toward truth and life.

The explanations of this doctrine fully comply with the strict methods and terminology of sacred theology, which puts its approval on them and preaches them. Still, as everyone can see, they are not forgetful of the human race, all of which either makes up the Church or else creates the historical and social circumstances of time and place in which she carries on her divine mission. The Church was established for the sake of the human race. The Church claims no other earthly authority for herself than that which permits her to serve men and love them.

When the Holy Church strives to improve her way of thinking and her structure, she is not separating herself from the customs and ways of the men among whom she lives. Instead she is striving to understand them better, to share in their hardships and their legitimate desires, to support their efforts to achieve prosperity, liberty, and peace.

The dialogue and exchange that has been undertaken will be continued during the closing part of the Council. The schema On Religious Liberty, which could not be dealt with at the end of this session simply because of a lack of time, and the schema On the Church in the Modern World, which sets a kind of crown on the Council's work and which was taken up briefly during this session, are to be completely worked out in the coming final session.


And now, before We bring our words to a close, another intention comes to mind. We cannot help turning Our thoughts in the sincere and grateful spirit befitting sons to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, to her whom We gladly regard as a protectress of this Council, a witness of our labors, a most loving counselor. From the beginning, the Council sessions were entrusted to her patronage and to that of St. Joseph.

In this same spirit we paid tribute together last year to the Dear Mother of God when We gathered in the Liberian Basilica to venerate the picture that bears the glorious name of Salus Populi Romani.

The chapter crowning the Constitution

This year the Council wants to show her an honor that is much more magnificent and meaningful. In today's promulgation of this Constitution on the Church with a whole chapter on the Blessed Virgin Mary as its crowning point we can rightly assert that this session has ended with an incomparable hymn in praise of the Virgin Mother of God. For this is the first time and it moves Us deeply to say this that any ecumenical council has taken the Catholic doctrine on the place that should be accorded to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the mystery of Christ and of the Church, and has brought it all together in a single very extensive body of doctrine.

This is fully in keeping with the aims of this Council, since it is striving to show the true visage of the Holy Church, to which the Mother of God is so closely joined and of which she is, as has been said so well, "the greatest portion, the best portion, the main portion, the most chosen portion."

Mary's links to Church

For the Church is not constituted just by her hierarchical order, her sacred liturgy, her sacraments, her institutional structure. Her inner vitality and peculiar nature, the main source of her effectiveness in sanctifying men, is to be found in her mystical union with Christ. We cannot conceive of this union apart from she who is the Mother of the Incarnate Word, and whom Christ so intimately associated with Himself in bringing about our salvation.

And so when we examine the Church, we ought to contemplate with a loving spirit the wonderful things that God has done in His Holy Mother. Knowledge of true Catholic doctrine on the Blessed Virgin Mary will always be an effective aid to proper understanding of the mystery of Christ and the Church.

A title of honor chosen

Our consideration of the close connections that exist between Mary and the Church, and that have been so clearly explained in this conciliar Constitution, leads Us to feel that this solemn moment is the most opportune time for Us to fulfill a wish that We indicated at the end of the last session. Many Fathers have since taken it up in the form of requests that the maternal role that the Blessed Virgin Mary fulfills with regard to the Christian people be proclaimed at this Council in explicit terms. For this reason, it seems good to Us to introduce with due ceremony at this public gathering a title honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary, a title that has been requested by various parts of the Catholic world and one that is particularly acceptable and pleasing to Us. With wonderful brevity, it expresses the lofty place in the Church which this Council has acknowledged as proper to the Mother of God.

The declaration

And so, for the glory of the Blessed Virgin and our own consolation, We declare Mary Most Holy to be the Mother of the Church, that is of the whole Christian people, both the faithful and the bishops, who call her a most loving Mother. We decree that from now on the whole of the Christian people should use this sweetest of names to pay more honor to the Mother of God and to pour out their prayers to her.

It is a name that is not unusual as far as Christian devotion is concerned, Venerable Brethren. As a matter of fact, it is under this name of Mother in particular that the faithful and the whole Church prefers to call upon Mary. This name goes with a genuine understanding of devotion to Mary, since it is firmly based on the dignity Mary has as Mother of the Incarnate Word of God.

Mother of Christ, hence of the Church

For just as the divine Maternity is the cause of Mary's singular relationships with Christ and the reason for her being involved in Christ's work of the salvation of mankind, so too the divine Maternity is the source of those relationships that exist between Mary and the Church; since Mary is the Mother of Christ, who, as soon as He took on a human nature in her virginal womb, united to Himself as its Head His Mystical Body which is the Church. And so Mary, as the Mother of Christ, must be regarded as the Mother of all the faithful and the bishops, which means of the Church.

This is the reason why we turn to her eyes that are unworthy and weak and yet burning with confidence and with filial love. She who once gave Us Jesus, the font of heavenly grace, cannot fail to lend her maternal aid to the Church, especially now when the Spouse of Christ is striving to carry out her salvific mission with renewed zeal.

Daughter of Adam, but mirror of all virtues

The close bonds that exist between our heavenly Mother and the human race incline Us even more toward fostering and strengthening this trust. For, despite the extensive and wonderful gifts that God has heaped upon her to make her a worthy Mother of the Incarnate Word, Mary is still close to us. Like us, she is a daughter of Adam, and hence our sister too, because of the human nature We have in common. True, she was preserved free from original sin because of the future merits of Christ, but she added the example of her own perfect faith to the gifts received from God, so as to merit the Gospel encomium: "Blessed art thou, for having believed."

In this mortal life, she showed herself the perfect image of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. She was the mirror of all virtues and she took the beatitudes that were preached by Christ Jesus and reproduced them to the full in her own life. As a result, the universal Church, in developing the many sides of its life and activity, finds the definitive model for perfect imitation of Christ in the Virgin Mother of God.

Inspiring new devotion and charity

And so after due promulgation of the Constitution on the Church, upon which We have set a kind of crown by declaring Mary to be Mother of all the faithful and of the bishops, that is, of the Church, We trust that the Christian people will be sure to call upon the Most Blessed Virgin with greater confidence and more fervent devotion, and will show her the honor and devotion that is due her.

As for ourselves, just as we answered the invitation of Our predecessor, John XXIII and first entered this Council hall together "with Mary, the Mother of Jesus'" let us set forth too in the most holy and most sweet name of Mary, the Mother of the Church.

As testimony to your gratitude for Mary's maternal help so kindly bestowed upon us in the course of this session, Venerable Brothers, let each of you strive to extol the name and the honor of Mary all the more among the Christian people, and propose her as an example to be imitated in faith, in prompt compliance with every impulse of heavenly grace, and finally in conforming one's life completely to the precepts of Christ and the inspiration of charity. All the faithful, united by the name of the Mother they have in common, may thus feel ever more firmly rooted in the faith and in following Christ Jesus, and may be enflamed with a more ardent charity toward their brethren, fostering love of the poor, zeal for justice, and the safeguarding of peace. As the great St. Ambrose so well advised, "let the soul of Mary be in each individual to magnify the Lord; let the spirit of Mary be in each individual to rejoice in God."

Clear explanation essential

We especially want it brought out clearly that Mary, the humble handmaiden of the Lord, is completely ordained toward God and toward Christ Jesus, our one Mediator and Redeemer. We also want a clear explanation given of the true nature and the purpose and direction of proper devotion to the Virgin Mary. This is especially important in those regions where there are many people who are separated from us, Brethren, so that all those who are living outside the bosom of the Catholic Church will fully understand that devotion to the Virgin Mother of God does not stop with her, but has to be regarded as a help which of its very nature leads men to Christ and joins them with the Eternal Father of the heavens in the bond of the charity of the Holy Spirit.

Golden Rose to Fatima

As We turn in ardent prayer to ask the Blessed Virgin Mary to pray for the Ecumenical Council and for the Holy Church, and to hasten the longed-for time when all followers of Christ will again be united to each other, Our eyes turn to the whole world and reach out to its vast stretches the world to which this Ecumenical Council intends to devote great and loving consideration and care, the very world which Our predecessor, Pius XII, not without heavenly inspiration, solemnly dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of the Virgin Mary. We have decided that it is only right for Us to commemorate this very holy act of devotion in a special way here today. And so, with this in mind, We have decided to send a special mission in the near future to bring the Golden Rose to the church at Fatima, so very dear to the people of the noble Portuguese nation whom We have always loved, and love especially today but also known and venerated by all the faithful of the Catholic family. In this way We commit the human race, its difficulties and anxieties, its just aspirations and ardent hopes, to the protection of our heavenly Mother.

Petitions to Mary

O Virgin Mother of God, most august Mother of the Church, We commend the whole Church and the Ecumenical Council to thee.

Thou who dost bear the sweet name of "Help of Bishops," keep the bishops in thy care and be at their side, and at the side of the priests, religious, and laity who offer them help in sustaining the difficult work of the pastoral office.

Thou whom the Divine Savior thy Son, gave from the Cross as a most loving Mother to the disciple whom He loved, remember the Christian people who commit themselves to thee.

Be mindful of all thy children; join to their prayers thy special power and authority with God; keep their faith whole and lasting, strengthen their hope, enkindle their charity.

Be mindful of those who find themselves in hardship, in need, in danger, and especially of those who are suffering persecution and are being kept in chains because of their Christian faith. Ask for strength of soul for them, Virgin Mother, and hasten the longed-for day of their rightful liberation.

Turn thine eyes of mercy toward our separated brethren, and may it please thee that one day we be joined together once again thou who didst give birth to Christ, the bridge and the artisan of unity between God and men.

O temple of spotless and never-fading light, beseech thy Only-Begotten Son, through whom we have now been reconciled with the Father, to be merciful when we go astray, to do away with discord of all kinds, to bring our minds the joy of loving brethren.

We commend the whole human race to thy Immaculate Heart, O Virgin Mother of God. Lead it to acknowledge Christ Jesus, the one true Savior. Drive from it all the calamities provoked by sin. Bring it peace, which consists in truth, justice, liberty, and love.

Finally, grant the universal Church that, in celebrating this great Ecumenical Council, it may succeed in raising up a solemn hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God, a hymn of joy and exultation, for He that is mighty has done great things for thee, O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

-- Reported in L'Osservatore Romano, November 22, 1964. Latin text. Translation prepared for The Pope Speaks by Very Rev. Austin Vaughan.

Reprinted with the permission of Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750

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