By now most people are aware that Pope Benedict XVI has declared that the Church will celebrate a Year of Faith from October 11, 2012 to November 24, 2013. What is the significance of the date October 11th? Interestingly there was a torchlight procession at the opening of Second Vatican Council on October 11th which has an ancient historical background.
In his letter announcing the Year of Faith (Porta Fidei), Pope Benedict XVI notes that many in our world are experiencing a “profound crisis of faith” and are in need of a new encounter with Jesus Christ leading to conversion. The opening of the Year of Faith on October 11, 2012 celebrates two great anniversaries. Fifty years ago, October 11, 1962 was the date of the opening of Second Vatican Council by Blessed Pope John XXIII. This same date, October 11, was chosen by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1992, when he promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Although the Catechism still seems new to some Catholics, it is actually celebrating its 20th anniversary. The Catechism was “requested by the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985 as an instrument at the service of catechesis” (PF 4). Pope Benedict XVI describes the Catechism as an “authentic fruit of the Second Vatican Council” (PF 4). During the Year of Faith the faithful are encouraged to study both the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Celebrating two great anniversaries is important but one might still be curious why Blessed John XXIII and the Fathers of the Council chose the date October 11 in the first place? One of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council was to make changes to the Universal Calendar of the Saints. The Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God was originally celebrated on Oct 11 and this calendar was in effect at the opening of the Council. Clearly the Fathers of the Council wanted to place the work of the council under the patronage of Our Lady. This is only the tip of the iceberg in a more detailed historical story.
The title of “Mary the Mother of God,” or Theotokos, was defined at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. This ecumenical council was called by the Emperor Theodosius II to settle a disagreement which had arisen regarding the teachings of Nestorius the Patriarch of Constantinople, and certain other bishops in the Church regarding the appropriateness of the title Mary, Mother of God. Modern historians dispute the extent to which Nestorius actually believed false notions or whether he simply misspoke in the heat of debate. Clearly he was thought to have believed that there are two persons in the incarnate Jesus Christ. According to Nestorius, Mary is the Mother of the human person Christ or the Christotokos and not of the person of God or the Theotokos. The Church ultimately recognized that the proper understanding of the union of God and man in Jesus Christ was that of two natures in one person. Since Mary gave birth to a person she is rightly called the Mother of God.
Though the Council of Ephesus was filled with contention and ambitious plots by many characters, Nestorius was legitimately deposed by some 200 bishops and failed to recant. He had previously been condemned and ordered to recant by Pope Celestine and a Roman Synod. Perhaps Nestorius’ biggest fault was his lack of humility. Ultimately his failure to recant made him a heretic. The council was subjected to even more political intrigue when the principle council fathers, Cyril of Alexandria and Bishop Memnon of Ephesus, were held under house arrest in Ephesus by the Emperor. Eventually late in October in 431, the Emperor sided with Cyril and declared the council at an end and its judgments valid. It seems that the date of October 11 celebrates the release of St. Cyril of Alexandria from arrest and the close of this Ecumenical Council which declared Mary to be the Mother of God.
Nestorius’ preaching involved sophisticated and nuanced arguments about the meanings of certain words found in Sacred Scripture. The local populace in both Constantinople and Ephesus held to Marian piety with great devotion and rejected Nestorius’ teachings. St. Cyril tells us that during the first session of the council in the city of Ephesus,
The entire populace of the city remained from dawn until evening awaiting the judgment of the holy council. As they heard that the wretched man was deposed everyone with one voice began to praise the holy council and to glorify God because the enemy of the faith had fallen. But as we came out of the church, they preceded us with torches as far as the inn, for the evening was near; and there was much joy and lighting of lights in the city, so that even women carrying censers led the way for us.
(St. Cyril of Alexandria, Letter 24)
This popular celebration of Marian piety at Ephesus was reenacted at the opening of Second Vatican Council, when on the eve of October 11, St. Peter’s Square was filled with a torch light procession. With the help of Catholic Action, organizers of the Council orchestrated a dramatic procession with thousands of people. Blessed Pope John XXIII was greatly moved by this event and gave his famous impromptu speech in which he said: “When you go home, you’ll find your children. Give them a kiss, and tell them that this kiss comes from the pope.”
Our Lady of Ephesus, Pray for us.
Scott McKellar is Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.