It was 55 years ago, namely on Nov. 21, 1964, to be exact, that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council gathered in Saint Peter’s solemnly approved the Decree on Ecumenism. Early on, both Pope Saint John XXIII and his successor, Pope Saint Paul VI, had asked that all conciliar decrees be carefully prepared — with endless revisions and emendations as needed — so that the final text would reflect the greatest consensus possible. In this instance, the vote was 2,137 votes in the “placet” column, namely, “it is pleasing,” with only 11 votes to the contrary. Pope Paul VI formally signed the statement, and each bishop in the Basilica proceeded to follow his example.

That official conciliar statement signaled a major change in the Catholic Church’s attitude toward all the other Christian churches and communities of the world. Cooperation in the work of the Gospel rather than critical condemnation became the guiding principle in their relationships. Differences were not ignored, but the reality of the 95 percent of agreement in the truths of the Gospel and the creeds became the primary focus for their cooperation.

Two years earlier, Archbishop William E. Cousins had invited me into his office to discuss the possibility of further graduate studies in Scripture. The fact is I had been completely happy and very busy in my first assignment to a large suburban parish with some 1,300 youngsters in the parish school. To my surprise, however, upon my arrival in Rome in September 1962, I discovered that I was delighted with the new work at the Biblicum.

In that same autumn of 1962, on the opening day of the Council (Oct. 11, 1962), I made my way to Saint Peter’s Piazza, where I found an elderly Dominican bishop from the Caribbean struggling with a large suitcase of his praying clothes. My offer of help was gladly accepted. I became his “secretary” for the day — and was therefore granted entrance to the Basilica. It was not dishonest, but it was a bit devious.

During his opening homily at the solemn Mass that morning, Pope Saint John XXIII had reiterated the three hopeful purposes of the Council which he had convened: 1) the renewal of the Catholic Church, 2) the reconciliation of all renewed Christian Churches, and 3) the revitalized common evangelization of their shared contemporary world.

At the end of that Mass, Pope John asked everyone present in the Basilica that morning to take a solemn oath “to be faithful to the teachings of the Council, whatever they would be.” It was an enormous act of faith and confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit. For me, things would never be the same again.

About 31 years later, on the Feast of the Ascension (May 25, 1995), Pope Saint John Paul II wrote a very moving encyclical under the title of “That They May be One / Ut Unum Sint.” The Holy Father asked Catholics to take the lead in our common quest for renewed Church unity. He even acknowledged that his own responsibility as Bishop of Rome had often become an obstacle to full and final ecclesial reunion and reconciliation. He humbly asked for help in seeking a new method of exercising his Universal ministry (par #95).

Much progress has been made in our ecumenical journey toward full reconciliation. Christian churches now exist in real though imperfect communion. We regularly join in common prayer for that gift. May we become ever less unworthy of that divine gift.