VATICAN CITY, DEC. 8, 2005 ( Benedict XVI celebrated the 40th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council, describing the 1960s gathering as "the greatest ecclesial event of the 20th century."

Pope John XXIII inaugurated the ecumenical council in the name of Mary on Oct. 11, 1962. And in the name of the Immaculate Virgin, Pope Paul VI closed it on Dec. 8, 1965, recalled Benedict XVI in a homily today, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. The homily drew applause during the Mass in St. Peter's Basilica.

As a young theologian, Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) made his contribution at Vatican II.

Recalling memories of Vatican II in his homily today, Benedict XVI acknowledged that the moment in which Paul VI proclaimed Mary as Mother of the Church "remains indelible in his memory."

"The [council] fathers suddenly rose spontaneously from their seats and stood applauding, rendering homage to the Mother of God, our Mother, to the Mother of the Church," Benedict XVI recalled.

"Mary not only has a singular relationship with Christ, the Son of God who, as man, willed to become her son," he said. "Being totally united to Christ, she also belongs to us totally."

Mary and the Church

After the Mass, when he prayed the midday Angelus with tens of thousands of people gathered in St. Peter's Square, Benedict XVI reflected further on the relationship between Mary and the Church.

"Mary has watched with maternal care over the pontificates of my venerated predecessors, each of whom guided Peter's bark on the route of authentic conciliar renewal, working incessantly for the faithful interpretation and execution of the Second Vatican Council," he said.

In the Prayer of the Faithful, read in six languages during the Mass, there was prayer in Arabic for justice and peace in the world and in Chinese for "the brothers and sisters visited by suffering of a thousand faces."