Courage, patience and discernment needed to meet challenge of Vatican II

With its mission to update the life of the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council was a seminal event of the 20th century. Fifty years on from the closing of the council, an important new book considers its scope and impact in Ireland. One of the contributors, Baroness Nuala O’Loan, explains why Vatican II continues to be profoundly relevant

Baroness Nuala O’Loan with Niall Coll, editor of Ireland & Vatican II, in St Mary’s University College, Belfast. Picture by Declan Roughan
Baroness Nuala O’Loan with Niall Coll, editor of Ireland & Vatican II, in St Mary’s University College, Belfast. Picture by Declan Roughan

WHEN Fr Niall Coll came and asked me to write about Vatican II for a book he was proposing, I could see no real purpose to it.

The Second Vatican Council has been discussed, written about, dismissed and derided. In a way, with its 16 documents, it was history.

I quickly found out, not for the first time, that I was very wrong, and it was a great pleasure to be able to speak at the subsequent launch of the finished book, Ireland & Vatican II - Essays Theolgical, Pastoral and Educational. It seems to me to be a very fine book - excepting, of course, my own chapter...

As I spoke at the Dublin launch, Fr Gerry Reynolds was among those standing in front of me. His sudden death left an empty space at the Belfast launch in St Mary's University College just a week later.

He has a chapter in the book - the story of his ecumenical journey over the 33 years of his Belfast ministry.

It is good that he wrote this account at this time. It is redolent of the faith and gentle all-encompassing love of the man.

Fr Gerry knew a lot of sorrow in his 33 years here, and he felt the pain of others acutely.

I remember once, many years ago, meeting him on the Shankill Road.

We were on a common mission - he walking down the road, I walking up the road to our destination.

As we met and talked of what had happened there were tears in his eyes - not for his pain, though that was palpable, but for the pain he had encountered that day.

He was a selfless, compassionate, determined and truly good priest. May his gentle soul rest in peace. We miss him.

This book articulates the journey made by the Irish people - a people of faith, losing faith, moving on from faith, keeping the faith.

Characters from the past are vividly described, occasionally not in very positive terms, and there are clear differences of opinions between contributors.

It is an eclectic mix of writers, some Catholic, and some not Catholic: a professor of human rights law and other academics, teachers, priests, a chaplain, a journalist, the principal of Belfast Bible College and a Church of Ireland Archbishop.

They articulate a range of views and understanding of the story of Vatican II, of the times before it and of the times that followed. There are some very profound contributions.

In his introduction Fr Coll tells us that he wants to explore the Council's impact in Ireland in the time since 1965 and to anticipate its relevance for the decades ahead.

He describes the book as "a response to the new impetus that Pope Francis is giving to the Church's pastoral application of the Council".

As I did my research and pondered on what I would write, the first thing that struck me was the coincidence that the two Popes - John XXIII and Francis - have much in common: both old, both in somewhat frail health, both energised by the plight of the poor, the marginalised and the deprived and both determined to challenge the Church to face up to uncomfortable realities.

John XXIII said "the greatest concern... is... that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously... that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers... from the renewed, serene, and tranquil adherence to all the teaching of the Church".

The recent experience of the Synod on the Family tells us that Francis could as easily have said these words.

Despite the concerns of the arch-conservatives, Francis has shown himself faithful to doctrine.

Although we do not yet know how he intends to resolve some of the pastoral problems which ordinary priests face and which, indeed, Francis himself as a priest and bishop faced, I am sure he will find a way forward.

Fr Coll talks of how Gerald O'Collins identified nine invitations from the 16 documents which articulate the Vatican II vision: be liturgical; be committed to the needy; be biblical; be priestly, prophetic and kingly; be Jesus-centred; be in dialogue; be reformers; be collegial; be in touch with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints.

They are as compelling today as they were 50 years ago and, when one reflects on them, one may wonder to what extent we heeded the invitations of those 16 documents.

The book is presented in three sections. Part I is retrospective, looking at the experience and history of Vatican II, part II discusses theological, pastoral and social issues and part III Catholic education.

Fr Oliver Rafferty presents his reflection in the context of the fact that "the Irish are gradually rejecting the faith of the Church and in a sense making the Council and its work increasingly irrelevant in modern Ireland".

Indeed, even the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, has said that Catholics will survive in Ireland only as a "culturally irrelevant minority".

I have to disagree with the Archbishop. We may turn out to be a minority, but experience across the world would suggest that Catholicism is never culturally irrelevant.

Rafferty's description of what religious practice actually looked like pre-Vatican II has a real ring of truth to it: "Undoubtedly, on the eve of the Council and for long afterwards people did go to Church in large numbers.

"Yet the spectacle in rural areas of groups of men huddled outside the church building, while their wives and children performed their liturgical duties, might indicate that a certain ecclesiastical conformism, touching as it did issues of the normative patterns of social behaviour rather than a deep hold of the Christian faith, was the hallmark of Catholic Ireland.

"The fact of full churches and a passive and conformist laity gave rise, on the part of ecclesiastical officialdom, to a certain complacency and even arrogance."

Do those of you who are as old as me recognise that picture? It is not the whole truth but it is truth.

Rafferty talks of the lack of serious theology and the absence of world class theologians in Ireland: "This lacuna is epitomised in the well known story of one Irish bishop's reaction to Vatican II that it was 'all a bit of a waste of time. They talked of nothing but theology'."

It is unfortunate that the voice of the bishops is not heard in the book, though I know an episcopal contribution was sought.

Fr Coll talks of "the worrying traditional reticence of Irish Catholics to speak publicly of their personal experience of God, and Irish Catholicism's marked lack of an adequate, sustaining theological culture".

There clearly is still much scope for episcopal leadership in communicating faith.

In some ways Vatican II was like a whirlwind. There was concern about what it all meant.

There are several references to Archbishop Charles McQuaid's statement when he came back and spoke in the pro-cathedral in Dublin reassuring his people that "no change will worry the tranquillity of your Christian lives... the Holy Father will instruct us how to put into effect the enactments of the Council. With complete loyalty... we fully accept each and every decree of the Vatican council".

This statement causes amusement, derision even, yet in some ways it was consistent with the words of John XXIII which I have already quoted.

Maybe we have taken it out of context. Maybe in the turbulence after Vatican II he was simply trying to reassure people about the eternal verities.

But the change over the past 50 years in Church practice and process has been as rapid and as dramatic as all the other societal changes to which many of the authors in this book refer.

Think back for a moment to those pre-Vatican II days. Think of the Latin liturgy, of Mass celebrated by a priest facing the altar, his back to the people, speaking a language few understood - though they learned the responses very often in harsh environments, and the harshness of some of our Catholic schools, like so many others, has been well articulated since Vatican II.

Think of the mother and baby homes, of children taken away from their unmarried parents, of children born outside marriage being unable to become priests and religious, second class citizens for life; think of weekly ritual confession, of the prohibition on entering churches other than our own, of the Ne Temere decree, of the children like me who were told that they could join the Protestant Girl Guides because there were no Catholic ones, but they must not in any circumstances pray the Our Father with them...

Think of the failure to teach us to love and read the Bible, of the conceptualisation of women either as good mothers or alternatively an Eve-like source of temptation, so that their hair must always be covered in church lest they be a source of distraction...

All this was the product of pre-Vatican II thinking and all disappeared now as we live in a totally different world.

Paul Andrews, now 88 years old and possibly the oldest contributor, in a thoughtful and honest, yet gentle, discourse says: "When I heard him open the Council with a warning against 'the prophets of doom', I felt an almost unbelieving joy: perhaps the Good News would get a hearing at last. No single piece of news from Rome moved me as much as this."

And after the Council he talks too of the turbulence and of the problems of the new liturgical translations.

He does not pull his punches: "The hapless clerics who tried to put English on the Mass seem to have assumed that their readers would be postdoctoral academics."

We still have a long way to go.

Fr Eddie McGee talks of participation in liturgy, Fr Feidhlimidh T Magennis of the richness of scripture and reactions to its current availability, and of the day when we will be a Church "hearing the word of God with reverence and proclaiming it with faith". Fr Paul Fleming talks of Mary and her role in the Church today.

Eamon Conway, Sharon Haughey and others enable deep reflection on the role and purpose of Catholic education.

Conway argues that "if Catholic schools and colleges remain true to their mission and identity, then in the prevailing culture they will, in fact, have to be missionary".

"The whole educational enterprise is in crisis, and not just, or even especially, Catholic education," he writes.

"In fact, Catholic education that is true to its principles is what is urgently needed to 'redeem' the educational system.

"This requires the combined quality attention of parents, teachers, principals and governors, bishops, religious superiors and parish clergy, firstly to acknowledge the problem and then, with gospel hope and conviction, to seek out the opportunities."

Sharon Haughey talks of the wonderful practices which enrich and enable faith which can be the product of a Catholic education. Fiona Deenan articulates the very real need for ongoing formation of those who work in Catholic schools. Gareth Byrne writes of the National Directory for Catechesis.

In these essays we learn of incremental change and of revolutionary change.

You will read of the battle between the liberation theologians and others who saw the danger of Marxist thinking intruding into the Church, of the silencing of people like Leonardo Boff - and yet liberation theology was recently described by Cardinal Muller as "one of the most significant currents of Catholic theology of the 20th century, which helps the Church bridge the divide between 'earthly happiness and ultra-earthly salvation'".

Those years were a time of great trauma for some in the Church. Wounds were suffered by many people as they struggled to give effect to the 16 Vatican II documents whilst remaining faithful to core teaching.

Even the Pope was caught in the controversy, and here in Ireland those battles being fought across the other side of the world had their effect, some of it quite negative.

Ireland has suffered its own traumas and conflict as a consequence of the reactions of some to Vatican II. The Church has been slow to understand the true nature of the authority and responsibility which is reposed in it.

Niall Coll writes that, "the next 50 years of reception of the Council will be of critical importance to the work of disposing and equipping the Church for the mission of harnessing anew that Christian impulse which has been such an enduring feature of Irish life for many generations".

"This work... will require courage, patience and discernment. As Cardinal John Henry Newman wisely warned: 'We must recollect, there has seldom been a Council without great confusion after it.'" We have seen that confusion.

Eugene Duffy talks of opportunity and hope, of how the documents of the Council offer a sure ground on which to rebuild our hopes, and a faith-filled reading of them opens up other possibilities for the proclamation of the gospel, some of which are yet only partially grasped, of the Church as a school of prayer and discernment.

Juanita Majury tells of the new lay movements which she sees as a sign of Vatican II renewal taking root. Again Duffy talks of synodality and collegiality, of the need for change in the processes role and appointment process for bishops.

Aidan Donaldson has a very good chapter on the option for the poor, and Gerard McCann talks of the philosophy of hope and the poor.

Sr Eithne Woulfe tells of the journey of discernment experienced by religious after Vatican II in her contribution on religious life in Ireland. It will be important that we retain our knowledge of the magnificent contribution of so many religious during the past centuries often in such difficult circumstances.

Colin Harvey talks of the importance in the Church of the principles which underpin human rights law and of the significance of the Church's contribution to public discourse, which Benedict referred to so movingly in Westminster Hall a couple of years ago.

The wider relationships of the Church in Ireland and the wider significance of Catholic teaching are the subject of thoughtful analysis by Patrick Mitchell, Archbishop Richard Clarke and Niall Coll as they trace the impact of Vatican II in Ireland.

Richard Clarke writes compellingly of the ecumenical dialogues which Vatican II made possible and of the wider interfaith dialogues - encouraged by Nostra Aetate - which are now so much part of the agenda for other Christian traditions too.

Michael Kelly's challenging discourse on the role of the media articulates the bewilderment of ordinary people at the state of Church-media relationship.

He remembers the extraordinary work which was done in the late 1960s to establish the Catholic Communications Office and the words of Bishop Edward Daly who played such an important role: "The church is, to its detriment, over-secretive where the media are concerned. The result usually is that, in the absence of 'hard' information, media people speculate and inaccuracy builds up on inaccuracy.

"On the other hand, media people have often concentrated on the exceptional and the sensational. Admittedly, this might make for good reading, but it also means that sometimes something of real value is ignored.”

Michael says he then asked a question that is as relevant today as then: “Is the Church in some way afraid of becoming involved in a high-level debate? Is the Church in this country still afraid of entering into dialogue with the people of God through the press? Did we learn anything from the dialogue between the Church and the press at Vatican?”

Fr Paschal Scallon writes of Gaudium et Spes and the response to violence in the modern world.

He quotes the opening words: “The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts.”

He says that the document is, as much as anything else, a reflection on the mystery of the incarnation itself, the core doctrine of the Christian faith. He provides a very fine reflection on that mystery.

Niall Coll writes movingly of the challenge for the Catholic Church of a multicultural society, of the significance of multiculturalism for Catholic education, of Francis’s words about “the importance of interfaith dialogue-making peace and coexistence possible in some troubled parts of the world”.

Interfaith dialogue is now clearly so profoundly important following the tragedies in Paris. There is a need to build peace and not to allow what IS do to be portrayed as a religious war.

There really is a massive amount to ponder upon in this book.

I thank Fr Coll for his determination to get it written and published. It is a seminal contribution not just to our understanding of the impact of Vatican II but also of the state of the Church in Ireland today.

I commend it to you, and I hope that you will enjoy it as much as I did.