Brendan Hoban: 60th Anniversary of Vatican II is bittersweet 

Western People 1.11.22

When I entered Maynooth College to study for the priesthood in 1966, coincidentally it was the year after the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) concluded. That ‘sacred council’, as it came to be known called, agreed a series of documents that was intended to set the Catholic Church on a fair wind into the future.

It wasn’t just that, metaphorically, the windows of the Vatican were thrown open and the cobwebs of centuries past blown away, but the documents were voted through, often by overwhelming majorities – in many cases by 90-plus per cent – of the bishops of the world, including the pope, the highest teaching authority in the Church.

It would be an understatement of cosmic proportions to conclude that the Church in Ireland was merely pointed in a clear, unambiguous direction for the future. It was, in effect a revolution in attitude, approach and purpose. All (or nearly all) agreed that a map for a future ‘People’s Church’ was clearly and unequivocally agreed. This was the way it was going to be.

The Maynooth class of 1966 – all 84 of us – were on the crest of a wave. Seven years later, 52 of us were ordained and we were scattered to all the corners of Ireland. I was appointed curate in Keenagh in Crossmolina parish, with Canon Ben McLoughlin as PP.

Ben was kind, gentle and invariably respectful to all, a benign and happy presence, much loved by everyone. I remember once, in my enthusiasm, suggesting to him that we should elect a Parish Council to give substance to Vatican Two’s vision of a people’s Church. His response was measured, ‘Why would we do that?’ I interpreted this as an invitation to amplify his understanding of the new reforms and the variety of opportunities to set the Catholic Church in Crossmolina parish on a new course and the opportunities offered for the future.

When I had finished, Ben suggested in his gentle way that there was no problem in the parish that Vatican Two needed to fix: the vast majority of Catholics were at Mass with four full churches every Sunday; vocations weren’t a problem with four priests in the parish; the churches were in good condition; varied collections were generously supported by the parishioners; and so on.

I couldn’t counter Ben’s arguments. They were sensible and to the point. And I remember concluding that he was right. But, looking back now, it’s fairly obvious that he was wrong.

If, from the early years after the Council, we had trusted in God’s Spirit and prepared the foundations of a People’s Church, apart from the ownership of the Church that ‘lay’ people would have assumed as part of their baptismal calling, so much grief could have been avoided. One example of the latter makes the point. If there was a People’s Church, with men and women, parents and grandparents as part of the governance structure, how different the response would be to the child abuse scandals.

But it was not to be. Even though the vision of a reformed Church was, with the pope and the bishops of the world acting in concert, set in stone, during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict, while lip service was paid to the documents of Vatican Two, a gradual restoration policy was in operation. The open-minded, trusting, freeing, participative Church envisaged by the Council was firmly placed on the back boiler.

For those of us who were inspired by the vision, the excitement and the promise the future held, it was a long, long winter of our discontent. Many of my generation, including myself, would say that while we didn’t enter the seminary because of the vision of Vatican Two, many of us stayed the course because of it.

So, this year, 60 years on, as we remember, Pope John XXIII inaugurating the Second Vatican Council, it is in many ways a bitter-sweet moment. On the one hand, there was the frustration and agonising as a clerical Church held firmly to the instruments of authority and clung desperately to their belief that the oil of ordination alone conferred wisdom and authority – as the Church crumbled around them. On the other, was the gradual but persistent leakage of Catholics (and priests) convinced that the Church was beyond common sense and redemption.

Meanwhile, there was a revival of the old imperious climate, as John Paul and Benedict fed the expectation of ‘reforming the reform’, by appointing very traditional and conservative bishops, encouraging seminaries to replicate outdated practices of yore; reinstating Latin Masses and generally indicating that the reforms of Vatican Two needed to be reversed.

Then, in 2013, as if out of nowhere, Pope Francis arrived and decided that the Council’s reform agenda needed to be revived to include: the way power was exercised in the Church; the role of women; the teaching on same-sex relationships; and not least the sponsorship of the synodal process whereby the whole of the Church would have an effective say in discerning where God’s Spirit is leading us.

In the last few years, a comprehensive listening process was undertaken in the dioceses of the world, leading to a two-year synod in Rome, starting next year and the Irish bishops are planning a national synod In Ireland in a few years’ time – all in response to the expressed wishes of the people.

Six decades on from the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, only now are the reforms getting a fair wind. Even Ben McLoughlin, I suspect, would find it hard to believe.

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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    Brendan, I had a similar reply from a priest of my diocese: ‘You don’t change a winning team!’

    Like you, I am beginning to realize the immense implications of the synodal process. It may amount to a radical reset of church life on a par with Vatican II. (Such resets have punctuated church history, coinciding often with the ‘effusions’ of the Holy Spirit that Newman celebrates, and they include for example the Councils of Jerusalem [Acts 15], Nicaea, Trent, Vatican I].

    Angry at Ratzinger’s letter reaffirming his youthful dedication to Vatican II, the obnoxious Viganò has written a longer letter describing the sort of church coming into being, and unwittingly revealing how attractive that synodal church will be.

    ‘The problem that arises is complex and developed: it consists of two aspects, one ad intra, relative to what the “conciliar church” is and wants to be; the other ad extra, relative to its role in the world and relations with other religions. The ad intra aspect touches the nature of the institution, seeking to deconstruct it in a democratic and synodal key under the false pretext of a rediscovered “wider spiritual dimension” to the detriment of dogma; the ad extra aspect implies an “ecumenical” approach to the world, dialogue with sects and false religions, and the renunciation of the evangelization of peoples, replacing it with an ecological and philanthropic message that has neither dogmas nor morality.’

  2. Sean O'Conaill says:

    In that same year, Brendan – 1966 – I began a teaching career in Co. Derry, in the blindly naive belief that e.g. Lumen Gentium 37 would come ‘on stream’ within a decade at most – the principle of diocesan parish structures for supportive and, if necessary, critical lay input.

    Instead Humanae Vitae fell in 1968 like a blight – and then in 1969 the roof fell in up here with the first casualties of ‘the Troubles’. Nothing more was needed to ensure that the wave of scandal that began in 1992 would carry almost everything before it – the tsunami that has us where we are.

    Looking back at 1966 now is very little different to looking back at 1900: all of those totally naive and oblivious people, including ourselves, who hadn’t the slightest idea of what havoc could and would be caused by the complacency of people like Canon Ben in Killala and + J.C McQuaid in Dublin. Cardinal William Conway was lamenting ‘paternalism’ in the same year but we never even got together then to get a fix on that problem at parish level.

    Sleepwalkers – and too many still don’t want to wake up or ever bother father. Father would sort everything out, wouldn’t he? Until he dropped?

  3. Roy Donovan says:

    Vat 2 never resolved the tension between the idea of the priesthood of all believers (a People’s Church as Brendan puts it) which it promulgated and that of the ordained priesthood. In the intervening years, the common priesthood of all believers has not made much progress with clericalism as Brendan alludes to so well with the mentalities of the likes of fr. Ben. It seems to me that the amalgamations/ family of parishes/ clusterings are another way of prolonging clericalism and keeping the tension unresolved.
    Interestingly we see this tension being partly resolved with the wipe out of ordained priesthood. As Dr.Tom O’Louglin puts out in a recent Zoom (28th October 2022), people need to take back their power through the common priesthood of all believers and yet people shoot themselves in the foot by wanting priests and handing over so much power to priests. It seems as if people are not going to take over leadership roles as long as we have ordained priests. Tom O’Louglin states that the ordained priesthood does not fit in with a theology of the Incarnation and our Christian calling.
    We need to take on board that Jesus never instituted the priesthood as is so widely promulgated by the Church. Priests and Bishops came about at a later stage as part of the need of the early Christian movement to introduce infrastructure – promulgating a structure for ministries.
    It looks like as if Christian communities and who leads them is at its most open in nearly twenty centuries. Can Vat 2 only be implemented with ministries that have a theology of incarnation at its foundation? Will the synodal process with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit bring us new ministries and styles of leadership which have a theology of the Incarnation as its driving force?

  4. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Thanks Sean@2 for Cardinal Conway’s 1966 address. My classmates at Maynooth would have got some benefit from that, I hope. This one, however, had flown over the cuckoo’s nest a year earlier to begin, like yourself, a teaching career in Coleraine.

    My nearer contemporary, 80-yr old Fr Seán Sheehy, was probably one of the young priests in whom Conway was putting his trust. But then Sheehy was more likely an All-Hallows product, destined to complete his priestly formation in Louisiana.

  5. John Collins says:

    Thank You Brendan for your reflections on the V2 anniversary. Food for thought. I was 7 when it all kicked off and playing with my dinky toys!! Now after 36 years as a priest I’m spending a lot of time reflecting on “if I knew then what I know now would I have started on the road to priesthood” ?
    The sad answer for me is is I’m not sure. One thing is sure for me.. I stay because of the wonderful people of God around me in my (OUR) two parishes .. they and the Eucharist sustain me on the last km.. and my wonderful family and friends.

  6. Joe O'Leary says:

    My letter in the Irish TImes:

    Sir, – Thanks to Garry O’Sullivan for his amazingly lucid remarks (Letters, November 8th). Many highly placed authorities in the church, from Cardinals Suenens, König, and Martini to Cardinals Marx and Hollerich would agree with him that a reset of church teaching on sexuality is overdue. This is one aspect of the current synodal process.

    The working document just published by the general secretariat of the synod lets Catholic voices be heard from all over the world and portrays a joyful, honest, constructive church community. A typical contributor says: “The People of God ask that the Church be a refuge for the wounded and broken, not an institution for the perfect. They want the Church to meet people wherever they are, to walk with them rather than judge them, and to build real relationships through caring and authenticity.”

    Ironically, Archbishop Viganò, who is the fiercest critic of the synodal process and of its architect Pope Francis, unwittingly confirms this alluring picture as he attempts to blacken it. He warns that the process “touches the nature of the institution, seeking to deconstruct it in a democratic and synodal key under the false pretext of a rediscovered ‘wider spiritual dimension’ and promoting an ‘ecumenical’ approach to the world, dialogue with sects and false religions, and a renunciation of the evangelisation of peoples, replacing it with an ecological and philanthropic message.”

    Great resets in church history (the apostolic synod of Jerusalem in Acts 15, the councils of Nicea, Trent, or Vatican I) have always sparked bitter controversy between the innovators and the defenders of the status quo. Let’s hope that the good-natured approach of Pope Francis and his synod will be able to allay such bitter resistance. – Yours, etc,

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