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.