Remember the miracle of Vatican II

The topic I’ve been asked to speak about is the Vatican II vision of the Church and of the Laity. I begin by recalling the funeral of one of the very few Protestants in my village in Mayo when I was a teenager, long before Vatican II. The local Catholic men carried his coffin from his house up to the door of the Protestant Church. There they had to stop because the Catholic Church forbad Catholics to be present at any Protestant service; only one man entered the church, believing that the law of charity took precedence over the Church law—and of course he was penalized by our Church for his action. I doubt if anybody here would wish to return to that pre-Vatican situation.
Since Vatican II there has been a quite radical change; Catholics now play an active part in Protestant services. The new situation represents three major breakthroughs brought about by Vatican II—(1) a new commitment to ecumenism, (2) a new respect for the primacy of personal conscience, and (3) a new respect for the individual Christian who is not a cleric.
We are missing out on a key aspect of Vatican II if we start by making too sharp a distinction between the laity and the clergy. The first big breakthrough of the Vatican Council was the rejection by the participants of the document which had been prepared, one which was built around the notion of the Church as a structured institution with different roles for pope, bishops, priests, and lay people. The Council document showed its priority by devoting its first chapter to the nature of the Church as a mystery and sacrament of God’s love and then devoting the second chapter to the Church as ‘The People of God,’ before going on in later chapters to deal with the structural side of the Church.
A major effect of the Council is to invite us to take seriously three key passages in the New Testament. The first is the insistence in the Letter to the Hebrews that Christ is our High Priest (Heb 5:5), our one mediator (Heb 8:6) and so we do not need to have a whole class of priests to mediate between us and God. A second crucial passage is in the Letter of Peter, where he says that all of us as Christians are ‘a royal priesthood.’ And a third significant passage is in the letter to the Ephesians (Eph 4:11) which lists a variety of gifts given to Christians—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, but makes no mention of ‘priests.’
Even when the Council eventually got round to issuing a separate document about the ministry of priests it insisted first of all that in the Church ‘all the faithful are made a holy and kingly priesthood [and] offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ’ (PO 2). All this means that when we reflect on the significance of Vatican II we should focus first and mainly on our call together as followers of Jesus with the aim of both getting back to the mission which he gave to his followers, and at the same time looking forward to how best to be true to that call and that mission in the world of today and tomorrow.
What we have today are two quite different interpretations of Vatican II. One view acknowledges that the Council brought about a lot of discontinuity with the pre-Council Church. Those who hold this view point to the notable changes of direction on certain key issues such as ecumenism, relationships with Judaism and other religions, freedom of conscience, the use of local languages in the liturgy, the idea that the bishops share responsibility with the pope for the leadership or governing of the Church as a whole, a new emphasis on the fundamental equality of all Christians, lay or clerical, and the insistence that all Christians are called to be missionary. The other view holds that of course the Council held on to the essentials but that it made significant reforms but stresses its continuity with the past.
The scholars tell us that the two key words which sum up the intention of the Council Fathers were the Italian word aggiornamento which means bringing the Church up to date and on the other hand the French word ressourcement which means getting back to the original sources and traditions. In recent years some people are making an unduly sharp contrast between these two intentions. They are suggesting that there has been an exaggerated liberal interpretation of the Council in terms of up-dating and conforming to the modern world, and even that the Council document on ‘The Church in the Modern World’ went too far in this direction. There are indications that fifty years ago when the present Pope Benedict was just Father Ratzinger, a theologian at the Council, he was quite unhappy with the tone of that document. For him, then and now, the main emphasis should be on a return to the sources rather than a kind of updating which would accommodate the Church to the liberal values of the modern world. On the other hand, we now hear that Cardinal Martini, who might well have been made pope instead of Pope Benedict, gave a death-bed interview in which he said that the Church is two hundred years out of date.
Closely related to these two views about the Council itself are two views about how the Church should face into the future. The first view is that Vatican II made any notable changes that were necessary and that the Church should now concentrate on correcting misinterpretations of the Council and reversing wrong directions taken in recent years. Those who hold this view believe that the Latin Mass should once more be widely celebrated, that priests should celebrate Mass with their back to the people, that people should receive Holy Communion on the tongue, that there should be an emphasis on the distinction between the priest and the laity and on the importance of clerical dress, that priests should be trained separately from non-clerical students, that a strong line should be taken against the use of contraceptives, that homosexuality is ‘a disordered state’, that it is an infallible truth of our faith that women may not be ordained as priests, that nobody should be appointed as a bishop who does not fully accept this view or who seems to be ‘soft’ on issues of sexual morality, and that theologians should be sanctioned or removed from their positions if their teaching does not conform to the strict Vatican line, particularly on sexual issues, or on the salvific value of other religions.
The alternative view is that the Vatican Council was the beginning of a new openness in the Church. Those who interpret the Council in this light believe that we are called by the Holy Spirit to move on beyond the necessary compromises in the Council documents, and take a fresh look at all the burning issues and new situations of today. Many of those who interpret the Council in this way believe that much of the theology of sexuality preached in the Church in the past was simply wrong. Many hold that we have now come to a rich understanding of the work of the Spirit outside the Church and this opens up the possibility of a profoundly fruitful dialogue and cooperation with the adherents and leaders of other religions as well as with secular humanists.
My own experience of Vatican II was one of significant discontinuity. I had already studied philosophy and theology for eight years leading up to my ordination as a priest in the year before the Council. I engaged in a further four years of postgraduate study of theology and philosophy during the years of the Council. This brought about a quite radical revision and reorientation of my Christian theology—and more particularly in my spirituality, which is the practical expression of my faith. Over the years since the Council I hope and believe that I have drawn out the deeper implications of the new breath of the Holy Spirit which was so evident in the deliberations at the Council and in its documents. I can confidently say that the result has been that my spirituality as a Christian and a missionary priest has been transformed and enormously enriched. I have no doubt that practically all of you who are listening to me today can say that the Council has led to a great enrichment of your faith and a far deeper and more authentic understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
In the light of my own experience it is not surprising that I agree with those who believe that the Council opened up quite radical new possibilities and invites us to face the challenges of today with a willingness to update the structures of the Church and to critically evaluate and replace some of the theology of the past. For me the crucial point is that it is a false dichotomy to claim that we have to choose between aggiornamento and ressourcement, that is, between updating and a return to the sources. I believe that the two come together. An authentic understanding of return to the sources does not mean going back to the Latin Mass, to frilly vestments, to a translation of the liturgy into language that is quaint at best and at worst is almost incomprehensible. It means rather returning to the life and message of Jesus and the faith of the early Church, and finding ways to express and support this faith in ways that are appropriate to the various cultures of today. That is what the early Christians did—developing new structures as the situation required and engaging in deep dialogue with Greek philosophy in order to find more effective ways of understanding their faith. That is what the great theologians, and mystics, and founders of religious congregations did down over the centuries. And that is what the Holy Spirit invites us to do today.
By way of example, and to encourage you to listen for the promptings of the Holy Spirit in relation to your own faith, I venture to suggest some possible changes which might be in line with the new directions set by the Vatican Council. Before suggesting changes in the structures of the Church and I want to make some suggestions about where the main energy of Church members and Church leaders should be focused in developing and supporting our faith and spirituality.
First of all, I would like to see our Church and its leaders engage in a major commitment to teach people various styles of meditation and prayer, encouraging people to try them out until each person finds one or more styles which he or she will practise as an ongoing nourishment for his or her spirit.
Secondly, I’d like to see a major conference in which experts and so-called ordinary Christians would share together about a whole variety of the kinds of liturgy and public worship which they would find helpful—and a commitment by Church leaders to act on the conclusions which would emerge. I think it likely that this would lead to much greater flexibility, pluralism, spontaneity, and cultural diversity in regard to language, music, and ritual in our public worship, rather than the rigid conformity that is being imposed from the top at present.
Thirdly, I would like to see much greater emphasis by Christians and Church leaders on the urgency of the ecology issue and the issue of social justice at national level and active support for Trócaire at the international level. This shouldn’t be just a matter of words but of encouragement and support for communities who undertake to live a more simple alternative lifestyle, and support for business people who practise what Pope Benedict calls ‘the economy of communion’, that is, engaging in a type of business which focuses not just on efficiency and profitability but also on fair wages, good working conditions, a respectful and supportive atmosphere in the workplace, ecological sensitivity, and good relationships with the local community.
Fourthly, I’d like to see the setting up of a major dialogue between theologians, scientists, and regular practising Catholics ranging from teenagers to pensioners, on the theology and spirituality of human sexuality. Pending the outcome of this dialogue, Church leaders would speak positively about the importance of sexual love but undertake to say very little about controversial issues such as contraception, homosexuality, and church ministry for women.
I come now to the issue of structural renewal. There is urgent need to find more effective and more participative ways of electing or selecting bishops and popes. Equally important is the issue of how Church leaders at all levels exercise their leadership role. In this regard the pope, the bishops, and parish priests have much to learn from the changes which have taken place in the Religious Congregations since Vatican II. Team leadership is now widely practised in Congregations of Religious Sisters and Brothers and perhaps to a lesser extent in Congregations of Religious Priests. The Congregations and the new Christian movements could also share with the wider Church their experience of developing participative structures and the adoption of the best elements in management theory. Most important of all is the need to ensure that, just as the leaders of Religious Congregations are appointed for a limited time-span, so too bishops and popes should hold office for perhaps six years and then move back into some form of pastoral ministry.
Needless to say outdated, ridiculous, and unChristian titles such as ‘Your Lordship’, ‘Your Grace,’ ‘Your Eminence,’ and ‘your Holiness’ should be replaced by forms of address which are more in line with the words and witness of Jesus in relation to leadership. The Daughters of Charity offer an alternative: they call their leaders ‘Sister Servant.’
It is particularly important that Church leadership begin to act on the principle of subsidiarity which is so central to Catholic Social Teaching. This will involve a quite radical reversal of the present trend towards ever greater centralization of authority and power in the Vatican. The effect will be much more pluralism and variety not only in regard to liturgy but also in the sphere of theology. A crucial first stage of this decentralization came in Vatican II which proposed a new era in the Church where the pope and the bishops would be jointly responsible for the Church as a whole. This was called “collegiality”—see the just published book on this topic by former president Mary McAleese. The book is called Quo Vadis.
There is need also for the adoption of a much simpler lifestyle by nuncios (the Vatican diplomatic representatives). Perhaps, too, the Church needs to reflect seriously on whether it is appropriate that the Vatican should continue to be a separate State, with the pope as a head of state.
I have suggested that the Religious Congregations can play a prophetic role in showing how the institutional church can develop a truly Christian model of leadership. But the fact that few new members from the Western world are joining these Congregations raises the question of whether they too may need to make radical changes.
Would it be a helpful model of gender equality if some of the Congregations with a similar charism and spirituality, say the Franciscan or Dominican women and men, were to join together in one unified Congregation? Would it be a good idea if some religious Congregations were to offer full membership not only to those who take the traditional three vows but also to married people and to people who would take vows of poverty and obedience but not of celibacy? Do the Religious Congregations not need to find new and creative ways of sharing their charism and their ministries with young people—starting, perhaps, with the families of their married members? Would it be helpful if the great majority of Christians in the world, old and young, had the opportunity and the encouragement to share actively in varying degrees in both the charism and the ministry of one or other of the many religious congregations and new movements in the Church?
No doubt many of you believe that, however urgent such changes may be, we are trapped in a situation where we can do nothing about it, since all the power now lies with the Vatican. I grant that I sometimes feel like that. But I have to remind myself that there are things that I can do. Naming the issues as I am doing now is only a first step. Perhaps it is more important for us priests to play an active role in the Association of Catholic Priests —and for the lay-people, Sisters, and Brothers to become actively involved in the newly formed ‘Association of Irish Catholics’ and/or one or other of the movements for change which have emerged in the Church. As you know, there is a very side variety of such movements, some of them being quite conservative and others more open or even radical. I mention here just three of my own favourites: ‘Sant Egigio’, Taize, and the Lay Dominicans.
I think it is particularly important to ensure that those of us involved in these movements can be seen as people who love our Church, even when we challenge aspects of its institutions, and that we do not allow ourselves to be dismissed as just cranks or disloyal Christians. In this regard I am very impressed by the leadership of the Association of Catholic Priests. Anybody who looks at their website or attends their meetings can see that they are mainstream Christians, who are working in a very balanced way to promote the vision of a Vatican II Church. They do not just focus on calling for structural change, but offer spiritual nourishment by providing daily reflections on the reading in the Mass. They offer a forum where there can be honest dialogue on key issues, where different points of view are aired, and where the dialogue is monitored to ensure that nobody is insulted or pilloried.
We need to be courageous, to find our voices, not leaving the dialogue to the extreme liberals or the extreme conservatives. Lay people and members of religious communities can offer encouragement and support to pastoral priests in taking the risk of adopting a different approach and of respectfully challenging Church authorities. Above all it is essential that lay people, priests, and bishops engage in sharing and dialogue about our Christian faith and practice—a dialogue where nobody is attacked and where issues about the dysfunctional structures in the Church are just one relatively small element in a much wider faith-inspired dialogue. We must nourish ourselves and each other by our personal and community prayer, believing and hoping against all hope that the Holy Spirit is actively at work not only in us but also in the present leadership of our Church. When we are tempted to give up hope, we can remind ourselves of the miracle which took place at Vatican II, when two thousand elderly men and a few women, inspired by the Holy Spirit and Pope John suddenly brought about the first key steps in the most radical change of direction in our Church since the time of Constantine seventeen hundred years ago.
This talk was first given at the ‘Towards an Assembly’ gathering in Cork  on 13 october 2012.

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  1. Hope springs eternal.
    “…..All which I took from thee I did but take
    Not for thy harms
    But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
    All which thy child’s mistake fancies as lost
    I have stored for thee at Home.
    Rise, clasp My hand and come.
    Halts by us that footfall;
    Is our gloom, afterall;
    Shade of His hand outstretched caressingly ?
    “Ah fondest, blindest, weakest,
    I am He whom thou seekest
    Thou dravest love from thee who dravest Me.”
    A good priest introduced me to this quite a while back, “The Hound of Heaven”, and told me to read occasionally to remember how Christ is forever nearer than we think or imagine, especially when we seem far from Him or He from us.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    It was the most illuminating moment of the meeting.
    The conservatism and confusion of Catholics in Cork was more in evidence than any clear vision of potential for developing a new and living community.

  3. Thank you Donal. A powerful statement. I find myself in whole accord with almost all of it. And I do share your personal experience. Those of us who span Vatican II stand in a privileged place. We have experienced what prevailed before. We appreciate what a revolution this Council was. We can understand that, in our current chaotic climate, a younger generation may hanker for security. We know better. We have tasted freedom. Never would we return to that past. So, we have the Association of Catholic Priests. We are not rebels. We seek nothing more — but nothing less — than the implementation of the vision and teaching of an Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church.
    Wilfrid Harrington, O.P.

  4. Gene Carr says:

    When I was in school in the 1950s, I was taught the following by the Christian Brothers: (a) The Church was a visible entity with a body of faithul and clergy, but first and foremost it was ‘invisible’–the Mystical Body of Christ–with Christ as its head; the Pope was merely his vicar. (b) God’s grace extended beyond the visible Church and a certain Fr Feeney in Boston was even excommunicated for holding that there was ‘no salvation outside the Church’. (c) That ant-semitism was evil and unChristian and I distinctly remember the Brother who emphasised this quoting Pope Pius XI to the effect “spiritually we are semites”. This was before the Second Vatican Council.

  5. Con Carroll says:

    Donal. I agree with your ideas of religious congregations needs a new vision. a openess which is inclusive, a radical alternative style of attempting to live in Gospel Spirituality, rather than institutional style

  6. Gene,
    In 1859, Pope Pius 1X stated that ” it has to be accepted as a matter of faith that no one can be saved outwith the Aposolic Church of Rome”. These are his actual words though I expect they were said in latin. Fr. Feeney in Boston must have felt very hard-done by! Remember too that Pio Nono was the first “infallible Pope” though I suppose the teaching is that they were all “infallible” even before it was definitively proclaimed. Also, in this context “Faith and Morals” is very relevant and, in the 1859 quotation, note that Pius was referring to “a matter of faith”. Reading Nostra Aetate and Unitatis Redintegratio it does make you wonder about the whole idea of the “hermenuetics of continuity”

  7. kaythegardener says:

    This piece echoes what I remember of both the pre-Vatican II & the newly renewed Church after the Council…
    Then the Hierarchal leaders in the early 1980s got cold feet & started condemning everything that they didn’t understand or agree with, instead of seeing that it was a wandering path into a new future direction and letting it develop as it would…
    Thanks also for sharubg these reflections on a public forum — they strengthen those of us who don’t live in Ireland as well!! KMC

  8. Gene Carr says:

    Paddy: I have been unable to unearth your quoatation from Pius IX, but elsewhere wherever I have seen simialar wording it has always been qualified by expressions such as “though their own fault” or “invincible ignorance”, etc. There has to be a deliberate and conscious refusal of truth. Both Luther and Calvin believed that no unbeliever could be saved, but St Thomas entertained the idea that he might meet Aristotle in heaven.

  9. seán eile says:

    I think it’s getting more difficult to be saved INSIDE the Catholic apostolic church!

  10. Quid est veritas.
    If God is Truth and God is infinite – is truth infinite ?
    Couldn’t we, as finite little creatures, all claim invincible, even infinite ignorance ?
    Be my excuse anyway when I kick the bucket. 🙂
    Pater, miserere mei, sana animam meam quoniam peccavi tibi. (Sp)

  11. Some good news tonight. Archbishop Luis Tagle of the Philipines, who is definitely a Vatican II minded man, is to become a cardinal.

  12. Thank you for your paper Father Donal.
    I can’t help but me puzzled by what you mean by an extreme liberal?
    How would that person be characterized?

  13. I see that my previous question has not been addressed, but I think: an extreme liberal would probably be someone who advocated no papacy at all. I think – as long as the church is an organization, it will need organization – so, there is a need for new structures.
    I was also looking for the talk “Whatever Happened To Vatican II?”, but I never found it. What I did find, would interest a number of people who view this website.
    Apparently, there was a National Pastoral Conference in Athlone in September of 2012. At this conference, was a theologian by the name of Richard Gaillardetz. He is or was a professor at Boston College. He is considered a “dissent” theologian. I looked him up on the internet……I saw nothing dissenting about him…….If you can, it is well worth your while to watch a video entitled “Fulfilling the Vision of Vatican II”. It is an hour long lecture given by Richard in 2009.
    It is well worth watching, at least, it was for me, because he fills in that question: “What is it in the vision of Vatican II that has not been implemented, 50 years plus now?” Google ‘Richard Gaillardetz’ and look for video regarding: ‘Fulfilling the Vision of Vatican II’.

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