Ireland's ambivalent relationship with the Second Vatican Council
The Irish church was out of touch, but all this was to change utterly, writes PÁDRAIC CONWAY
IT’S A daunting task to encompass in 1,000 words the content and impact of the Second Vatican Council. As I reflect on their combined efforts to convey the message from Rome – my respect for journalists has never been higher.
There can be no doubt that in 1962 the Irish church leadership was anything but ready for a council of the kind embarked upon. A senior Maynooth professor declared that nine of the 10 Commandments were grand, but that a real debate was needed on the question of servile work on Sundays.
Combine this statement with that of John Charles McQuaid after the council, that “no change will worry the tranquility of your Christian lives”, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Irish church leadership was out of touch with more than the latest trends in European theology.
Well, all that was about to change, change utterly. Whether it liked it or not, the Irish church was to have the scales removed from its eyes, like Bartimaeus, the man famously cured of blindness by Jesus.
Vatican II constituted a great opening of the Catholic Church. The first manifestation of this was the arrival of the vernacular Mass: Mass would now be said in the native tongue of the congregation rather than the Latin, which had previously perpetuated a false idea of universality.
Almost as significant as this change, and one on which every architect in Ireland had an opinion, was the turning of the priest to face the people. The ancien regime saw the priest huddled over the bread and wine, whispering the Te Igitur – the predecessor of today’s Eucharistic Prayers – while the people read their prayer books. This, in theory, created a heightened sense of mystery. In practice, it served to deepen the divide between clergy and laity to crevasse-like proportions.
The growing feeling among Irish people that “this will just not do!” led to the church gaining an increased sense of itself as the entire “people of God”. It no longer saw itself as a caste-based system where a tiny – in numeric terms – clerical caste ruled all. The words “We, the people” suddenly became an Irish ecclesiastical reference point.
With this came a huge transformation of the ecumenical movement. In fact, you might say that with this came the ecumenical movement, as prior to Vatican II all too few were prepared to utter “that ‘which’ for ‘who’/And risk eternal doom”, in the words of Austin Clarke in Burial of an Irish President. The poem recounts how the Catholic members of government, obeying directions from their clergy, declined to enter St Patrick’s Cathedral for the funeral of former president Douglas Hyde.