The fact the Roman Catholic Church was not a monolith was an eye-opener for Protestants
Many of the riches of the spirituality of the Roman Catholic Church had a positive effect on other Christians as the Second Vatican Council opened long-shut doors, writes JOHN NEILL
FIFTY YEARS ago this week the Second Vatican Council commenced. Fifty years ago this week I entered university to commence training for the ordained ministry.
I am now aware that what began in the Vatican that week was to alter my perspective on the Roman Catholic Church and that of many members of the Church of Ireland and, indeed, that of the wider Protestant community. The effects were hardly immediate, but through the 1970s and 1980s the working out of that council at local level affected every part of the Christian community.
There may be little to distinguish prejudice and perception in the eyes of some, but yet it is important to realise that the perception of the Roman Catholic Church with which Irish Anglicans of my generation grew up, and from which I had to be weaned, was multifaceted.
It was a perception of a church that was both authoritarian and monolithic with little room for discussion or variety. It was a perception of a church with an inaccessible liturgy with which other Christians had little or nothing in common.
It was a perception of a church in which scripture was hardly studied or read beyond the gates of the seminaries. It was a perception of a church that was so clericalised that there seemed little or no scope for the laity.
It was a perception of a church with no interest in other Christians except in terms of converting them to Rome.
As is now well known, the council had barely been opened by Pope John XXIII when dissenting voices were raised among the bishops as to the method set out for the election of the 10 conciliar commissions. This resulted in an adjournment and a review of methodology.
Those first few minutes of the Second Vatican Council proved to be symbolic of the opening up to discussion and debate that was increasingly to be a feature of its deliberations. The fact that the Roman Catholic Church was not a monolith, and that there was room for discussion and questioning, was an eye-opener for Protestants, and one would suspect also for many of the Roman obedience!
Protestants had for many decades been used to synods and conferences and assemblies in which there was robust debate. The council was not like an Anglican synod with bishops, priests and laity as it was a council only of bishops. Nevertheless it displayed features of dissent and debate with which those of other traditions were familiar.
The public face of a church, as well as its heart, is, of course, its worship and liturgy. The fact that the use of vernacular within the liturgy and a new Eucharistic rite were to emerge as a result of the council caused a change of perception among other churches.
Suddenly liturgical similarities became apparent, and in time this was of course built upon as common liturgical texts were encouraged. Scholars from many traditions began working together to such an extent that liturgies in different churches began to influence each another.
From the start the council had included official observers from many other churches, and it had included theological advisers and consultants both lay and ordained.
This feature was to develop much further as the council continued under the oversight of Pope Paul VI. Suddenly other Christians realised that they were being taken very seriously, and that they were seeing a council engaging with ecumenical issues.