The voiceless Irish bishops at the Second Vatican Council
The Irish bishops at Vatican II were diffident bystanders at the great debates that changed the Catholic Church, writes SEÁN McENTEE
I SHOULD have been at home in Ireland for the opening ceremonial day of the Second Vatican Council in Rome in 1962, settling into parish life in my native Donegal. But my first posting was back to the Irish College where I had studied for six years, to take charge of a small front office and be at the service of the Irish bishops attending the council.
During my first week I was approached by Ardle McMahon, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid’s secretary, and asked to take an oath of secrecy. My mind was quickly full of the drama that might unfold in my new role as keeper of Vatican secrets: arranging confidential meetings, reading classified documents, hearing conspiratorial phone calls and being a privileged observer to the ecumenical council that was to give a new focus to the Catholics of the 20th century and beyond.
The local daily newspaper offered a well-informed view from behind the veil of secrecy of the clash between conservatives and reformists expected at the council. One headline read: “Bufera Europea su Roma” (“European storm to buffet Rome”). The article said Cardinal Frings of Cologne, Cardinal Alfrink of Utrecht, Cardinal Koenig of Vienna and Cardinal Suenens of Malines in Belgium would be advocating a loosening of the Vatican curia’s centralised grip on the church.
It was also reported that the cardinals’ agenda included a reform of the liturgy, a new role for the laity, a new era of ecumenism and a more radical pastoral engagement for the church, as well as a new focus on marriage and family life.
The vow I took to bring the secrets of the Irish bishops to the grave was an empty undertaking because I saw or heard nothing of interest. There was no coming and going of bishops from other jurisdictions eliciting the support of our bishops for or against issues being debated in St Peter’s.
The Irish-born bishops in the US, Australia and Africa were never invited to the Irish College to share common cause. Other national colleges had visits and lectures from great reformist thinkers. We had no visits from Edward Schillebeeckx, Hans Kung or Karl Rahner.
We students had hopes the Irish bishops would be found in the thick of things at the council. But they were voiceless, flatfooted and unprepared for participation in the great debates in St Peter’s.
I often sat in the afternoon sun on a bench in the Irish College garden with my own bishop, William MacNeely. “St Peter’s is on fire with ideas and our best men are silent,” he said.