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.

The reluctance of the Irish bishops and their failure to make an impression at the council despite their intellectual firepower was a mystery requiring reflection. Some of the answers must lie in Irish church history, with its loyal ties to Rome.

A former rector of the Irish College, Paul Cullen, who died in 1878, was regarded by the curia as a loyal and orthodox Irish cleric, and was chosen by it to return to Ireland as archbishop, later cardinal, to stabilise, renew and “Romanise” the Irish church. Cullen played a big part in firmly anchoring the primacy of loyalty to Rome in the psyche of later generations of Irish bishops.

The legacy of loyalty to Rome, orthodoxy and the curia must have been in the bloodstream of the Irish bishops at the council.

The senior bishop in the Irish College, Archbishop McQuaid, had little interest in debating the reforms proposed at the council. It was reasonable to surmise that he and the other bishops felt the local church was in good shape and in no need of updating.

Each day I had lunch in the college and was seated beside Cahal Daly, the future cardinal, then a young philosopher in Queen’s University. A graduate of the Sorbonne, he had an insight into the storm for reform being raised by the French bishops.

I shared with him my enthusiasm for reform and my disappointment with the Irish bishops. He was empathetic but also the epitome of discretion. He suggested that the Dominican theologian Yves Congar was a gift to the French church and had no intellectual equal anywhere. I took this to mean the Irish bishops lacked an intellectual and charismatic giant who might have led them along new paths. Cahal didn’t elaborate.

The first session of the council ended on December 8th, 1962. A few days later I was on a bus with the Irish bishops to Ciampino airport to fly home to Dublin. As we waited to board the aircraft, the elderly Bishop Denis Moynihan of Kerry said to me: “I envy you your youth. You will see great changes in the church. I hope it will be for the best.”

Fifty years on, the jury is still out and the curia and the reformers have not quite agreed on the best way forward.

Seán McEntee was ordained in Rome. In the 1970s he was one of the leaders in the renewal of religious education in Irish primary schools. In the 1980s he was director of the Centre for Travellers in Clondalkin, Dublin. In the 1990s he was senior careers adviser in Alexandra College, Dublin. He is married with two adult children.