Profound and positive change took root despite all the obstacles and doubt


VATICAN ii +50:Even Ian Paisley felt drawn to be in Rome at a time of great energy, writes Bishop MICHAEL SMITH, who attended every day of the Vatican II sessions

WHEN POPE John XXIII, just three months after his election, announced that he intended convening an ecumenical council, the reaction was mixed. Many noted that the cardinals listening to his announcement in the Basilica of St Paul’s didn’t show much enthusiasm.

Few people were aware that both his predecessors had also the same intention but did not announce it. Pope Pius XI spent three years preparing for a council in the mid-1920s but abandoned the idea as he decided that an accommodation had to be reached with the Italian state following the seizure of the Papal States in 1870.

It was this seizure that brought the First Vatican Council to an abrupt and premature end. Pope Pius XII set up a commission to prepare the ground for a council in the late 1940s but abandoned the idea after two years of work.

Many of the cardinals listening to Pope John XXIII had worked on this project, so their lack of enthusiasm was understandable. Between the announcement in January 1959 and its opening on October 11th in 1962 an immense amount of work was carried out in preparing documents and all the logistical requirements, not least a hall in which over 2,500 bishops could meet.

In the spring of 1962, Msgr Herlihy, the rector of the Irish College, where I had been a student since the autumn of 1957, called me aside and said a group of stenographers was being formed who would have the task of compiling the official record of the council – all that was said and happened in the Council Hall each day. He had been asked to nominate one student and he asked if I would be willing to become involved. I was happy to accept. It involved attending classes each evening, near St Peter’s, learning a system of Latin shorthand devised by Dr Alois Kennernecht from Germany. Two students from the college had fulfilled the same role in Vatican I.

We lived in the Irish College but attended lectures at the nearby Lateran University. Almost all lectures were in Latin, so all of us would have had a familiarity with the language. At this stage 42 students and postgraduates, drawn from the different ecclesiastic colleges in Rome – 22 of them Italian – were involved.

We received copies of all the documents, original and revised drafts, and the texts of all talks given in the Council Hall. All that was spoken in the hall was recorded.

The lead-up to the opening of the council was a fascinating time to be in Rome, with a pamphlet war going on, regular rumours that the project was going to be abandoned and a running, and sometimes indiscreet, commentary on preparatory work from a few of our professors.

Many doubted that it would happen. The formal calling of the council was made in the atrium of St Peter’s on Christmas morning in 1961 by Archbishop Felici. I was surprised that so few were present for such an historic occasion, indicative perhaps of the doubts of many. All underestimated the determination of Pope John.

I was over at St Peter’s the day before the council opened and there was a palpable air of excitement. I also encountered three clergymen in bright fawn suits distributing leaflets on the Via della Conciliazione, leading to St Peter’s Square, and seeking, with little success, to engage with people. One of them was the Rev Ian Paisley and another Pastor Jack Glass from Scotland. It seemed they intended causing a disturbance at the opening ceremony but the Italian police brought them in for questioning, gave them some coffee, and released them when proceedings were over.

One theologian who was centrally involved in the work of the council, the late Fr Yves Congar, a Dominican, kept a Journal, recently published in English. It runs to almost 1,000 pages, indicating how difficult it is to summarise an event that lasted four years and had such a profound and positive impact on the life of the church.

The council convened in formal session each autumn from 1962 to 1965, usually for about 10 weeks. In truth the first such period in 1962 was a preparatory period.

Those months following the first session also impacted on our own group as the 42 became 12 and remained so until the end of the council. The 12 of us that remained spent considerable time, in the months between the sessions, finalising the record of all that was said and happened in the Council Hall.

While one wasn’t obliged to be present each day it was too fascinating and engaging to miss and was a good substitute for the many lectures I missed in theology and canon law over the four years!

An event such as an Ecumenical Council – the 20th in 2,000 years – leaves many impressions and memories. The context in which it was held is often overlooked. The opening of the archives in Russia and elsewhere has brought to light the sheer horror of what took place during the second World War, following so closely on the barbarity and contempt for life of the first World War.

I could never accept the view that the council was a disaster for the church. It was a profoundly providential event as has been articulated so often by the late Blessed John Paul and Pope Benedict, both of whom played an active part in its proceedings, the former as a bishop, the latter as a theologian.

While many sought to present it as a fight between the liberal and conservative viewpoints, this was not an accurate reflection of the focus and engagement by all the bishops, especially in the final three years. Disagreements were not absent and there were many interesting days. Bishops, including a number of the Irish bishops, came to Rome believing the council would last a few weeks. All had tomind and their approach to the change their council very quickly. Overall the Irish contribution was limited. Fr Congar’s Journal highlights the extraordinary demands that were made on a core group of theologians and scripture scholars. Most of these were Belgian, French and German, with some Italians and Spanish.

Those who appeal to the “spirit of the council” to justify their views would do well to study its texts. Every word and phrase was weighed and discussed, often several times. The publication, some years ago, of the complete record (Acta) of the council (in Latin) allows scholars to study the evolution of these documents.

Much to the surprise of many, in spite of the obstacles, the doubts, the disagreements, the work of the council came to fruition. This would not have surprised Blessed John XXIII as he had a deep trust in the Lord’s promise to be ever with His Church. Over the past 50 years, although not all the doubts and obstacles have gone away, I believe that the council has impacted positively on all aspects of the church’s life and mission.

Bishop Michael Smith has been bishop of Meath since 1990

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