My years as a Catholic priest were a long winter of discontent - until Pope Francis arrived

Rite & Reason: There is now a new springtime of hope and promise

In the years after the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), a lecturer in Maynooth College paused for routine questions. A voice pondered out loud: ‘Was the vision of Vatican II really appropriate for the Irish Catholic Church?’ The lecturer, by repute not the most liberal of theologians, paused for a moment and delivered a short, robust instruction: ‘The Pope and the bishops of the world gathered in a general council of the church for Catholics, the highest teaching authority there is, and when a series of documents are voted through by 90-plus per cent majorities, that’s it. Period.’

The lecturer was Rev Professor Kevin McNamara, later bishop of Kerry and later again Archbishop of Dublin. McNamara, traditional and conservative but loyal to a fault simply accepted the logic that God had spoken though the vision and documents of Vatican II.

We all did. The Great Council represented change and the promise of new structures of operation and governance that would flesh out its vision of ‘a people’s church’. It would be spectacularly different from the past, as the intention was to bring the Catholic Church into a respectful conversation with the modern world.

During my Maynooth years, that vision was to become the compelling leitmotif of my life and of my generation of priests. However, after ordination in 1973, I discovered no sign of a commitment to a people’s church and my subsequent 50 years of priesthood (1973-2023) fell naturally into two sections: the first 40 years coinciding with the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI; and the last ten years with the pontificate of Pope Francis.

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What emerged was not a respectful conversation with the modern world but a restoration of the old church, principally by John Paul and Benedict, and a clear campaign to shuffle out of sight and out of mind the vision of the Second Vatican Council. It was, in effect, a stunning and shameful rejection of the highest teaching authority of the church.

For me and for those of my generation, those 40 years were a long winter of our discontent as the vision of the Second Vatican Council and the hope it represented for the future progressively faded into the mists of history.

I (and so many others) waited for the tide to turn, waited for a hero who might lift our hearts and minds again to possibility and promise. Like the singer, Bonnie Tyler, in the 1984 film Footloose, our theme song ran: ’Where have all the good men gone and where are all the gods?’

On the evening of March 13th, 2013, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was declared Pope Francis. He emerged, almost apologetically from the shadows, and my heart sank. He looked impossibly old for the task that faced him. He seemed an unlikely hero – 76 years of age, from the end of the world and with no experience of the cut and thrust of Vatican politics.

But there were signals, even from that first evening. He wasn’t wearing the usual papal regalia of a newly elected pope. He introduced himself as ‘the Bishop of Rome’. He greeted the crowd with a casual “good evening”. Later he insisted on carrying his own bag and paying his bill in the B&B where he was staying; he rejected the elaborate papal apartment designated for his personal use and has stayed since in the Vatican guest house; and he gifted to a charity a present of a sparkling white Lamborghini car and opted instead for a small Fiat.

The church, he said, was “a field hospital” where the poor and those in need would always be welcomed, cared for and cherished. The church was “a tent where the pegs would be forever extended” to make space for everyone, regardless. No one could be excluded.

Instead of wagging his finger at those who didn’t respond to John Paul’s standards, Francis recommended mercy and compassion. Instead of Benedict describing homosexuals as “intrinsically flawed”, Francis simply asked: “Who am I to judge?” Instead of a restoration of the old church, there is now a rediscovery of the vision of Vatican II. Instead of control by the ordained, there will be governance by the baptised. Instead of an endless winter of discontent, there is now a new springtime of hope and promise.

Who would have believed it? Deo gratias.

Fr Brendan Hoban is a priest of Killala diocese. His book `Holding Out for a Hero/The Long Wait for Pope Francis’ is available at €18 from MayoBooks.ie and the usual outlets.