Irish Memories of the Second Vatican Council

scolairebocht

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The long term but now retired Bishop of Meath, Michael Smith, has written an important book relating his memories of the Second Vatican Council. Its important because this Council is very important, and we also have very few references to the Irish influence in same, and finally there are very few, if any, other survivors now living who attended all sessions of this Council.


Second Vatican Council, 1962-5

In the mid to late 19th century Pius IX convened an important Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church, Vatican I, the first really in modern times, which is particularly famous for settling the question of the infallibility, under certain circumstances, of Papal teaching. However this was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war and ongoing events in Italy, including an invasion of Rome, which left the status of the Papacy in Rome very confused until the time of Mussolini.

In any case, and as Bishop Smith relates in this book, many succeeding Popes sought to finish what Vatican I had begun, to convene another Ecumenical Council to settle or codify many of the other doctrines and issues that surround the Catholic Church. (By the way don’t be fooled by that word ‘ecumenical’, here it has a somewhat different meaning to its usual sense.)

During Vatican I a number of clerical students from across the various colleges in Rome, including the Irish College, were asked to draw up an official record of all that transpired at this Council. So, in preparation for Vatican II, they did the same thing and Bishop Smith, who was then studying in the Irish College, was asked to be a part of this effort. These approximately 11 people then, with the aid of tape recorder machines, a special Latin shorthand that they learned before hand, and scripts that speakers handed in three or five days in advance, recorded all of the contributions – all in Latin of course, with only one exception in French – made at the Council.


Irish Influence

Although this book is actually very revealing on the progress and methodology of the Council, he is not concentrating on that because he feels it has already been covered adequately in a number of other books, instead he outlines the Irish angle here. This however is quite limited. He indicates, although he doesn’t say so explicitly, that many Irish bishops would agree with Archbishop John Heenan here, but were to too shy to actually say so at the Council:
“The talk given by Archbishop John Heenan of Westminster the following day gave rise to much comment, most of it negative. He distributed an English language translation to all, copies of which were available to the press. He was strongly against the draft before the Council, describing it as nothing more than a set of platitudes. He condemned in strong terms what he described as ‘specialists few in number’ whose ‘sound has gone out to the ends of the earth’. As his talk unfolded, he expanded on the number that merited condemnation.”
(Bishop Michael Smith, Vatican Council, Memories (Dublin, 2022), p.110.)

Instead the effective Irish contribution seems limited to Bishop William Philbin from Mayo, who was at one time a senior Maynooth theologian and contributor to its theological journal, at a time of course when that college educated huge numbers of priests for not only Ireland but a large part of the globe. He made a number of seemingly important contributions (although with very little help from other Irish bishops) including on the document on Divine Revelation:
“Bishop Philbin also contributed to the debate on the text. He spoke in the name of thirty bishops, only a few of whom were from Ireland – whether in Ireland or missionary Irish bishops. The rest were from a section of the council hall in which he was sitting. He strongly approved of the new text, but he believed that the historicity of the gospels was not adequately safeguarded. He raised the following concerns: (1) Why is it not simply said that the things which the gospels relate about Jesus are true? (2) Why is the veracity of the gospels restricted to the words and deeds of Jesus? What about the infancy narratives? (3) The strength of the word ‘vere’ is weakened by the quotation marks put around ‘veritatem’ at the end of the paragraph (paragraph 19), which corresponds to the Greek word for firmness of doctrine and does not refer to the historical truth of the narrated events. (4) If the text must mention theories on the literary genres of the gospels, ‘proclamation should not be mentioned alone, for the evangelists in a remarkable way abstain from this form and present an objective and factual narration. It must be stated that many part of the gospels, for example, the infancy narratives, have already been infallibly preached by the ordinary and universal magisterium from the earliest times as historical narratives in the strict sense and as belonging to faith.

As Cardinal Ruffini, as one of the presidents, was sitting in front of us, I could see him nodding in approval to the points made by Bishop Philbin. He sent for him so he could personally congratulate him on his talk. The experts were less impressed even though Bishop Philbin was held in high regard following previous talks at the Council. One friend among the experts, an admirer of Bishop Philbin, commented that he had obviously not kept pace with biblical scholarship. He also added that the biblical scholar, Fr Beda Rigaux, who had drafted the chapter Bishop Philbin was commenting on, made the same observation.
...
Another speaker was the Benedictine Abbot Christopher Butler from England. While not mentioning anyone by name, his talk seemed to be totally against the points made by Bishop Philbin. His negative tone was unworthy of the setting but not out of character.”
(Bishop Michael Smith, Vatican Council, Memories (Dublin, 2022), p.101-2.)
Its a pity Bishop Philbin’s points were not taken on board! The ‘experts’, periti, were theologians appointed to work on the various texts either as advisers to individual Cardinals or Bishops or attached to the groups that drew up and revised these texts. As you can see some were clearly very influential and indeed their role at the Council has been often remarked on since, frequently negatively.
 

scolairebocht

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This is a new eye witness account

But also Smith contributes an eye witness account to some important events of the Council. One of the almost iconic scenes or incidents of the Council, at least for traditionalists, was when the then head of the Holy Office, Cardinal Ottaviani, was interrupted, but for Bishop Smith it was not as is sometimes portrayed:
“Cardinal Ottaviani, unfairly as it turned out, was constantly portrayed as representing all that was wrong with the Church. He was also accused of deliberately blocking all efforts at reform. He was almost blind and did not read his script. He went on for fifteen minutes at a time where daily appeals were being made by both Archbishop Felici and the president of the day asking that contributions be kept short and to the point. At this stage Cardinal Alfrink intervened saying ‘Eminentia Vestra habeat me excusatum, quidecim momenta praeterierunt’ (‘Your Eminence, please excuse me, fifteen minutes have passed.’) Cardinal Ottaviani said, ‘Ego iam finivi, iam finivi, iam finivi’. (‘I am finished’), and sat down. This was greeted by a scattering of applause and interpreted as a moment that suggested the Council was its own master and not subject to dictation from the Curia. In some ways, it was a symbolic moment, even if the interpretation was very unfair to Cardinal Ottaviani, who was a much more open-minded individual than the caricature of public and media perception.

The media reports the following day spoke of ‘thunderous applause’. I was very surprised and curious at this and went back and listened to the tape on a number of occasions. The applause was very sparse and did not justify the headlines – a lesson learned.”
(Bishop Michael Smith, Vatican Council, Memories (Dublin, 2022), p.52-3.)
Also Bishop Smith relates a little about some key personalities of the Council, and which became more famous later (including the two later Popes of Wojtyla and Ratzinger, who he says were well known and influential even then):
“A Dublin-born Jesuit priest, Fr Malachi Martin, who was in Rome for much of the Council, provided a good example of those self-appointed experts operating on the fringes of the Council that supplied easy copy to journalists who had little understanding of the Council or how it operated. He claimed to have many important contacts and to be deeply involved in the Council — both claims were totally without foundation, but initially accepted by many of the English-language media. He was, in the early days of the Council, the source of many unfounded stories. In general, the English-language reporting on the Council was poor, mostly displaying an ignorance of what a Council entailed. An exception was Robert Kaiser of TIME magazine, who wrote a number of balanced cover articles on the Council, including a cover story on Pope Paul. Towards the latter part of the Council, Fr Martin, now no longer exercising his priesthood, wrote a book on the Council and on Pope Paul VI. This book was largely fiction. Commonweal, the American periodical, invited Kaiser to write a review of the book. The review was a brilliant piece of writing that destroyed all credibility attached to the book. Given the context, the review was circulated widely and enjoyed by many.”
(Bishop Michael Smith, Vatican Council, Memories (Dublin, 2022), p.127-8.)
The ‘context’, which Bishop Smith doesn’t say, is that Fr Martin was accused of sleeping with Kaiser’s wife.

Indeed this book seems to leave a lot unsaid and possibly a ‘read between the lines’ attitude needs to be adopted to get the most out of it. For example he includes some curious references to Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens of Belgium. In general, this influential Cardinal at the Council, has been characterised in the years since as one of the Western European liberal clerics who had an over sized role during its deliberations. Bishop Smith does seem to agree about his influence, but it seems in the early debates of the Council he might have taken a more neutral stand. He was for example a strong supporter of the Legion of Mary and it appears it might have been his decision (certainly, and notably, not that of the Irish Bishops) to invite Frank Duff to the Council. But then he veered into at least a partial support for artificial contraception, a touchstone issue in the 1960s and 1970s, separating, if you like, the two wings of the Catholic Church, with the Papacy, famously, later ruling it out completely as permissible in the document Humanae Vitae. In any case this is what Bishop Smith says about the episode:
“An address given by Cardinal Suenens evoked the most reaction, especially in the press. Many were unimpressed with this address, including Pope Paul, though there was limited applause at the end. In the bar afterwards, one Australian bishop called Cardinal Suenens ‘a rabble rouser’. He was never a big fan of Cardinal Suenens. The phrase in the talk that was picked up by all was ‘we must avoid a new Galileo incident – one such is enough for the Church’. I was delegated to collect a copy of the text of the address from Cardinal Suenens when he finished, as it seems he did not submit it in advance. I approached him immediately after he finished speaking and he was most cooperative. From his general demeanour, however, it was very evident to me that he knew his talk would bring a major reaction on many fronts. It was a moment that stayed with me through my life. There is little doubt, however, that his influence in the Council weakened from then to the end of the Council.”
(Bishop Michael Smith, Vatican Council, Memories (Dublin, 2022), p.112-3.)
It seems strangely written that passage, is he saying Suenens was somehow coordinating his talk with influential people in the media so his talk would have a very planned and intended reaction, or that he was pressurised to give it?

Of course in modern times controversy about this Council has if anything grown, rather than been allayed. One of its earliest critics, who was at the Council, was Archbishop Lefebvre, the French head of the Holy Ghost fathers who went on to found the SSPX. Bishop Smith clearly looks upon these critics in the same way that some look upon the Old Catholics, those who opposed Vatican I and who are still around. He doesn’t seem to have much sympathy for this opposition:
“Over the previous few days, leading up to the formal closure of the Council, some groups emerged seeking further changes to the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Another group of bishops, small in number, drawn mainly from Europe and South America, established the ‘International Group of Bishops under the patronage of St. Paul’. They were unhappy with sections of some of the documents. It was given little credibility and largely ignored. It had a short life span after the Council. It did, however, give rise to one negative outcome. Few general councils of the Church, including Vatican I, ended without a schism. The source of the schism this time was Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, superior general of the Holy Spirit Congregation, who was very active in promoting this group, with a Brazilian bishop, Geraldo de Proenca Sigaud, acting as a secretary. They sought to have the document on the Church in the modern world rejected. This did not happen, as it was approved with an overwhelming majority. Following this final approval and promulgation, many of those who were involved in Archbishop Lefebvre’s campaign withdrew. He, however, persisted and set up his own Church, replicating what happened with Bishop Ignaz von Dollinger after the first Vatican Council. Recent popes have all sought to mend the breach, not always successfully. Pope Benedict XVI did however have some success in this regard.”
(Bishop Michael Smith, Vatican Council, Memories (Dublin, 2022), p.157.)


Modern times

And that is I guess where we are still at in this controversy. Its clear that some in the Church regard the traditional Catholic movement, which, in a sense, was effectively led from that moment by Lefebvre, as a schismatic nuisance which is supposed to go away some time soon! Yet in reality, vocations to the priesthood, for example, are at a very healthy state in that movement and pretty much collapsing or collapsed in the Church in Ireland that Bishop Smith recently partly led.

It has emerged not at all as the small and containable fly buzzing around the elephant that Dollinger et alios represented after Vatican I. I guess in simple terms after Vatican I hardly anything really changed in the Catholic Church, so why would anybody, who drew spiritual nourishment from that Church, want to leave it? Whereas after Vatican II, everything has changed, Church altars and tabernacles, the language, music, calendar of the readings and, to a degree anyway, the liturgy and, surely, respect for the Eucharist. If that pre Vatican II Church is your Church, and you want to stay in it, you increasingly have to turn to the traditional movement in the Catholic Church.

Incidentally this is now a very topical matter, with rumours coming out of Rome that an Archbishop, Vigano, will now face ecclesiastical charges for not adhering to Vatican II, stated very explicitly, and that Rome intends soon to completely abolish the Latin mass.

Many thanks at any rate to Bishop Michael Smith for his help here and for a copy of his valuable book, which is available from Veritas.

by Brian Nugent, www.orwellianireland.com

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Myles O'Reilly

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I enjoy your postings about the RCC Bocht. The sheer ingenuity of it all is worthy of bewitchment.
 

Declan

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You grew lled him pretty aggressively toward the end, saying in effect the Church lay down and took its beating
 

scolairebocht

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Many thanks Declan!
(I hope Myles comes back, he contributes a lot here.)

Fr Stefano Gobbi 1998, Blue book.jpg


You know I find it curious that Bishop Smith remembers Fr Gobbi very well, but he doesn't remember giving his book an Imprimatur?
 

Declan

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I would not read too much into that as someone else may have dealt with it and he just digned off on it and maybe many more.

If he only did this for a handfull of books or documents then that would be different.
 

scolairebocht

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You could be right, but actually it would be very very rare for him to sign off on any imprimatur. He also signed it for In Sinu Jesu, by a monk in Silverstream, who since left under a cloud. Thing is he remembered Fr Gobbi very well, just not that bit.
 

scolairebocht

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Anyway I am just arguing the toss, I am very grateful that he did the interview, and of course he is retired etc, but that said you have to listen to his replies carefully. I am not sure I would agree with everything he said.

For example he seemed hit by this idea of the Irish government having a say in the appointment of bishops, and adamant they didn't. But then when I mentioned the very well documented case of Archbishop McQuaid he, surprisingly, knew all about that. Then the answer was McQuaid was the obvious choice anyway etc, but he just wasn't, his appointment came as a great surprise in the Archdiocese of Dublin.

Anyway Bishop Smith held until recently a powerful position in Ireland, and I am not sure you would hold it for long if you were genuinely frank with people, and maybe that instinct has carried over into his retirement a bit!
 
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