The course of Vatican II, as seen by an Irish priest from the inside

The course of Vatican II, as seen by an Irish priest from the inside The opening session of the Second Vatican Council.

Vatican Council Memories by Bishop Michael Smith (Veritas Publications, €19.99/£21.99)

This is a fascinating inside account of the Second Vatican Council, arguably one of the most important events in the history of the Church in recent times.

In 1959, soon after his election, Pope John XXIII announced his intention to convene an Ecumenical Council. In convening it he expressed his conviction that the Church needed updating (aggiornamento) in order to connect with 20th-Century-people in an increasingly secularised world.

In particular he considered that some of the Church’s disciplines and practices needed to be presented in ways that would make them more relevant and intelligible. The Council began its deliberations in St Peter’s Basilica on October 11, 1962. And, contrary to general belief, Pope John, as is noted by Michael Smith, took a very active interest in its proceedings.

Between 1959 and 1962 in complete secrecy intensive preparations were made for the Council. There was a world-wide process of consultation. The bishops across the world, Catholic Universities and faculties of theology and the departments of the Roman Curia were asked to list any issues they considered should be discussed. Ten Preparatory Commissions were then created to draft the topics to be discussed by the Council.


The first group to be rounded up of those who were to take part in the Council were the periti, the experts. Their role was to assist the bishops and other speakers at the Council in preparing their presentations.

Across the entire duration of the Council there were over 400 of these. Drawn mainly from the Catholic academies and universities of continental Europe, some of them were later to become household names  Karol Wojtyla, (Pope St John Paul II), Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and theologians such as Karl Rahner SJ, Yves Congar OP, Henri de Lubac SJ and John Courtney Murray SJ.

There were a number of Irish periti at the Council: Cardinal Michael Browne OP, Patrick Francis Cremin, Professor of Cannon Law at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, and Alexander Kerrigan, a scripture scholar attached to the Franciscan Institute of Higher Studies in Rome.

Arthur Ryan and Cathal B. Daly (later Cardinal) of Queen’s University, Belfast were added to the list of experts at the beginning of the final session of the Council.

Although not a peritus, Joe Dunn of the Catholic Communications Centre, was appointed a consultor on the commission overseeing the implementation of the Decree on the Media. Frank Duff, co-founder of the Legion of Mary, also attended the Council and was given a standing ovation when he addressed it.

Steps were also taken to prepare those who would act as secretaries to the Council. Some 41 clerical students were recruited from universities and colleges in Rome and they attended a course in Latin shorthand.


In the event, just 12 of these, among them Michael Smith, were subsequently engaged in the Council. It was an onerous commitment. While the Council was in session the Council Fathers attended two meetings each day. The secretaries recorded the various addresses and their summaries had to be ready to be read before the meetings on the following day.

All the bishops of the world as well as the superiors of male religious orders – in all almost 2,500 – were entitled to be ‘Council Fathers’ and as such had a right to speak and to vote. Speeches were limited to ten minutes and were to be presented in Latin.

Health issues and repressive communist regimes prevented a number of bishops from attending. These heroic bishops, some of whom had for decades suffered persecution, house-arrest, imprisonment and even torture, were not forgotten at the Council.

Michael Smith provides a meticulous account of the presentations, debates, and voting on all the important issues, including those on ecumenism and religious freedom, which came before the Council. He was particularly impressed by a number of the contributors, such as Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens of Brussels and the scripture scholar and later Cardinal, Augustin Bea SJ.

Mainly because of a lack of preparation, the initial contribution of the Irish bishops was insignificant and disappointing. However, at later sessions there were important interventions by William Philbin, William Conway and Cornelius Lucey. And also Arthur Ryan and Cathal B. Daly, both of Queen’s University, Belfast, featured in the last session of the Council.

In a postscript Smith assigns most credit for the success of the Council to Archbishop Pericle Felici, Secretary General of the Council; and professor Gérard Philips and his fellow theologians and Scripture scholars at the Catholic University in Louvain.

He includes in his narrative interesting back-stories on dissidents, such as Hans Küng and mavericks, such as the later notorious Malachy Martin SJ. Just as the first Vatican Council ended in a schism, so did the second. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, superior general of the Holy Spirit Congregation, and his supporters sought to have the document on the ‘Church in the Modern World’ rejected. When this did not happen, Lefebvre withdrew and set up his own community.


One aspect that is passed over was the reactions of the world’s press. The officials in the Vatican, used to dealing with the conditions in Italy of Communists against Christian Democrats, were overwhelmed in a way by the international press interest. Journalists had legitimate questions and concerns, but it has to be admitted officials did not handle these well.

Bishop Smith’s riveting collection of Vatican memories is an immensely important and timely publication. Like the 16 key documents published by the Council, it clearly shows that the Council Fathers successfully achieved their aim: namely to modernise the Church, while ensuring that it remained aligned with the teaching of Christ, and not the spirit of the age.

He points out the relative lack of contributions from the English speaking world, including Ireland; though reporters from those countries would not make you think that. In conclusion he writes:

“The many bishops present at the Council from South America also had a limited impact, though towards the latter part of the Council they became better organised,” he writes in his final pages.

“Often one cardinal or bishop would speak in the name of the bishops from their own country or frequently in the name of the bishops drawn from several South American countries. Overall, however, the input of South America bishops and experts was minimal and disappointing.

“The bishops from Asia were better organised. While many of the bishops in some of these countries were from Europe, including from Ireland it was normally one of the native bishops that spoke in the name of all. The bishops in India were especially well organised.

“The growth in the Church in both Africa and Asia since the Council has been striking. It also encouraged the Church in South America, in the face of many challenges, to rekindle its mission.”

With a South American Pope now installed in Rome, here is a hint that a pope from Asia or Africa might soon be a fact as well. And in the future decades Councils might be held in Manila, or Durban, or indeed, Buenos Aires. In this way the work of Vatican II continues.