Vatican II in Ireland, Fifty Years On

Essays in Honour of Pádraic Conway

by Dermot A. Lane (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection XVI, 405 Pages


This book commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, which concluded in 1965. A selection of essays by distinguished Irish theologians offers an objective assessment of the historical reception and pastoral implementation of Vatican II in Ireland with the benefit of half a century’s hindsight. The authors discuss from a variety of different perspectives the theological significance of the Council for the self-understanding and reform of the Catholic church, both in the past and for the future.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the book
  • This ebook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Abbreviations, Dates and Votes in Relation to the Documents of Vatican II (1962–1965)
  • Introduction
  • PART I The Memory of the Second Vatican Council in Ireland
  • 1 Ireland’s Ambivalent Relationship with the Second Vatican Council
  • 2 Remembering Vatican II
  • 3 Keeping the Memory Alive: Vatican II as an Enduring Legacy for Reform of the Church
  • PART II Ressourcement at the Council
  • 4 Ressourcement and Vatican II: Reform and Renewal
  • 5 Dei Verbum: The Bible in the Post-Conciliar Church
  • PART III Reception of the Council in the Irish Church
  • 6 The Reception of Vatican II in Ireland over Fifty Years
  • 7 Reception of the Call of Vatican II for Renewal of Religious Life: Case Study of the Irish Federation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity
  • PART IV Ethical Perspectives
  • 8 Vatican II and Human Rights: From Religious Freedom to Frontline Advocacy
  • 9 Catholic Theological Ethics since Vatican II
  • PART V Ecclesiological Issues
  • 10 The Ecumenical Church of Vatican II
  • 11 Vatican II as a Resource for the Renewal of the Church in Ireland in the Twenty-First Century
  • 12 The Church: Semper Reformanda
  • PART VI Specific Questions
  • 13 The Influence of Karl Rahner at Vatican II
  • 14 The Extremely Important Issue of Education
  • 15 The Future of Collegiality
  • PART VII Unfinished Business: Ongoing Challenges for Irish Catholicism
  • 16 Vatican II and the Question of Ministry
  • 17 A New Style of Church and Theology After Vatican II
  • 18 Church and State in Ireland: Perspectives of Vatican II
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Select Bibliography
  • Chronology of Significant Moments before, during and after the Second Vatican Council
  • Index
  • Series Index

| viii →


The publication of this book would not have been possible without the support and collaboration of a number of people.

Foremost, I wish to thank Professor Dermot Moran, Director of the UCD International Centre for Newman Studies, for his invitation and encouragement to undertake this project.

I also thank the Board of the UCD International Centre for Newman Studies for their support.

In particular I wish to record my gratitude to Hazel Rooke, my secretary, for her patience, advice and attention to detail in typing, editing and proof-reading various versions of the text.

I also want to thank the team at Peter Lang for their help along the way, especially Christabel Scaife for her wise counsel at critical moments.

Lastly, I wish to express my personal thanks to all of the contributors who responded generously to the invitation to be part of this publication.

| xv →

Abbreviations, Dates and Votes in Relation to the Documents of Vatican II (1962–1965)

| 1 →


In summer 2012, Pádraic Conway, as Director of the UCD International Centre for Newman Studies, put in place plans for a conference on 11th October 2012, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council on 11th October 1962. Pádraic had briefed the speakers,1 organised the venue of Newman House in St Stephen’s Green, and drawn up the programme: everything was ready to go. It was, therefore, with great shock and sadness that the theological community learned of the untimely death of Pádraic on 5th October 2012 just days before the conference was due to take place.

In spite of the death of Pádraic but in accordance with his wishes, it was decided hesitantly that the conference would go ahead. Ironically, on the day of his burial, 8th October 2012, The Irish Times published a Rite & Reason column by Pádraic, entitled “Ireland’s Ambivalent Relationship with the Second Vatican Council”. That short reflection by Pádraic is reproduced, with the permission of The Irish Times , as the opening article in this volume celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of Vatican II.

It was the intention of Pádraic to edit and publish the proceedings. Professor Seán Freyne was subsequently approached and agreed to edit the papers. However, with equal sadness Seán died on 5th August 2013. Pádraic and Seán had served the church, the academy, and society in many different ways with infectious enthusiasm, great courage, and restless imaginations. May they now enjoy the gift of eternal life “in Christ”. ← 1 | 2 →

The Aims of this Publication

Some months later, the current Director of the UCD International Centre for Newman Studies, Professor Dermot Moran, invited me to edit the proceedings. I decided, with the approval of the Director and the Board of the UCD International Centre for Newman Studies, to publish the papers in honour of Pádraic Conway, to solicit some additional papers, and to aim for a publication date in 2015 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council. All of the contributors were invited to keep an eye on one or other of the following aims: to offer an objective assessment of the reception and implementation of the Council in Ireland, to give some attention to the historical and theological significance of Vatican II for the self-understanding of Catholicism in the twenty-first century, and to offer suggestions for the reform of the Catholic church in Ireland in the present and in the future. The intention of this collection of papers, therefore, is not to offer a commentary on the documents of the Council which is readily available elsewhere. Instead, the aim is to review the impact of the Council on the church in Ireland in the last fifty years, and to explore how the Council could and should shape the church in the future.

The purpose of this publication, therefore, is to honour the life of Pádraic Conway, especially his contribution as Director to the UCD International Centre for Newman Studies and his energetic work as Vice-President for Public Affairs in UCD. Another purpose is to look back at the reception and implementation of the Council in Ireland with a view to moving forward: how can the Catholic church recover and reform itself in the light of recent crises, especially the trauma it has suffered over the last twenty years in the area of child sexual abuse. It should be noted that the decline in faith and church attendance had begun to take place before the revelations around child abuse emerged. Some would say, however, that these scandals have dealt a fatal blow to the church; others, including this author, believe that the church has resources to reform itself. These resources include the living Gospel of Jesus Christ, the gift of the Holy ← 2 | 3 → Spirit to the Christian community, and the vision of the church offered by the Second Vatican Council.

The gravity of the crisis facing the Catholic church was highlighted by the fact that it received a “Pastoral Letter of Pope Benedict XVI to the Catholics of Ireland” in March 2010. This letter from the highest authority in the Catholic church, namely the Bishop of Rome in the person of Pope Benedict XVI, calls for a renewal of the Irish church.

A Church at the Crossroads

The Catholic church in Ireland is at a crossroads. It needs to stand still in prayer and reflection: to examine the recent past, to discern the promptings of the Holy Spirit in the present, and to respond to the call for renewal from Benedict XVI.

In this regard, the church in Ireland could also benefit by paying attention to the examination of conscience issued by Pope Francis to the Curia in December 2014. In that widely covered address Francis listed “Fifteen ailments of the Curia”: feeling immortal, working too hard, becoming spiritually and mentally hardened, planning too much, working without co-ordination, “spiritual Alzheimer’s”, being rivals or boastful, suffering from “existential schizophrenia”, committing the “terrorism of gossip”, glorifying one’s bosses, being indifferent to others, having a “funeral face”, wanting more, forming closed circles, seeking worldly profit and showing off. This wide-ranging examination of conscience could be applied to many organisations and certainly to all Christians, and not just the Curia.

If the reform of the Catholic church is to take place, it will be necessary to retrieve something of the vision, the principles, and the change of style that occurred at the Second Vatican Council. The church in Ireland needs to undergo a process and experience of learning comparable to the process and experience of learning that took place at the Second Vatican Council. ← 3 | 4 → The church is called to a radical conversion from being an authoritarian, clericalised, and male-centred institution to becoming a more humble, lay-shaped, and inclusive reality “so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the church”.2

It would be naïve to suggest that the Second Vatican Council has answers for all of the challenges facing the Church in the twenty-first century. Vatican II, however, does have principles and it does have a vision that has the potential to reinvigorate the life of the church and to communicate the Gospel in a new and fresh language in the twenty-first century.

Whither the Catholic Church in Ireland in the Twenty-First Century?

Other national churches are also examining the legacy of Vatican II for renewal and reform of their churches in the twenty-first century.3 With the current emphasis by Pope Francis on the importance of the local church, and with talk in Ireland by bishops, theologians, and the people of God about the possibility of a National Synod, and with the announcement of a diocesan Synod in Limerick, it is more and more likely that the teaching of Vatican II will be invoked as a point of departure. It is worth noting in this context that the Council recommended that bishops should recover the ancient practice of holding Synods at national, regional, and diocesan levels.4 The Irish theologian Gerry O’Hanlon SJ has called for a national Synod or Consultation or Assembly on a number of occasions. His proposals ← 4 | 5 → are informed by his experience of leading listening days of discernment in many dioceses throughout Ireland. His views, both pastoral and theological, have been presented persuasively in a number of publications.5 It is hoped that Vatican II in Ireland, Fifty Years On might become a source of ideas for diocesan and National Synods/Consultations/Assemblies in the coming years in Ireland.

Vatican II in Ireland, Fifty Years On builds on other, earlier reflections on the significance of the Council for the church in Ireland over the last fifty years. These include Freedom to Hope: The Catholic Church in Ireland: Twenty Years after Vatican II (1984), Vatican II Facing the Future: Historical and Theological Perspectives (2006), Reaping the Harvest: Fifty Years after Vatican II (2012).6 Other equally important reflections can be found in the pages of The Furrow and Doctrine and Life over the last fifty years, since both journals have been dedicated amongst other things to the mediation of the fruits of the Council.

The Church in a Postmodern World

Although the world today, marked by globalisation, driven by technology and economics, and stamped by a plurality of views, is different to the world of the 1960s, nonetheless there are some similarities: how does the church reform itself, how does the church change with the times while ← 5 | 6 → remaining faithful to the mission it has received from Christ and the Holy Spirit, how does the church re-present the message of Christ in a world that is increasingly secular, multi-cultural and plural?

A twenty-first-century expression of these questions, taking account of the work of Charles Taylor in A Secular Age (2007), might be: Is the church relevant anymore in a world that has become self-sufficient, disenchanted socially and cosmically, and seemingly devoid of transcendence? What and where are the points of interaction between this post-modern, multi-cultural world and the Good News of Jesus Christ?

Going Back to Go Forward

A good place to start in reviewing the legacy of Vatican II for the Catholic church in the twenty-first century would be the opening address of John XXIII to the Bishops at the Council on the 11th October 1962, entitled Gaudet Mater Ecclesiae (“Mother church rejoices”). In that speech John XXIII stated:

 “we must disagree with the prophets of gloom who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand”

 The church “must look to the present, to new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world”

 “The substance of the ancient doctrine of deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another”

 The exercise of the magisterium should be “predominantly pastoral in character”

 The church today “prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity” in opposing errors.7 ← 6 | 7 →

This particular speech of John XXIII was frequently quoted from the floor of the Council and has been described as “the Council’s first text”.8

In that opening speech, John XXIII was giving a deliberated direction to the Council, even at this early stage. He was inviting the church to update itself, and so reading the signs of the times became important (GS, a. 4;UR, a. 4; PO, a. 9; AA, a. 14). Likewise, he was also pointing towards a need for the church to re-present the message in a new way, and so the Council came around to acknowledging that adaptation of the perennial truth of the Gospel to “the concepts and languages of different people … must ever be the law of all evangelisation” (GS, 44 and AG, 22). In calling for “the medicine of mercy” and a magisterium that would be pastoral in character, he was nudging the Council towards a change in style and language which became evident in several documents subsequently, especially GS.

According to John O’Malley, the US historian, there were three issues under the myriad of issues at the council:9 change, collegiality, and style. Concerning change, the question was how could the church present in a new way the message it had received from Christ and the Holy Spirit. Concerning collegiality, the issue was about the relationship between the centre and the periphery, between the papacy and the college of bishops, a recurring theme throughout the council. In relation to style, the church in its teaching and practice had to adopt a new way of relating to the modern world.

To address these and other questions, the Council invoked a number of recurring principles: aggiornamento, development, ressourcement, dialogue, and a turn to history.Aggiornamento, an Italian phrase, was about updating the church and opening the windows to the world as recommended by John in his opening speech. Development was about change and this came to be seen as the unfolding of what was already implicit in the gospel and tradition.Ressourcement, an approach promoted especially among the French periti of the Council, was about going back to the sources: biblical, ← 7 | 8 → patristic, and liturgical. Dialogue was brought to the floor by Paul VI: dialogue within the church, with other churches, with other cultures and religions, and with atheists became important in the course of the Council and so highlighted the pastoral character of the council. By taking ressourcement seriously and entering into dialogue with others, the Council became aware of the place of history for its own self-understanding, and so historical consciousness moved to the centre, so much so that one commentator describes Vatican II as “the Council of History”.10 These three issues, and these five key principles along with others like ethics, education, ecumenism, and ecclesiology feature prominently in the essays that follow.

The Contents of this Book

In Part I, “The Memory of the Second Vatican Council in Ireland”, Pádraic Conway points out that the Council was an opening up of the Catholic church to the people of Ireland. Its most immediate impact was felt through the introduction of the vernacular into the Mass and the turning around of the priest to face the congregation. He believes that the most powerful forces in disseminating the Council were the journalists.

Patrick Masterson describes the atmosphere of Irish Catholicism before the Council: high levels of sacramental practice and personal devotions. Like Pádraic Conway, he is struck by the role that Irish journalists played in mediating the Council to the public. Also significant in communicating the Council was the advent of “paperback theology” in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as a Dublin institution known as “Flannery’s Harriers”. He concludes that Irish Catholicism today finds itself seriously challenged.

Dermot Lane looks at reasons for keeping alive the memory of Vatican II and pays particular attention to the significance of Gaudium et Spes as ← 8 | 9 → the final gift of the Council to the church. He highlights solidarity, dialogue, and mutuality as first principles for reform of the church in the twenty-first century. He also outlines challenges facing the church at this time and concludes with a critique of Gaudium et Spes.


XVI, 405
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (June)
Vatican Council reception reform of catholic church reform vatican Council
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. XVI, 405 pp.

Biographical notes

Dermot A. Lane (Volume editor)

Dermot A. Lane is a well-known Irish theologian and former President of Mater Dei Institute of Education, Dublin City University. He has written extensively on Vatican II over the years. His most recent publications include Stepping Stones to Other Religions: A Christian Theology of Interreligious Dialogue (2012) and Religion and Education: Reimagining the Relationship (2013). He is currently pastor of Balally parish in Dublin.


Title: Vatican II in Ireland, Fifty Years On