What made John XXLLL call a Council? 01. 03. 2012



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What made John XXlll call a Council? 01.03.2012

I have given this talk in Stouport, Worcester and Birmingham in a series to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. It seems to me that we need to know the deep historical roots of the ecumenical council. We also have Pope Francis now, as we look back on fifty years and looks forward to the future.

When I lived in Rome, I was taking a group of Mercy nuns round St Peter’s. They were celebrating their jubilees We came to memorial to John XXlll and I heard a golden jubilarian say to herself. “He was the one who started all these changes” He was a key player, but there were many deeper reasons for change.

I’d like to start with you. Can we look at your experience of the changes and the changes in our attitudes, which the Council generated? In what areas have we seen these changes? (In all the places I have spoken, people have identified Liturgy: Appreciation of the Word of God: Ecumenism and a realisation of the nature of the Church, as key areas where they have been affected by the Second Vatican Council. These areas form the sections of this talk.


The Decree on the Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium.

The Council of Trent was a gargantuan effort to face the Protestant Refomation in Europe. Its decrees had a far reaching effect even down to our own day. It faced the reality of a divided Christendom. It restated Catholic teaching on the Eucharist; the bishops; the priesthood and seminaries; it reformed the liturgical books and it gave beleaguered Catholics a lead in fighting for their faith. It was born out of bitter controversy. It gave us a coherent stand. It encouraged us to fight. They debated a vernacular liturgy and giving the laity the cup at mass, but felt it unwise to proceed, as the Protestants already did this. It would look like weakness.

This rather static state of affairs continued for a long period. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic era were not times for reform, as the old European order was overturned. Scholarship however was another matter and work continued to be done on liturgical texts for 200 years before the council. Let me give you an example. What were the sources of the prayers from the Roman Missal of the middle ages, canonised by the Council of Trent? Scholars in monasteries and universities discovered that the collects of the missal came from very ancient collections which came from the papal household and were carried across Europe. The collections are known as sacramentaries. The Leonine Sacramentary came from Rome in about 540ad. The Gelasian Sacramentary is dates early 8th century, originating in Rome, it comes to us from France. A third collection is the Gregorian Sacramentary, possibly originating from Gregory the Great. From these three come very many of the prayers we have newly translated in the Roman Missal. These researches had a great influence over a long period. Scholars knew more about the shape the compilation of our missal, than did the learned men at the Council of Trent.

Let’s look at how you and I celebrate the mass. At the beginning of the XXth century Pius X made important reforms, especially in encouraging people to come to Holy Communion with much greater frequency. He also reformed the liturgical music and the Divine Office

In the 1920’s and 30’s a German priest, Romano Guardini and Rudolf Schwarz, a celebrated architect, worked together with youth groups in the hall of a castle where they met. The used wooden stools instead of benches, which were arranged around the altar to give the young people a real sense of sharing in the action, as they made the peoples’ responses in Latin. In France the liturgical movement found leaders and mass was said facing the people by 1947 in St Julien les Pauvres. In England, Fr John O’Connor of the Leeds Diocese, was a liturgical pioneer, building a round church in Bradford dedicated to the First Martyrs. You know him better as G K Chesterton’s ‘Father Brown’. Fr Clifford Howell sj, was an English pioneer with liturgical music and the dialogue mass, where the people began to play their proper part.

The most important impetus came from Pius Xll with the Holy Week and Easter reforms of 1955. This was a great restoration of the high point of the churches year. Its significance paved the way for all that the Council achieved.

Great scholarship had gone into the reforms of the ll Vat Conc. The Church is these islands was not so well prepared, as whole. but the reforms received impetus from the USA. In the past the priest had taken all the parts of the mass to himself, with even the responses given only to the server. Now Celebrant deacon; the congregation; reader; soloists; psalmists; choir and ministers of Holy Communion all have their parts to play.

The place of the Bible

I will never accept the proposition that the Catholic church is a sacramental church and the reformed churches are bible churches, as though the two were in opposition. This is simply unhistorical. Anyone who has read the church father, especially Irenaeus, Augustine and Ambrose will know that the Bible is their meat and drink. Those of you who pray the Office of Readings will be well aware of this.

The ‘only the Holy Scriptures’ approach (sola scriptura) of some reformers stimulated Catholic biblical theology. The young English priests who studied at the Roman College in XVl and XVll centuries were being trained to be biblical scholars. They were to take on protestant divines in formal debate. St Ralph Sherwin, the first martyr of the Venerable English College was descried as ‘an able Grecian and Hebrician’ After suffering on the rack, Edmund Campion was taken to a conference in the Romanesque chapel of St John in the Tower to debate with Anglican Divines. All he had was in his head. One of the protestant courtiers witnessing this scene was St Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel. He became a Catholic and spent the rest of his life in the same Tower were he died.

1859 saw the publication of Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ It caused dismay in some quarters but as well as scientific examination of our origins, the bible too was being put under scientific study, especially in Germany. The church in France provided many Catholic Biblical scholars and the Ecole Biblique was founded in Jerusalem as well as the Biblicum in Rome.

Once again it was Pius Xll in his great encyclical Divine Afflante Spiritu (Inspired by the Divine Spirit) who gave official encouragement to biblical scholarship. It is said that some in the Vatican were looking forward to him tightening the screws on biblical studies, instead he gave such studies the blessing of the church. Archaeology and MSS research now made it obligatory to go back to original texts and understand their context. It also allowed biblical criticism. Fr Raymond Brown called this letter the magna carta of biblical studies.

The ll Vatican Council decreed that a ‘richer fare’ of the scriptures be given to the people at mass. So after over forty years, you and I are used to the OT readings; the continuous readings of the NT Letters and the cycle of all the evangelists, spread over three years.

This innovation is best illustrated by a story about George Patrick Dwyer, who ordained me priest in his first Birmingham ordinations of 1966.He was very gifted intellectually. He had a photographic memory for what he had read. He did his doctorate on Baudelaire. He was sharp and witty. Above all he was very irascible. Stories abound. (if ever there was a seminarian with a mitre in his rucksack it was him) He was brighter than John Heenan, but not so smooth.

At the council sessions, a scripture scholar asked George if he had ever heard the parable of the Prodigal Son. George harrumphed. The second question was “Where had he heard it” George was positive he has heard it at Sunday Mass as a child. The scholar said, your never heard it at Sunday Mass. You might have heard it at Benediction or a parish mission, but it was never read at mass. It was not in the cycle of readings. George was amazed and he lined himself up with those who would vote for ‘a richer fare’ at the council. I decided I had better check the accuracy of this story before telling you about it. I went through the old Roman Missal my mother had. The readings were the same every year. My first parish priest, Canon Arthur Diamond, knew what the gospels were for each numbered Sunday. Mostly Matthew, a little Luke, no Mark a little John. The OT only at Holy Week and Ember Days. The Prodigal Son does not appear as a Sunday reading in the old missal. (It does feature on the Saturday after the second Sunday of Lent).

Our Lectionary is a revolutionary tool giving us a three-ear cycle on Sundays and a two-year cycle on week days. It opens up untold riches of the OT and NT for ordinary lay folk and it has laid the groundwork for effective biblical teaching and preaching In the Catholic church. Fr John Fitzsimons told me that “The Church of Scotland. The Kirk, has said that the Common Lectionary is the finest gift from Roman Catholic Church in 450 years”.

The Church: who are we?

In the XlX century, Mgr George Talbot said that “the place of the laity was to fish, to hunt and to shoot. I suppose only gentlemen were laity in those days. My Irish great-grandparents working in the pits on Cannock Chase didn’t have much time for such pursuits, but they built their church too and paid for it without a priest.

Let me be provocative. What is the church? A pyramid with the Pope at the top? (Cardinals, bishops and higher clergy occupying most of the space with a mass of laity, (males only) at the bottom). Those with watch-chains naturally got precedence.

Two of Pius Xll’s letters came out in 1943, in the depths of the Nazi war. I have mentioned the one on biblical studies. which came out in September. In June he has published his great letter on the Mystical Body of Christ, the church. Theologians had been looking again at St Paul’s foundational image of the body of Christ. He is our head, we are his members. We inter-depend on each other.

The Council decree on the church, Lumen Gentium (The light of the nations) is a keystone of the council. It has a wonderful chapter on the biblical images of the church. I can still re-create the excitement of our lectures at Oscott, when I read it. Taken either from the life of the shepherd, or the cultivation of the land; from the art of building or from family life and marriage, these images have their preparation in the prophets

Let me simply read the list. The Church is: A sheepfold, whose solitary gate is Christ; A cultivated field; the Vine; the building of God; the holy city, constructed with living stones; the Jerusalem above; our mother; we are a body with Christ as our head, vivified by the Holy Spirit; we are also Christ’s bride.


The church like a stranger in a foreign land, presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God, announcing the cross and the death of the Lord until he comes. In short we are the People of God.

The Council’s teaching on the church follows on from the work of theologians and the letter of Pius Xll.


Working for the unity of Christians

When I was growing up we had very cordial relations with our Anglican and Methodist neighbours. Yet we had very little idea of what they believed and we had never been inside their churches or they in ours. This well-meaning ignorance meant that we never worked together for Christ and did not share prayer. In a way we might have been Sikh or Muslim or Hindu. Yet attitudes were changing. It has been said that Hitler was the father of the ecumenical movement in Europe.

John Paul ll held a great prayer service at the Colosseum during the Great Jubilee of 2000, for martyrs of the XXth century. It was an event I will never forget. Among many others, we remembered Pastor Paul Schneider, an anti-Nazi Lutheran Pastor, who died in Buchenwald. This testimony was gathered by an Austrian Catholic priest who was also a prisoner in the camp. Pastor Schneider would try to preach like a prophet. On Easter Day, in the silence of the roll-call, we heard to our surprise the powerful words, “thus says the Lord, I am the resurrection and the life” The long lines of prisoners stood at attention, deeply moved by the courage and energy of that indomitable will. He would never utter more than a few phrases. Then we would hear, raining down on him the blows of the guards truncheons. He died on 19th July 1939 of torture and medical experimentation.

When I was a little boy, I used to think that it was all so simple. We were right and they were wrong. I learned, especially during my training at Oscott College that things were a little more nuanced than that. We share Baptism and so all Christians are members of the Body of Christ. We have a communion with one another, ( a koinonia or fellowship) but it is imperfect. We share far more than divides us. Most of all we share the Divine Spirit. We must learn to live in mutual respect and knowledge and work together for the good of the kingdom. Let me give you two examples. Fr Peter Lawlor was an immensely influential lecturer at Oscott. He once said to us, “The church isn’t a box, that you are either in or out of” I realised that this was the way I had seen things

Looking at the church and the churches he once asked us, “Does an Anglican Eucharist please God or offend him?” You don’t even have to pause to know that the love and fidelity of Anglicans pleases the Almighty. Why should we be suspicious or hostile or cool towards our brothers and sisters in Christ. Fr Ignatius Spencer was convert who belonged to Princess Diana’s family. His father was Earl Spencer and his sister was lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. He worked for the unity of Christians after 1840. The movement for unity is over 100 years old. Catholics were part of the Week of Prayer for unity, with the work of the Abbe Portal.. This is why it culminates on 25th January, the feast of the conversion of St Paul.

The future, Leo Xlll, Gioachin Pecci, followed the progress of the Oxford Movement, while he was Nuncio in Brussels in the 1840’s and heard of Newman’s conversion first hand from Blessed Dominic Barberi. Forty years later Newman headed the list of his first cardinals. This was, in effect, a reaching out to the other churches.

The church is a living organism and so will be influenced by many things. The political circumstances of the time like the two great wars of 1914-18 and 1939-1945 were immense tragedies which changed the way we see things. Similarly new theological ideas were growing about the church and our worship. Our disunity too, was seen to be a scandal. John XXlll opening the windows, but the gale of the Holy Spirit was already blowing and shaking the shutters.

Let me conclude with this picture. In 1977 I visited the French monastery of Chevetogne near Namur. After the Bolshevik destruction of the Russian Orthodox Church, Pope Pius Xl asked the Benedictines if they could reach out to the Orthodox monks, many of whom were exiled. They founded a dual-rite monastery with the Orthodox Basilian and Benedictine rules and liturgy both being used. The founding prior, Dom Lambert Beauduin osb, fell foul of the Roman Curia and was exiled to Turkey. Here he met the Nuncio, an Italian from Bergamo named Angelo Roncalli. Later his exile was commuted to Paris, where he resumed his friendship with the Nuncio, Roncalli, who had been transferred to post-war France. The periodical of Chevetogne was Irenikon, dedicated to bringing the churches together. It had been calling for a Council By the time Pius Xll died in 1958, Lambert Beauduin was in a wheelchair, now happily allowed back to his monastery.. He was listening to news of the gathering for the conclave and he said. “They do not know who to elect. They will elect an old man. They will elect Roncalli and he will call a Council.”

The monk who told us this in the same refectory was Dom Olivier Rousseau osb Now himself in a wheelchair.

Mgr Patrick Kilgarriff



St Joseph’s. Malvern 2013





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