Seen but not Heard
Seminary life back in 1958 was extraordinarily predictable! Little occurred to break the ordered routine, except perhaps an occasional Feast Day, or a rare visit from a passing bishop.
But when Pope Pius XII died on 9th October 1958, all hell broke loose (so to speak)! As students we had prayed during his illness: “may the Lord preserve him and give him life, and make him blessed upon the earth and deliver him not up to the will of his enemies”. Having prayed for his health and life, his death came as quite a shock!
Typical of the young, we had no sooner ‘buried’ one pope, than we began to speculate on a successor. Pius XII had been dubbed the ‘pope of peace’ and we hoped the new pope would work hard in the interests of world peace.
As 18-year-olds we didn’t really think the Church needed changing; even to suggest something so bold would have been tantamount to heresy! However, we did hope for a young, vigorous man – one who would make us even prouder to be Catholic.
How devastated we were, when on 20th October 1958, the cardinals, gathered in conclave, elected a 76-year-old as pope. Angelo Roncalli was an unknown quantity, and at 76, we thought he would be an embarrassment. He was ‘old’ and ‘fat’ and would accomplish nothing; the commentators labelled him the ‘caretaker pope’. But how wrong we were!
Very quickly into his pontificate we came to appreciate his warm, friendly personality and a capacity to win hearts with a broad smile. His statements were impressive and his activities decisive, as if he were determined to cram as much as possible into what he saw as a small window of opportunity to make his mark.
John XXIII seemed so free in his role as pope and so able to be himself – a warm and loving human being. He came across as a simple and genuinely holy priest. To a young man preparing for priesthood, his personality and style were music to my ears. He was an inspiring model for me. It was like a death in the family when he died in June 1963.
Less than three months after his election, Pope John XXIII announced that he would hold a Diocesan Synod for Rome; convoke a General Ecumenical Council for the universal Church; and revise the Code of Canon Law.
He set a bold and adventurous agenda for himself and the rest of the Church. The Synod was held in 1960, the Second Vatican Council began in 1962, and the Pontifical Commission for the revision of the Code was appointed in 1963, the year of his death.
John XXIII’s progressive encyclical Mater et Magistra was issued in 1961 to commemorate the anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. He made notable advances in ecumenism and introduced liturgical changes to the Missal and Breviary.
John XXIII will be remembered mostly as the pope who convened the Second Vatican Council. He admitted that the initiative for calling such a great event came out of the blue: “It was completely unexpected like a flash of heavenly light, shedding sweetness in eyes and hearts” (Opening Speech to the Council).
Meanwhile, back in the seminary, we heard little about the years of preparation. Like most people, we expected the Council to reiterate traditional Church teaching and be over in a matter of weeks.
Thus, when Council documents began to get through to us, we were unprepared for the remarkable shift of emphasis that they appeared to signal. More than that, we were staggered to learn of the audacity of some Council Fathers who challenged the status quo and even sent back documents for a rewrite.
Pope John XXIII had declared that God is “leading us to a new order of human relations, which by our own efforts and even beyond our very expectations, are directed toward the fulfilment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. Everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.” (Ibid.)
Wow! Electrifying stuff! And the ‘differences’ were flowing fast and furious! Vatican II documents were being churned out at a rate of knots. In 1963, two documents; in 1964, three documents; and in 1965, a staggering eleven documents.
In 1963 we were preparing to be ordained as deacons. While we knew the documents of Vatican II were important, we had more immediate matters on our minds – permanent commitment to celibacy and priesthood. This was decision time for us!
The following year we were ordained priests and again, we were caught up with a sense of our own importance and the awesome privilege of being able to celebrate Mass. After ordination we returned to the seminary to complete our final six months of study, venturing out a couple of times to assist with weekend Masses in some of the Sydney parishes.
These events preoccupied most of us to the point where Vatican II was put on hold somewhat for us. However, one of our colleagues remained focused on the exciting events in Rome, proving to be a mine of information for those prepared to listen.
James Tierney (of Catholic Family Catechism fame) would excitedly reveal the most recent teachings to come from the Council Fathers and encourage the rest of us to consider the implications of these for the Church and for our ministry as priests. I still think that if James had not been so infectious in his enthusiastic response to events in Rome, we would hardly have noticed what was happening over there. Sadly, the seminary staff seemed as ignorant as the rest of us. Thank you, James Tierney!
Our first appointments as assistant priests began on 1st January 1965. (I was appointed to Annandale Parish in Sydney). We had emerged from seven years of formation and study with a pre-Vatican II worldview into a Church that was beginning to reshape its relationship with the world. This was the year when eleven documents were to be produced and we young priests were in the unique position of being able to absorb and teach a Vatican II mindset.
How were we to do this? Our parish priests, by and large, were too old to care, and people in the pews hadn’t been told much. I later came to admire greatly those older priests who went along with the new liturgical changes, more out of obedience than conviction, but accepted the reality of a new Church nonetheless.
My first attempts to introduce guitar Masses proved an obstacle to peaceful presbytery life, but when enthusiastically accepted by the young people, begrudging permission was granted. An altar facing the people was definitely OUT!
Fortunately, we younger priests in the district (Peter Ingham at Newtown, Carmelo Scibberas at Forest Lodge, and myself at Annandale) were invited by the assistant priest at Rozelle, Tony Newman (of Living Parish Hymn Book fame) to form a study group.
We would gather at Rozelle Presbytery on a Friday afternoon to study and discuss the documents of Vatican II, thereby encouraging one another to become familiar with their theology and spirit.
This went on for several months until our elderly parish priests got wind of what we were doing and discouraged further meetings. It was not so much their frowning on our laudable efforts to study the documents, as suspicion that Tony Newman – regarded as a little controversial – was having an undue influence on our young minds.
We dutifully ceased our Friday gatherings but our appetites for Vatican II had well and truly been whetted. Each of us continued our reading privately, continuing our fascination with these groundbreaking ideas and concepts.
However, it was Tony Newman who influenced me greatly. His insights and his passion for Vatican II teaching had a deep effect on my own appreciation. Thank you, Tony Newman!
While all the documents of Vatican II impressed me greatly in those formative priestly years, the ones that impacted most were the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.
Liturgy was the area of Church life that felt the reforms of Vatican II most immediately. Just before we were ordained priests in 1964, the first use of English in the Mass was permitted. Rapid liturgical changes followed.
Through all these rapid changes we still maintained that the words of consecration would remain in Latin – they were immutable and essential to the form of the Eucharistic sacrifice. How wrong we were!
For two or three years, each parish still celebrated a Latin Mass on every weekend, so that those finding it difficult to cope with the changes could adapt more easily. Some parishes shunted the Latin Mass on to a weekday time-slot and eventually, over a period of time, it ceased altogether.
While these rapid liturgical changes appealed to me as a young priest, I think now with the advantage of hindsight, that the changes were introduced haphazardly, without orchestration and without much formation of priests and people. I think that is why we are still trying to unpack the significance of these documents to this very day.
But because they were authorised by Vatican II and the bishops, we implemented them. They were seen as, mostly, a change in language only. There was little attempt to explain the concepts behind the changes, nor the relationship between the Eucharist and the worshipping community.
This is why Lumen Gentium – “The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” – had a great influence on me. The concept of the Church as the People of God on its pilgrim journey to the Father was a far cry from the immutable structure that the Body of Christ had become. To consider that the Church was always in a state of becoming, searching for authenticity and relevance in the context of the world, made so much sense to me.
Moreover, to declare that by Baptism, all members of the Church share in its life and mission, was to commit the entire People of God to an evangelising and celebratory role in collaboration and partnership.
The richness of Lumen Gentium permeated every aspect of my later pastoral ministry. Parish Councils and other consultative bodies became important to me. Liturgical celebrations, especially the Eucharist, became celebrations of the worshipping community gathered to express its life in Jesus Christ, and to strengthen its members to more actively engage the life and mission of the Church.
Lumen Gentium didn’t exactly teach any new doctrine, but it gave authority to a newer understanding of the Church that resonated better than a former rigidly hierarchical model.
How pleased I was, therefore, when appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle in 1995, to find a diocesan community that had formally adopted the teachings of Lumen Gentium in an earlier Synod.
As a diocese, we are the first to admit that we have a long way to go. But are we not a pilgrim people always in the process of becoming?
Writing this article has been a wonderful opportunity to muse over the past 40 years. Many memories have surfaced and I have come to appreciate just how much Vatican II has influenced me, first as a student, then priest, and now as a bishop. In my reflection, I have also become aware of the debt I owe to significant mentors along the way.
It goes without saying that Vatican II had a profound influence on all associated with the Church at the time. The following words from John’s gospel speak to me of the many challenges and opportunities that Vatican II presented:
“In all truth I tell you, when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.” (John 21:18)
It was an affirming and exciting time for some, but it also created fear and pessimism for others. There were those who embraced the teachings and experience with fervour and there were those who rejected them, who resisted going down this new path.
I consider myself fortunate to have lived at the right time: for I was young enough to have grown with Vatican II and its influence, yet old enough to acknowledge the importance of pre-Vatican II faith and practice. My foundations were firm but not so unbending as to dismiss a new reality. I guess I held on to the words of Jesus, “follow me”.
My prayer for now and beyond is that the wisdom of Vatican II will allow me to embrace with courage the new realities that face our Church.
It is hard to believe that it is forty years since Vatican II began. In many ways the ramifications of this defining period are yet to appear. When I was growing up we were taught that ‘children should be seen and not heard’. As a ‘child of Vatican II’, I resent the fact that too many people treat Vatican II in the same way – as something to be ‘seen but not heard’. 0
(Bishop Michael Malone is Bishop of Newcastle-Maitland Diocese, NSW.)