December-January 2022/23: BOOK REVIEW
Reviewer: Fr Paul Cayton-Lea
VATICAN COUNCIL MEMORIES
Bishop Michael Smith
Veritas Publications, 2022
9781 80097 011 3 • pp 208
Few people are in a better position to comment on the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) than Bishop Michael Smith, bishop emeritus of Meath who was educated at the Pontifical College in Rome during the period of preparation for the Ecumenical Council and ordained a priest in 1963 as the momentous nature of the gathering began to permeate the Church. In a memoir with appendices stretching to just over 200 pages Bishop Smith wastes no time diverting from the main focus of his reminisces and instead paints a vivid, detailed, picture from his vantage point and experience as a young student in Rome of what was to become one of the most influential and widely debated events in the history of the Catholic Church. As a member of a small group of people tasked with creating the official record of the events of the Council and, despite his youth, a shrewd and detached observer of most of the significant figures who were to shape the historical event, Bishop Smith’s account is rightly styled as unique.
Beginning with Pope John’s surprise announcement in January 1959 that he intended to convoke an ecumenical council as well as a synod of the Diocese of Rome and update the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Bishop Smith continues over five chapters to detail the preparation in which he was so closely involved and then the four Session of the Council which began on 11 October 1962 and concluded on 8 December 1965. Bishop Smith recalls one of his most striking memories as relating to the extraordinary providence of God at work in the lives of the two popes that brought the council about and to its conclusion. St John XXIII had deciding in total trust of the Lord and perhaps with another eye on his likely longevity ( he had after all been chosen it was said as ‘a caretaker’ pope by the cardinals in conclave) to announce the Council and then prepare for it. This was in sharp contrast to previous efforts where the preparations were concluded – some might even argue the conclusions had also been made – before the bishops assembled. On this occasion however the Council took on a life of its own and here Bishop Smith provides an authentic and authoritative account of the ebbs and flows of the life of the Council as well as unmatched knowledge of the theologians, scripture scholars and major figures of influence both on the Council floor and behind the scenes. Bishop Smith is both forensic and unsparing in his analysis of documents and speeches both positively and negatively. His description of the extraordinary and wide range of personalities and their conciseness of speech or habit of being longwinded makes for engaging pen pictures of the Council meetings. For example he mentions how the Bishop of Cork, Bishop Lucey’s address during the third session was well received even if many of those listening couldn’t understand his pronounced Cork accent! In addition he does not hesitate to describe and outline the issues of controversy and how they may have affected the reputations and futures of different prelates and scholars.
Bishop Smith notes interestingly that input from the English-speaking world was minimal. Surprisingly perhaps he also records that Italian scholars were noticeably absent. Bishop Smith praises the organizing skills of the bishops in India as well as bishops from Asia. In contrast and despite their larger numbers bishops and experts from South America he describes as minimal and disappointing. Having said that the experience of the Council itself stimulated and encouraged these groups of bishops and so development of organizational skills and subsequent growth of the Church in their own countries occurred as a direct result of their involvement with the Council.
§As well as Pope John’s address at the beginning of the Council and Pope Paul VI’s last address at the end, Bishop Smith has included a particularly valuable appendix in the form of an address given by Pope Benedict XVI shortly after announcing his plans to resign the papal office. Meeting with the priests of Rome on 14 February 2013 without a prepared script Pope Benedict decided to share with them his memories of the Vatican Council. Bishop Smith advises readers that anyone wishing to understand the Council should read this address, thoughtfully included with his own memoir.
While there are many reasons to enjoy this historical record there is in addition the place Bishop Smith has given to the Irish involvement in the Council. It had a pivotal role in his own life as he was to go on to be entrusted with the task of implementing many of the Council’s reforms in his own country. It is fortunate that he has given time to put on record his memories of people and events that have been transformative in the lives of so many of us.
Reviewer: Fr Paul Clayton-Lea, Intercom, December 2022
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