Cardinal Conway 1966: Vatican II Invalidates Old Paternalism

Oct 9, 2020 | 0 comments

Prize Day speech by Cardinal William Conway, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland, at the annual prize-giving in St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth on the 19th June, 1966

Today and for a long to come much of the life of the Church will be dominated by the teaching and decisions of the great Vatican Council which has just been concluded.

It is often said that the Council was the Church adapting herself to the conditions of a changing world.

I believe that the changes which have taken place in the world in recent years, dramatic though they be, are but a foretaste of a profound transformation of human society and human thought which has only just begun and which may take anything up to a hundred years to work itself out.

In such a situation, rich and exciting in its possibilities, man needs the light of divine truth more than ever if he is to see his way clearly. Without such light he will flounder and become submerged.

Pope John’s decision to hold the Vatican Council, looked at from the standpoint of 50 or 100 years from now, will be seen as one of the clearest signs of God’s guiding hand in the world. The Holy Father referred to it the other day as ‘a new Pentecost’. It is only as the years go by that we will come to realise its historic significance.

Meantime the great task remains of bringing the thought of the Council as quickly as possible into every mind in the Church and implementing its decisions in every diocese and in every parish.

In a sense it will be much easier to implement the decisions than to communicate the thought.

The decisions of the Council will be embodied in the precise directives of a series of Instructions and Directories which will be issued shortly by the Holy See. It had been hoped that they would have appeared on June 29 this year but the Holy Father said last week that they were not quite ready. As they appear they will be quickly put into effect. In the meantime the Bishops here have done a great deal of preparatory work on such questions as the Lay Apostolate, Ecumenism, seminary training, religious education in schools, and so on.

But when it comes to transmitting the thought, the doctrine of the Council, it is a different matter. You cannot implant the teaching of a general Council into a person’s mind simply by making a decision and it is foolish to think otherwise. This will inevitably be a slow, hard process involving prolonged and profound study of the Council documents in books, conferences, sermons, lectures and so on. This study must be based on the authentic voice of the Church as embodied in the Council documents, documents which do not change but rather deepen the Church’s understanding of the Gospel. This process has already begun and it is the mind of the Church that it be pressed forward with resolution and vigour.

Here priests will have a vital role to play because, as the Council itself teaches, the priest’s first task, after his principal office of offering the sacrifice of the Mass is to preach the Gospel. The doctrine of the Vatican Council is the Gospel, applied to the conditions of the modern world.

In this respect, you young priests may have an advantage over the older priests in that you will have absorbed the spirit and teaching of the Council during your formative years. You are young, and young people more easily form new attitudes and new orientations than older people. The Ireland into which you are going is a very different place to the Ireland of even 25 years ago and it is still changing rapidly. It will require many changes in pastoral approach, many changes in relations between priests and people, changes designed to preserve, in a new situation, a close bond which, thank God, still exists. You will be called upon to embody this new approach. If you serve the Ireland of tomorrow as well as the older priests served the Ireland of yesterday you will have done well. Do not make the mistake of judging the pastoral approach of yesterday by the requirements of today or tomorrow.

The pastoral methods which were used in the past in Ireland grew out of the type of society which existed then and were suited to that type of society. The only valid test of their effectiveness is their results, and no one will deny that they were successful here to a degree probably unparalleled in the world.

Yet if they were successful in the past that does not mean that they will be successful in the present or in the future. In fact it is abundantly clear that as they stand many of them will not be successful. If there was a certain paternalism in the relations between priests and people in Ireland in the past, it was a natural growth in a paternalistic world and it was suited to the temper and condition of the time. It is not suited to either the temper or condition of increasing numbers of our people today.

If when Ireland was a quiet backwater the faith and devotion of her people could be nurtured by silent prayer and meditation at Mass, that is much less true, particularly for young people who live in a different kind of world.

For them the liturgy must reach out, through you its consecrated ministers and draw them into active participation. If in the past, relations between ourselves and our fellow-Christians were cold, then that, too, was the product of historical circumstances, some of them peculiar to Ireland. But that, too, is out of place in the Ireland of today.

The Irish people are today in many ways a more mature and educated people than they could possibly have been in the days when the dice was loaded against us. The priest is speaking to a different kind of congregation, no less faithful, no less devout, but thank God, more developed intellectually, more aware of what is going on in the world at large, more capable of making comparisons. The priest of today must take account of this important change, which is still taking place and which will become more and more evident in the next few decades.

More than ever it is important that he should know what his people are thinking and saying so that he can effectively communicate with them. More and more he must keep his own mind in training by hard reading: more than ever in a world where many voices are competing for the ears of his people he must know the art of effective communication. He must preach in a way that will make people listen and hear the Gospel of Christ through him.

He must preach through the liturgy and the manner in which he discharges his sacred functions in it. He must preach by dialogue — by a readiness to listen and hear what others have to say. It is by dialogue that you get to know what is going on in the mind of your listener. In this era of change it is unwise to assume that you know what he is thinking, especially if he is a young person, and if you do not know this your preaching of the Gospel may be in vain.

Above all the priest must preach the Gospel by example, by the example of a stainless life rooted in prayer and in the love of Christ crucified. The aggiornamento which the Vatican Council calls for is not just a new way of presenting the unchanging truth of the Gospel in the Church, not just a new set of arrangements in ecclesiastical life. All these things are simply means to an end and the end is an inner spiritual renewal of the whole Church and, through the Church, of the world. This renewal must begin in the heart and will of every individual Catholic man and woman. Here too — indeed, here above all, the priest must lead the way, he who is, by his ordination, as the Vatican Council reminds us ‘another Christ’.


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