60 Years Later: 2 English Bishops Reflect on Vatican II

Bishop Mark Davies: ‘I would echo Pope Benedict’s repeated invitation: that to understand the Second Vatican Council, we must go back to the text of what the Council itself taught.’

 Bishop Mark Davies and Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth.
Bishop Mark Davies and Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth. (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain )

Sixty years after its commencement, the Second Vatican Council continues to divide opinions within the Church. Some see it as the beginning of the end of much that was perceived as good within the Church, while others see it very much as a new beginning in the life of the Church and a much-needed reappraisal of her mission in and to the world. 

The Register spoke via email with two English bishops — Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth and Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury — about the Council and its lived reality in their respective dioceses. 

When asked if the Council has been unfairly characterised by some, Bishop Davies responded: “Some caricatures and distortions do sadly remain. In my experience, this invariably results from not paying attention to what the Council Fathers themselves taught. I would echo Pope Benedict’s repeated invitation: that to understand the Second Vatican Council, we must go back to the text of what the Council itself taught. I hope the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Council will help many to rediscover the beauty of its authentic teaching.”

Bishop Egan underscored that the purpose of the Council was to enable the Church more effectively to evangelize the modern world. To that end, it espoused a two-way method: ressourcement (back to the sources) and aggiornamento (updating). It was called a “pastoral” Council because, he explained, “unlike previous Councils, its aim was not to formulate a new dogma in the face of a difficulty, but to teach the Christian faith in a pastoral, popular and irenic manner, so as to foster ecumenical and human unity.” 

However, he does accept some Council documents do — sometimes — “betray the ‘optimism’ of the day.” Interestingly, he senses these documents at times also “adopt compromise formulae that leave open quaestiones disputatae, and these are initiate trajectories of thought and action that continue to be current, suggesting that the work of Vatican II is unfinished.” 

That being said, there are positive fruits of the Council, according to the bishops. 

“There is much that is positive,” said Bishop Egan. “For me, there is the legacy of the documents themselves, together with the impressive body of magisterial teaching and guidance given by Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Another legacy was the steer given by Pope St. Paul VI that the Church exists not for herself; she exists to evangelize. Pope Francis has developed this, helping the Church to recover a richer, biblical understanding of what it means to be Catholic, namely, missionary discipleship.”

Bishop Davies, despite acknowledging certain later “distortions,” sees many positives flowing from the Council, as well. “At the heart of the Council’s purpose was to re-echo in our time the universal call to holiness. Pope St. Paul VI described this as the very heart of the renewal which the Council sought. The radical re-proposing of the call to holiness in every state and walk of life is surely the key to understand the whole renewal which the Council envisaged. I cannot think of a more powerful or more urgent message.”

Both bishops have large and busy dioceses with a declining number of priests to serve in them. In light of that, they weighed in on their perception of the Council’s effect on the training of priests. 

“The Council had no doubt that the renewal it proposed depended in large measure on the renewal of the Catholic priesthood,” said Bishop Davies. This was, he said, to be “in the striving of each priest for holiness and with a greater attention given to spiritual formation.” “Yet,” he added, “the hopes of the Council would be disappointed in the turmoil which too often marked the life of seminaries in the years following the Council.”

In regard to seminaries, Bishop Egan described “the new direction of travel” being set by the Council in Optatam Totius, its decree on the training of priests. Yet, unfortunately, he views the post-conciliar years as marked by poor teaching and practice that eventually led to an atmosphere of crisis and scandal. 

“It was Pope St. John Paul II’s 1992 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis that blew the whistle and reset seminaries, delineating the four dimensions of formation: spiritual, intellectual, pastoral and human,” he said. More than anything else, he underlined, Pastores Dabo Vobis established the modern seminary curriculum and its priorities. As a result, he said, today’s seminaries are “producing many fine priests, even if in the West they are not as numerous as before the Council.” The crisis today, he said, is no longer in the seminaries, but in the lack of vocations to the priesthood. The answer he suggests is the “embedding in the Church community [of] a culture of vocation.”  

The Council, of course, has also impacted parish life, “a massive impact on parish life,” as Bishop Egan put it. While noting that in British parishes there has been a huge decline in attendance since the 1960s, notably, among the young, he also noted that “the structures of the parish, the liturgy, the pastoral life and outreach have been modernised and transformed,” not least with much more lay involvement and engagement in various ministries. 

Bishop Egan said parishes flourish where there is “orthodox, faith-filled clergy and people, parishes where the liturgy is celebrated in a solemn and beautiful manner, parishes where active attempts are made to reach out in charity and mission to those around.” But he also thinks that, for some, parish life is not about “mission mode but maintenance mode,” which results only in an inevitable “terminal decline.” 

“I pray that the Holy Spirit reinvigorates us once again with the exciting vision of Gaudium et Spes, the Church engaged with today’s world,” he said. “The whole Church, collectively and in every member, is missionary by its nature.” He pointed out that Gaudium et Spes reminds the faithful of the universal call to holiness, a call for all Catholics to become saints. “So,” he continued, “I pray that every Catholic will feel the need for a deep renewal of faith — to become a saint — so as to become an effective missionary disciple.”

Bishop Davies went on to suggest that the Council’s universal call to holiness remains underappreciated. “The call of the Council for laypeople to engage in an apostolate more wide-ranging and intense in present circumstances, to work for the evangelization and sanctification of their contemporaries, and to enable the Gospel to permeate and transform the whole of society is teaching of perennial significance and contemporary urgency.”

Within his diocese, Bishop Davies sees the positive impact of the Council in those parishes where “the universal call to holiness and the universal call to apostolate have been embraced.” 

The reasons for this are, he said, “dependent — to use a beautiful expression of the Council — on frequenting the grace of the sacraments of the Eucharist and penance. This is a sure measure of the progress of the renewal.” 

The “remarkable growth of Eucharistic adoration in recent decades” is, he added, one sure hallmark of an “authentic renewal.”

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