An Event to Experience

Book cover
Living Vatican IIby Gerald O’Collins, S.J.

Paulist Press. 256p $19.95 (paperback)


As the generation that fought World War II began to pass from the scene, a proliferation of memoirs, oral histories and similar works appeared, with the aim of communicating to a generation that had not witnessed it the experience and importance of the event. Something like that is happening now that the Second Vatican Council is passing from memory into history (as Stephen Schloesser has put it). In Living Vatican II, Gerald O’Collins aims to convey to young adults a sense of why the council was needed, what it achieved and why it was important, and to urge that full use be made of [its] heritage.

The book’s title is deliberately ambiguous. O’Collins wants to draw on his own experience of living through the conciliar period and its aftermath and to argue that its teachings and spirit are and ought to be still alive in the church. His particular emphasis is the reception of the councilthat is, how the church has accepted and implemented it, making it part of its life.

O’Collins, an Australian Jesuit, was not present at the council. He was ordained a priest in Australia in December 1962, after the council’s first session. During the remainder of the council he was engaged in further studies in Germany and England. But the council decisively shaped his work; and he, in turn, played an important role in the process of reception as a professor of theology (now emeritus) since 1974 at the Gregorian University in Rome and as the author or co-author of 44 books and numerous scholarly and popular articles.

Living Vatican II is part memoir, part description of the postconciliar church, part theological analysis and recommendations. The structure is loose, and it is hard not to think that much of the content originates in talks and occasional writings over the years. But all of it is very readable, and the autobiographical sections are sprinkled with amusing anecdotes, including one about General MacArthur’s underwear, to which I shall return later.

There are eight main chapters. The first surveys how the council affected O’Collins’s work as priest and theologian. The second, titled Facilitators or Gatekeepers, reviews different ecclesiastical bodies responsible for implementing the council, sometimes merely pointing out who had responsibility for what, sometimes assessing their effectiveness or ineffectiveness. Chapter Three shifts to the First Council of Nicaea (325) and presents the Cappadocians (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus) as models for creative fidelity in the reception of a council. The next three chapters, on liturgical reform, moral theology and ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, respectively, exemplify the different styles of discourse in the book.

On liturgical reform, O’Collins offers much advice as to what priests, bishops and liturgical commissions ought to do. Priests, for instance, should never trivialize the texts by any chatty’ additions or alterations. Liturgical translations should convey the meaning of original texts without becoming stilted in an attempt to mimic their grammatical structure. On moral theology, O’Collins surveys moral issues that have been prominent since the council and discusses how to apply the teaching of Jesus to contemporary moral questions. The only position he argues at any length is that same-sex marriages are unacceptable. On ecumenical and interfaith relations, O’Collins entertainingly recounts his own experience of dialogue with Protestants (there is nothing much here on the Orthodox) and Jews and of theological engagement with non-Christian religions, all in the new circumstances that the council made possible. The eighth chapter, on theology in general, returns to the descriptive style.

The book’s last main chapter is on the church. O’Collins clearly sees the council’s aspirations for collegiality as inadequately realized, with the World Synod of Bishops and episcopal conferences both hindered by Rome, and he urges greater autonomy for local churches. He calls for enhanced participation of the laity in the church, while also advocating the ordination of women as deacons and the eligibility of married male deacons for ordination as priests.

Four postconciliar texts appear in appendices. By far the longest is a report by Jacques Dupuis, S.J., on the debacle of the 1974 meeting of the Synod of Bishops on evangelization, which O’Collins sees as signaling the decline of the Synod as an agent of collegiality. As Dupuis’s article shows, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla bore some of the responsibility for that debacle. In time, the story of the church’s reception of Vatican II became very much the story of this one man’s reception of Vatican II as Pope John Paul II. Assessing the impact of that larger-than-life personage on the church will be one of the chief tasks for the 21st-century church and its theologians, but O’Collins does only a little of it here, applauding the late pope’s bold outreach toward Jews, representatives of other religions and the world’s poor, while lamenting his centralizing tendencies.

O’Collins’s book, then, is not the definitive interpretation of the twenty-first council for the twenty-first century, but it is a worthy contribution to the project. O’Collins writes from extensive experience and a clear love of Jesus and the church. His opinions are invariably moderate and judicious; there is scarcely anything with which I disagree. But that may indicate a problem. Though younger than O’Collins, I too am of the generation for whom Vatican II was decisive. My students, however, are another story. The theology majors and minors among themthe students who are most likely to be active in the church as clergy, religious, lay ministers and theologianstend to identify themselves with the evangelical Catholics described by the theologian William Portier.

Evangelical Catholics emphasize Catholic identity markers in a culture of pluralism. They love eucharistic adoration and other distinctively Catholic devotions that fell into disuse in the years after Vatican II. Pope John Paul II is their hero. O’Collins’s recommendations do not address what they perceive the church to need. They are not hostile to Vatican II itselfby and large, they are interested in learning about itbut, contrary to the council and the immediate postconciliar church, they are inclined to cultivate Catholic distinctiveness from the surrounding world, rather than to seek rapprochement with that world. Some, though by no means all, set themselves explicitly against the postconciliar church, deploring the rise of theological dissent, the decline in the numbers of priests and religious and the loss of the church’s influence on Western societies. Any successful interpretation of Vatican Council II and its reception addressed to the present generationin the United States, at leastwill need to make clear not only why the council was necessary but also to what degree it was responsible for the developments that followed it and to what degree those developments themselves were creative or destructive.

And General MacArthur’s underwear? O’Collins was a boy when MacArthur was headquartered at Melbourne during the war. The general stayed with acquaintances of the O’Collins family. Nuns did his laundry, and they, to enhance his chances of victory, stitched tiny miraculous medals into the seams of his underclothes.

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10 years 5 months ago
Very interesting article in America Magazine. I ran across Father`Gerald O'Collins,S.J. while attending a retreat at the Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House, Barrington Hills IL.I just found out in this article that he is an Australian Jesuit.What I am interested in besides his writings and theolgy is origin of the "O'" in his last name,in other words, I have never seen the last name O'COLLINS.If you can get this message to him, maybe he can give me a short history on the name O'COLLINS. Thank You


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