50 Years Receiving Vatican (Book Review)

Colin Chalmers

Kevin KellyKevin Kelly. 50 Years Receiving Vatican II: A Personal Odyssey. ISBN 1856077772.

The task of reviewing books for the Quest Bulletin has, over the years, been nothing if not interesting. A number of very good books have passed through my hands, as have a number of rather poor books. Some books I have been able to recommend wholeheartedly, others I have been unable to recommend. There was even one book I recently reviewed where I preferred not to take any position, leaving it up to the reader of the review to decide whether, on the basis of my review, he/she should purchase and/or read the book. All in all, the experience of reviewing books has been a very pleasant one.

The present book does, however, present me with some difficulty. Not, I hasten to add, that I am intending to present an unfavourable review – on the contrary.  I very much enjoyed reading the book. Writing the review, however, is another issue altogether. How does one review a book which covers a personal journey over the past fifty years in forty very disparate chapters plus Introduction?

This is certainly not a book which one opens at the beginning and works one’s way through to the end, as your reviewer was required to do. It is a book for dipping into – frequently. Kevin Kelly has given us exactly what the books title says – a personal journey through the past fifty years in the post-Vatican II Church. There is no discernible chronology in the book. The vast majority of articles are reprints of articles the author has, over the past forty years or so, published elsewhere, sometimes edited specifically for this book, sometimes edited for other publications and re-edited for the book. Some articles are the texts of talks, speeches or sermons. For anyone who knows Kevin Kelly personally, or has some acquaintance with his work as a moral theologian, this book will provide a delightful academic and personal reminder of a priest who is first and foremost a pastor. For those who do not know the man or his work the book will be an introduction to a theologian whose academic work springs from his pastoral experience. For all, the book, taken as a whole, presents a portrait of a theologian who is not afraid to admit his own mistakes, both as a theologian and as a pastor. Nor is he afraid to criticise official positions of the Church.

It would be interesting to find out how many of the readers of the Bulletin are put off a book if the word theology appears in it or in a review of it. To those, if indeed there are any out there, I would say, “Do not turn away from this book”. If you think at all about your life as a Christian, this book will help you and give you more to think about. Kevin Kelly’s years of experience as a Parish Priest in the Archdiocese of Liverpool have enabled him to do theology from the bottom up – that is, from experience to theory, rather than, as often seems to be the case, trying to force experience to fit the theory. This means that he has fresh insights into some of the most important questions in the Church today. The Second Vatican Council had, and continues to have, a profound effect on him, both as an academic and as a pastor. At a time when there seem to be massive efforts from official circles to play down and even deny the achievements of the Council, it is salutary to have a reminder of how the post-Vatican II Church should be.

After an Introduction in which the author sets out a lengthy and interesting biography in which he is not afraid to discuss times where he felt he had been mistaken, the book is divided into four sections: Parish and Pastoral Ministry in the light of Vatican II; Moral Theology after Vatican II; The Eucharist and Vatican II, and a Conclusion. From the point of view of the overall editing of the book, I am not sure that the extracts from the author’s journal of his brief sabbatical in the Philippines, which make up the bulk of the Conclusion, are in the right place. Given that the extracts give details of Catholic base-communities in remote areas and the work of bishops, priests and Religious in these areas, they might have been better placed in the section on Parish and Pastoral Ministry. The real meat of the Conclusion is the very brief final chapter of the book in which Kevin Kelly asks whether “we” are “ready for Vatican III”. The cry for a Third Vatican Council has been much heard in recent years. However, the author takes the eminently sensible stance of suggesting that we have not yet truly heard all that the Spirit has to say from the context of the Second Vatican Council.

Of specific interest to readers of this Bulletin will be Chapter 6, the text of a talk the author gave at Quest’s 2005 Annual Conference. It is good to see texts of Conference talks being given wider publicity. Even better, for the purposes of this book the author has added a very brief appendix to the chapter. This is the text of a letter the author wrote to The Tablet in 2010 in which he confesses that his “view on same-sex relationships has changed radically over the years.” In a few lines, Kevin Kelly outlines a profound moral theology springing, he believes, from “the person-centred theology of Vatican II”.

Many years ago a Religious Sister told me that when she went on retreat she took with her a Bible and a copy of The Times. Her meditations were enabled by her moving between the two. While a Bible is always to be recommended, I would suggest that, for a retreatant, this book would make an excellent substitute for the newspaper. It is not, however, necessary to wait until one is going on retreat to purchase the book. This is an essential post-Christmas purchase for anyone interested in thinking about Christian living fifty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

This text was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 65 (Winter 2012-13)

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