Bishop Michael Smith (centre) at the launch of his book in Maynooth last Tuesday, with Irene Connaughton, his former secretary, and Fr William Coleman, PP, Rochfortbridge, who assisted with proof-reading the early drafts of the publication.

Bishop Smith publishes book on Vatican II memories

Dr Michael Smith, Bishop Emeritus of Meath, has published a new book looking back on his time working at the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.

Bishop Smith, who retired in September 2018, served as a stenographer at ‘Vatican II’, which sat between 1962 and 1965 and was convened by Pope John XXIII to address the Catholic Church’s relations with the modern world.

‘Vatican Council Memories’, published by Veritas and launched at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth on Tuesday evening last, is Bishop Smith’s account of what he describes as his ‘university’ – the steep learning curve associated with being in a responsible role for all 168 days of the Council. Indeed, Bishop Smith is one of the few surviving Council-goers who attended the historic event in its entirety.

Sent to Italy by Fr Larry Fagan of St Finian’s College, young Michael Smith was studying for the priesthood the Irish College in Rome when he was called to work as a one of a group of stenographers contributing to the official record of the Council. As ‘Vatican II’ progressed, he was ordained a priest in March 1963.

To prepare for his stenography work, he had to learn an intricate system of Latin shorthand devised by a German professor, Dr Aloys Kennerknecht.

“It’s only a German who’d wake up one morning and say, ‘I’m going to draw up a system for Latin shorthand’, and have the determination to do it,” Bishop Smith told the Westmeath Examiner in an interview on his retirement in 2018.

After the student Michael Smith became Fr Michael Smith, postgraduate studies followed at the Pontifical Lateran University, and a doctorate in canon law under the supervision of Monsignor Giuseppe d’Ercole. While his study on the structure of the early Irish church progressed, a balance had to be struck between it and his attendance at Vatican II.

“We weren’t obliged to go every day, but it was too fascinating not to,” he said. “Every day was historic.

“I had a sense of the history. I had written an essay on Irish involvement in Vatican I, which was in 1870, for the journal in the Irish College. The Irish were more active in Vatican I in some ways than they were in Vatican II.”

Spending 168 days taking notes, transcribing audio and penetrating the variety of accents at the Council, the young Fr Michael Smith contributed handsomely to the official record of Vatican II.

“I missed a lot of class, but you managed. It was fascinating, and I made lifetime friends, and met a lot of bishops,” he explained.

‘Vatican Council Memories’ (208 pp) offers readers a unique insight into the Council’s many remarkable moments, decisions and debates, highlighting the significant figures, including the many Irish participants, who helped shape this historic event. It is available from Veritas at €19.99.