This slim, entertaining and somewhat eccentric volume is a good example of the literary fruits of last year’s lockdown. Just before our lives were turned upside down, Dom Hugh Somerville Knapman OSB, a member of the Douai Benedictine community, was trawling through the archives of Stanbrook Abbey when he came across an intriguing typescript. It formed part of the papers of Dame Felicitas Corrigan, a Benedictine author and musician, who had adapted the Latin chants of the Graduale into the vernacular and numbered among her friends the likes of Siegfried Sassoon, Alec Guinness and Patrick Dwyer, the then Archbishop of Birmingham.
The typescript in question, containing a series of limericks written by seven of the English-speaking Fathers present at the Second Vatican Council, had been sent by the Archbishop for her amusement and now, thanks to the editor’s lockdown labours, can find a wider readership.
For most of us, ‘Vatican II’ calls to mind dense collections of documents and divisive debates about the liturgy and the Church in the modern world. There is little that is obviously humorous about it. Yet, as this volume reminds us, it was a deeply human experience as participants gathered from across the globe in intense and unfamiliar circumstances.
These, along with some of the personalities and procedures at the Council, gave rise to a rich strain of wit. Unsurprisingly, there are references to the matters being discussed: ‘There was an old priest of Dunleary/who stood on his head for the Kyrie;/when someone asked why, he made the reply,/“It’s the latest liturgical theory” – themes that are echoed in a longer (and non-limerickal) ‘conservative lament’ on the modern Church, which is also included.
Beyond the theological debates are remarks on a young Spanish bishop speaking Latin too fast, a criticism that the English bishops were rather too middle-class (‘a rough and tricky lot’) and a constant longing for the Council bars (which were nicknamed ‘Bar-Jonah’ and ‘Bar-Abbas’): ‘We are two thousand Fathers in session,/who feel a great weight of oppression,/ what with Cardinals talking and lesser lights squawking,/thank goodness the bar’s so refreshin’.’
Some verses are more successful than others and, over half a century later, there are some references and ‘in-jokes’ that are difficult to recapture. A Limerickal Commentary on the Second Vatican Councildoes not intend to replace more analytical and academic studies but it does, the editor claims, ‘offer a contemporaneous micro-commentary on some of the personalities and issues at the Council.’
Some were already circulating at the time of the Sessions, as Cardinal Pell, then a student in Rome, reminisces in his Foreword, and others have been published before. It is good to have this collection in one well-edited and beautifully produced volume, with the authors clearly identified. Moreover, since most of the verses were originally written in Latin, the book pays tribute to a proficiency in that sacred tongue which has sadly largely been lost.
I remember my late uncle, who sat on the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) in the early 1980s, saying that he sometimes wrote comic verses and drew cartoons during the more tedious parts of meetings, which sometimes proved useful in dispelling tension and division. I wonder if the limerickal art still continues, in this age of mobiles, tablets and social media, in the corridors of the Vatican? I do hope so.
Fr Nicholas Schofield is a priest of the Archdiocese of Wesminster and the archdiocesan archivist.