I have been reading the reviews of a recently published book, Habits of Devotion: Catholic Religious Practice in Twentieth-Century America. It is a collection of essays, edited by Boston College historian James M. O’Toole, focusing on religious practices in the Church in the decades immediately before and after the Second Vatican Council.
Several of the essays contend that the changes brought about by Vatican II have led to a deepened spiritual life among ordinary Catholics.
Put me down as a doubter. I have been told by members of the clergy and lay Catholic friends that I tend to sugar coat what things were like in the Church in the days before the Council. That may be the case: I have fond memories of what it was like to grow up as a Catholic in the 1950s. Yet there are aspects of Catholic life in those years that do not depend upon my recollections, things that can be documented. I insist that there was much about the “good old days” that was very good indeed. I was pleased with my parish and the parochial schools my children attended in the 1970s and 1980s, but their experience was a pale shadow of the vibrant Catholic community of my childhood in New York City in the 1950s.
Some use the term “Catholic ghetto” to describe Catholic life back then. It is a poor choice of words. “Ghetto” implies a place where people are forced to live, under conditions less attractive than those that prevail in society as a whole. That was not what it was like for Catholics in the pre-Vatican II Church, certainly not for me. There was nothing undesirable or second-rate about being a Catholic in my old neighborhood. Our lives revolved around the parish in ways that modern Catholics under the age of 50 will have a hard time imagining. I am not exaggerating: It seemed to me at the time that everything that was dignified and good about life in the community emanated from the Church. It is why Catholic teenagers would often identify themselves not by neighborhood, but by parish, when they met teenagers from other parts of the city.
We Catholics had the best schools well, we thought so, at any rate the best youth groups, the best athletic teams, the best marching bands, the best teen dances. Our CYO teams and Cub Scout packs and Boy Scout troops attracted many non-Catholics. The same men, just home from World War II, who ran the town’s Little League teams and headed up the local chapters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars were in charge of the parish Holy Name Society and Knights of Columbus. They would be there at the door, collecting tickets for the parish’s boxing night the same faces I would see at the communion rail on Sunday, in my role as an altar boy, as I moved the paten under their chins, the same faces I would see marching in close ranks at diocese-wide rallies on Corpus Christi Day at Ebbetts Field or up Fifth Avenue on St. Patrick’s Day.
The clergy were essential elements of the aura that surrounded the Church. Some may scoff at the Hollywood image of priests and nuns from the films of that period. But they would be wrong. I can remember as if it were yesterday, scenes of young Dominican nuns in full habit, not at all unlike Ingrid Bergman and Loretta Young in appearance, turning jump ropes for grammar school girls in the schoolyard during lunch break. My high school freshman basketball coach was a Marist brother who was a cross between Spencer Tracy and Bing Crosby. He could have been sent from central casting. It was not hard to see why the novitiates at the time were bursting at the seams with new vocations.
Every time a nun or brother appeared at a school dance or athletic event, the young men and women of the parish would cluster around them, sharing jokes and banter, as if seeking to share in their glow. At adult social functions, cops and firemen and mid-level corporate executives would behave similarly with the pastor and the prelates. The clergy were respected, admired, seen as leaders in an undertaking of great nobility and purpose.
The liturgy, the church architecture, and the Latin Mass added to the luster of the Catholic experience. The stately vestments of the priests and the altar boys, the candles and crosses, the incense wafting from the thurible, the shadows of the statues lining the nave of the church during midnight Mass, the rows of penitents outside the confessionals on Saturday afternoons, the men and women streaming into the Church in separate groups during parish missions, the songs to our Blessed Mother during novenas, the sound of the church bells ringing the Angelus at noon, solemn men and women moving slowly around the perimeter of the church making the Stations of the Cross during Lent what is the word? Grandeur, perhaps? How many parishes of today can provide a comparable ambience for living one’s faith?
How many modern parishes have anything like the Nocturnal Adoration Society? Once a month, the members of this group would hold a vigil in front of the exposed Blessed Sacrament, from late Saturday night until the first Sunday Mass at 6AM. The night would be broken up into one-hour segments, with somewhere between 5 and 10 men from the group in attendance each hour during the night. I can remember filling in for my father one night when I was about 16, during the 3 to 4AM slot. The same lean, hard faces I saw around the VFW hall were there, heads bowed in prayer. I can remember how men like them would tip their hats when the bus they were traveling on passed a Catholic church. No self-consciousness, no nervous looking around to see if anyone would snicker. They were proud to be Catholic.
Think back as well to the literature and scholarship of the time. The pre-Vatican II Church was the Church of G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ronald Knox, Sigrid Undset, Jacques Maritain, Flannery O’Connor we could go on. These writers, in different ways, defended Catholicism and the Church, without being defensive or timid. The message was clear: Catholics were distinct from the secular culture, but not inferior or subservient. Our goal was not to “make it,” if that meant surrendering the Faith.
Hollywood understood. Moviemakers who shared none of our beliefs catered to us. They knew what we expected, what we would not tolerate. Instead of productions that demeaned the Church and our Catholic heritage, we were given movies about Father Flanagan and Boys’ Town, Going My Way, The Robe, Quo Vadis, and The Song of Bernadette.
I don’t think it makes sense to argue that Vatican II is responsible for all the ills that beset the modern Church. You don’t have to be a Hegelian to agree that the spirit of the age can be an overpowering force. Probably there is little the Church could have done with or without Vatican II to hold back the waves of change brought on by the 1960s counterculture. Nonetheless, it is hard for those of us who remember what it was like not to bristle when we hear talk about the “repressive” and “shallow” Church in the years before aggiornamento. That’s not how I remember it.
James Fitzpatrick's new novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)