|Been there, done that, not going back|
I am a child of Vatican II. I was born and mostly raised before the Council. I remember the Traditional Latin Mass well. I was an altar server. Being both the altar boy MC for Solemn Masses and a weird kid, I knew the rubrics and ceremonial in great detail. Moreover, I have had six years of Latin in school (and later became a Latin teacher) and always liked the Latin stuff. Pius XII was the pope of my childhood and I remember the October night when they broke into the television shows to tell us that he had died. I remember the meatless Fridays, the Ember Days, the Lenten fast. When I made my first communion there was nothing to eat or drink ( but water—I am not that old) from midnight. Nuns were dressed in yards of black serge and heavily veiled. We had may-crowning every May, Benediction every Wednesday, Stations of the Cross every Friday in Lent. We stood when Father came in, knelt for Holy Communion, and learned to genuflect on the left knee to kiss the Bishop’s ring. It was Full Monty Catholicism.
Moreover we were a very religious household. My Dad was for many years a daily mass-goer as was his father. Mom went to Mass on Sundays. We said the rosary after dinner during Lent and whenever else it would strike my parents that we should do so. We had grace at table. There was a crucifix in every room but the bathroom. The Infant of Prague presided over the living room, the Sacred Heart in the foyer. Various other images and pictures could be found elsewhere around the house. Dad’s sister was a nun, his aunt a Reverend Mother. Masses were said regularly for deceased relatives. Candles were lit in Church. And there were always priest friends in the house.
Maybe it was the priest-friends but ours was not a thoughtless Catholicism. Religion was discussed and argued. We had books and magazines about our faith. My parents belonged to CFM (Christian Family Movement) and several couples would gather monthly in our house with one of the parish priests to study their faith. Dad would ask us at dinner what we had learned in school that day and paid particular attention to religion. God help the nun who was tinged with Feeneyism. When priests were over—which was often several times a week—we kids could listen to the conversations and we could ask questions. Our religion was not something hard and fast, something embalmed or mummified, but something alive and vital. It certainly wasn’t something somber or joyless. And it was never above questioning. You followed the rules—especially Sunday Mass and frequent confession—but you could question anything and anyone.
I remember when Vatican II was announced. I had no idea what an Ecumenical Council was—who did? There hadn’t been one in our lifetimes. We were fascinated by this opening the door to our Protestant neighbors. (There were, in my family, no Protestant relatives.) After all these years of cold shoulder, they were now to be “separated brothers?” I remember first hearing “A Mighty Fortress” being belted out on the pipe organ in our Church—it was a postlude after Benediction one Wednesday evening and it was Art Smith, a seminarian from our parish at the keyboard. I knew Luther had composed it; but then I always knew things I wasn’t supposed to know. I told you I was a weird kid who had a lot of useless information. And I knew hearing it that a new day was dawning for me and my Catholic faith. I have never lost the thrill of that dawn and for me Catholicism represents a continuous dawn.
I began to panic about twenty years ago that the sun that had been so long dawning was now beginning to set. I could see the slow but steady shutting down of the optimism generated by the Council. The windows once opened were now being closed and locked. I was willing to allow the changes to come progressively—not all at once; the slow pace of change made that dawn last. But now changes were not only coming more slowly, they were being reversed. I saw things creeping back into the liturgy. Some priests were refusing to give people communion in the hand. Others were banning women from serving as lectors or Eucharistic ministers. Churches where communion had been given under both species were now backtracking on that. Under the banner of “dignity” the liturgy was being reduced to rubricism in some places. I was in the diocese of Arlington Virginia at the time and that diocese is particularly weird, or I should say has more than its fair share of abnormal clergy, but there was Father Fessio and Adoremus and there was Mother Angelica and EWTN and there was the Diocese of Lincoln and the Diocese of Peoria and I saw the seeds of this (what one colleague of mine calls) “Mordor Catholicism” starting to propagate like dandelion fluff on a summer breeze. Were we going to lose the Council and the Church of the ordinary folk?
It was at this time that I was offered an editorial position in Rome. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the Vatican, of course, but it was Rome and it put me into the stream of international Catholicism. I had lived in Rome before—while doing my graduate work—and was a frequent visitor to the city, but living there deepened my experience of a genuinely Catholic culture that is far richer and more diverse than the ultramontane knock-off Catholicism some people were trying to push as “authentic” Catholicism back in the States. I saw that the parishes of Rome had altar girls and Eucharistic ministers and women lectors and contemporary music choirs. I saw that they not only stood for communion but for the consecration at Mass. Italian priests wore regular clothes. (We always said that if you saw a priest on the street in Rome in a cassock, nine times out of ten he was American, and eight times out of that nine he was an American on vacation in Rome.) Most of the religious sisters in Rome wear regular clothes.
Modern religious art is highly valued in Rome—and one of the best collections is in the Vatican museum.
Coming back Stateside I grew more and more concerned that an unhealthy distortion of Catholicism was being pushed by certain segments of the Church in this country as somehow or other “more Catholic” than mainline Catholicism. In my work as an academic I have been able to travel extensively and I saw that the Church through most of the world was still alive and vibrant. I was puzzeled that it was easier to find a Tridentine Mass in Washington DC or New York than it was in Rome and yet this revival of the TLM was allegedly at the desire of the Pope. I was puzzled to see priests wearing things here (birettas, fiddle-back chasubles, ferraiolos) that you weren’t seeing in Rome. And prelates in the cappa magna and with the winter cappa of fur—which had been banned by Paul VI—but there were prelates like Cardinal Burke sashaying into TLM’s like the Queen Mother going to the opera. What was this all about???
I don’t make any claim to be any more authentic than anyone else’s blog or that my Catholicism is any more orthodox than the next Catholic’s. But I do want to look at our history—both accomplished and in the making—as a voice that sometimes seems to cry in the wilderness to look to draw from the past but to trust the future rather than to build a future on a poorly thought-out appreciation for a distorted past. More to come.