The Funeral of President Kennedy leaves the
Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle
Fifty years ago Mass was still in Latin, though plans were being made for lent the following year to introduce the vernacular languages on a very limited basis for the penitential prayers, the readings, and the Lord’s Prayer. We were assured that the consecration and other key prayers would always remain in Latin. Hymns in the language of the people could now be sung at Mass—though very few parishes had any tradition of congregational singing. A few churches—very few—had begun positioning the priest to face the people at Mass.
We were at the tail end—though we didn’t know it yet—of a vocation boom that had started with the return of GI’s at the end of World War II. Seminaries and novitiates were filled and ordinations were at an all-time high. Religious women were still in their traditional habits and priests were rarely seen without their collars—and wearing hats: straw in the summer, homburgs in the winter. Women too wore hats to Church—or, the style set by First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, the mantilla.
We Catholics did not eat meat on Fridays and only once a day in lent. Moreover in Lent as well as the Vigil of Christmas, Ember Days, and certain other days we ate only one full meal, supplemented by two light “collations” that together could not add up to a meal. May Crownings, Forty Hours, novenas, Holy Hours, and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament all were part of the regular rhythm of parish life. The priest wore black vestments for funerals and most daily masses which were offered for the dead. At funerals a wonderful sequence was sung called the Dies Irae, heralding the final judgment in bone-chilling verse. As it was in Latin it lacked the impact however and was just a pretty piece of music.
We had no lay ministers of the Eucharist, permanent deacons, Religious Education coordinators, Directors of Liturgy, pastoral associates, parish councils, finance boards, cantors, or youth ministers. We did have Altar and Rosary Societies, Holy Name Societies, Saint Vincent de Paul, Mothers’ Club, Sodality, and Knights of the Altar. Only boys could serve Mass—and, in fact, a girl got inside the gates of the altar rail twice in her life—first communion and her wedding day (but only if she married Catholic). Of course if she became a nun she would go in to vacuum, change the altar linens, and fix the flowers. Where there were no nuns to do this work, a mature matron might be allowed. O yes—I forgot, we still had altar rails because we still knelt for Holy Communion. Communion was never received in the hand—we could not have imagined it—nor did we every receive from the chalice.
Religion class was mostly memorizing the Baltimore Catechism, though if you went to Catholic School there was time to tell you stories of the saints or of the apparitions of the Blessed Mother. In Catholic School you also learned Gregorian Chant—especially Mass 8 (Missa de Angelis). Some parishes had decent—even good—choirs and lovely pipe organs. We never heard an instrument other than the organ played in Church. Most of the time, however, the quality of the music reflected the blue-collar working class makeup of American Catholicism. It would only be in the sixties and seventies, and mostly as a result of the GI Bill, that significant numbers of Catholics moved up into the professional and managerial classes. The slow rise of Catholics in the professions and business was due in part to lingering bias against them from the Protestant establishment.
It wasn’t a bad way to grow up. There was a distinct Catholic culture that left your Protestant friends a bit bewildered but maybe a little bit jealous too. Little Methodist girls sometimes wanted to be nuns when they grew up because they (the nuns) looked so cool with those long dresses and heavy veils. Catholics were different—there was something a bit exotic about us.
Of course, underneath the surface all was not well. Mody of the abuse cases that have caused such a crisis for the Church date back to the ’50’s and’60’s. Alcoholism was rampant among the clergy—though it was certainly epidemic in the larger society as well. Convent life was not always a calm and peaceful as it appeared in The Nuns’ Story or The Sound of Music.
Of course Viet Nam had not yet bloomed into a full scale war and the subsequent anti-war movement had not yet emerged. Catholics were rabid anti-communists and the Fatima devotion was used to strengthen our resolve against communism. We were a bit bewildered however as Pope John’s 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra attracted much positive attention from the Communist world. The April 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris won even more recognition from the Communist world. John XXIII in the last months of his life received the daughter and son-in-law of Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev in audience and gave them symbolic gifts for Khrushchev as well as for their own family. John’s openness to the Soviet Union was a cause of anxiety for American Churchmen, particularly Cardinal Spellman of New York, who were anxious to keep Vatican in line with American foreign policy. In 1963 we were still saying the Leonine Prayers after low mass which originally had been for the restoration of the Papal States but had come to be directed towards the “conversion of Russia.” And of course that reminds me that at this time we still distinguished between “High Mass” (which was sung) and “Low Mass” (which was read sotto voce). Despite all sort of claims how beautiful the pre-conciliar rites were, most Masses were these recited Masses at which the priest prayed privately and the congregation silently followed along in their missal or occupied themselves with other devotions such as the rosary. Such rites were bland at best.
Our churches were filled with statues—usually of mediocre artistic quality done in plaster on a mass-production line. Votive candles in red and green and blue stood grouped before the various altars. There often was, at least in the better built churches, some lovely stained glass. Similarly vestments and paraments were often beautifully embroidered and hopefully (but not always) kept clean and in good repair. People bobbed in and out of Church to make “visits” to Jesus present in the Sacrament of the Altar.
All in all, I think it was a wonderful way to grow up. I doubt it could have lasted. In part due to the excellent educational system the Church built, Catholics were raising themselves up by the bootstraps—but rising into the Middle Class and leaving immigrant ways behind meant integration into the larger society as well. The Catholic Ghetto, constructed so carefully by men like Archbishop Corrigan and Bishop McQuaid was doomed to come down at Catholic hands. I for one would not want to go back even if I could—but it was a wonderful way to grow up.