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Faith column: Author says laity upholding spirit of Vatican II

May 21, 2011

Really enjoyed researching and writing this column on Vatican II, an event that loomed large in my Catholic upbringing. Colleen McDannell, history and religious studies prof at University of Utah, has written a terrific book on the 1960s council, blending her personal/family experiences with historical scholarship.

Author: Spirit of Vatican II still upheld by laity

On our drives to and from Mass when I was a kid, my dad would recount his days as an altar boy in Gary, Ind. — a bygone era of solemn ritual, incense and Gregorian chant.

His was a church I never knew. The Second Vatican Council that convened in the early 1960s made massive liturgical changes, among them switching from Latin to the local vernacular. I was born 10 years after the council ended; my Catholic experience had none of the majesty or mystery my father described. And I sensed that something beautiful had been lost.

What I didn’t fully understand until later was that my Jesuit-educated parents also embraced the spirit of the reforms, which gave laypeople greater involvement in church life, such as teaching catechism and administering the Eucharist. When he called the council in 1962, Pope John XXIII reportedly said he wanted to “throw open the windows of the church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” My parents so admired his progressive attitude that when my brother was born a month after the Italian pope died in 1963, they gave him the middle name Giovanni.

So naturally I was intrigued when I heard about Colleen McDannell’s new book “The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America.” McDannell, a history and religious studies professor at the University of Utah, tells the story of Vatican II through the eyes of her mother, Margaret, and provides a thorough — and much-needed — explanation of the council that helps readers understand the enormous impact it had on the life of the church.

Far from the simplistic understanding I had as a child, the council involved more than the language of the Mass. Vatican II addressed how Catholics should engage a modern world that was grappling with racial strife, poverty and war. It changed how Catholics related to people of other faiths and gave them greater ownership of their own faith.

“There came to be much more of a fluidity between what they were doing in their average lives and what they were going in their church liturgically and ritually and spiritually,” McDannell said.

Her mother exemplified this as she took on the new roles afforded to laypeople and developed a deeper spirituality.

The implementation of the reforms, however, was by no means tidy. As McDannell explains in the book, it varied from region to region, sometimes from parish to parish. The conservative bishop in suburban California where McDannell’s family lived at the time was slow to make changes, while in the Midwest, where my parents were raising a family, the effects were felt more quickly. McDannell’s parents found themselves in a thoroughly modern, social-justice oriented church when they moved to Denver in 1967. My parents were shocked when they moved to Western Massachusetts in 1970, to find parishes still clinging to old forms of Catholicism.

As with any kind of institutional change, some resisted and formed breakaway groups. And decades later a new generation of Catholics, longing for the rituals and traditions that predated them, would reclaim the old Latin Mass.

The aftermath of Vatican II also produced disappointment among those who felt the council didn’t go far enough. Some Catholics believed that an embrace of modernity would mean the eventual allowance of artificial contraception, the ordination of women and optional celibacy for priests.

That didn’t happen. The church today is cracking down on leaders who question those rules. Earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI dismissed an Australian bishop who had suggested ordaining women to address the priest shortage.

Meanwhile, the Vatican is responding to the needs of traditionalists who prefer the Latin Mass. Last week, it instructed bishops to make time and space available for the old rite and to ensure seminarians are trained in that liturgy.

I wondered if these were signs (not to mention the devastating betrayal of the laity with the sex abuse cover-up) that the spirit of Vatican II had been lost, that John XXIII’s windows were closing.

But McDannell argues that the council radically changed the church by empowering laypeople. Those gains haven’t been undone, she says, and, while men in Rome still call the shots, women in the parishes are now, more than ever, the face of Catholicism.

“Catholic women are the volunteer backbone of the church and they also are the labor force of the church,” she said. “More women are getting degrees in liturgy and theology and becoming active leaders in the church. There’s the clerical ceiling, which means they can only go so far … but there’s a much larger percentage of women working for the church than men working for the church.”

And even in responding to the needs of traditionalists, McDannell says, the church is fulfilling the council’s call to listen to the laity and exercising flexibility.

“The council paved the way for churches to respond to the general mood and spirit of the times,” she says, “and that’s the contribution of Vatican II.”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mark permalink
    May 21, 2011 11:08 am

    Hi Eileen, as a young CAtholic I love the Traditional Latin Mass. For some reason Vatican II did not call to get rid of Gregorian Chant and Latin should still be in the use of the Liturgy.

    I have a job that travels around the world I would go to a Mass in that country and find a Parish that celebrates the Latin Mass. Even though I didn’t understand the language, I could follow allong in Latin.

    I want the Church to go back to its Liturgical Heritage of Masses written by Haydyn, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Gregorain Chant and Palestrina. All of these composers have written for the Missa Solemnis and Requiem Masses.

    I think there is a growing movement in the Catholic Church especially in France, Brazil and others to Traditional Catholicism especially among the younger generation like me. To promote the Traditional LAtin Mass.

  2. Mark permalink
    May 21, 2011 11:10 am

    YOu also have younger Seminarians and Younger Sisters that are more traditional along with young Practicing CAtholics. For example, I lived in PAris and most of the Practicing Young CAtholics attended the Traditional Latin MAsses while the French MAsses were half empty or empty.

    The Future of Catholicism is the Traditional Catholicism.

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