Before and After Vatican II

I was just a kid when Vatican II happened.  By the time I was finished with 3rd Grade, many changes had occurred.  I remember the pre-Vatican II days and the changes that followed.

I often read and hear criticisms of those changes.  I hear blame for the ills and the declining “retention” numbers in our Church put on the Vatican II Council.  I have thought long and hard about that, and here are my own humble observations on that situation, based on my memories and experiences.  I doubt that I am alone.

(First of all, let me state that in my years of steady Mass attendance, I have not seen any of the truly outrageous things that are described in other articles and posts.  My experience has been of very traditional, very respectful, very beautiful liturgies, in each of the 7 Western U.S. parish communities that I have been part of since the 1960s.  None of them have been filled with weirdness. All of them have been reverent and sincere in following the Lord.)

Yet, I am sure there were many people who experienced confusion and lack of focus.

I saw that statues and art were eliminated in many places, or left out entirely of new church buildings.  Old hymns were ignored in favor of Protestant, rock, or folk-style songs–songs about us, not so much about God.  I miss those things.  Not everything was an improvement.

Pre-Vatican II:  I remember taking a missal to church.  I amused myself by looking at the pictures and reading Gospel stories while the priest droned on in Latin, a long mumbling dialogue between him and the altar boy.  His back was to us and I could not see what was happening.  Younger children ate Cheez-its and Cheerios,  we older ones looked at picture books or read.  Adults nodded off, said their own prayers, perused the parish bulletin or read the local Catholic Tidings.  Older women said the rosary to pass the time.  Sometimes bells rang, and we all looked up then. I suppose many of the adults knew what was going on, but I didn’t.

There was an attitude of passivity and detachment.  Let the priest do it, seemed to be the consensus.  There were no demands on anyone else, except monetary support, attendance, monetary support, obeying the rules, monetary support, and being quiet during the liturgy. It was very authoritarian time, with good Catholic families doing whatever Father said to do.

The music then was beautiful.  Sometimes there was incense, sometimes there were processions.

People dressed better for services then, but of course that simply gave many the opportunity to gossip and give critical up-and-down once-overs to everyone who entered, and furthered the keeping up with the Joneses mentality.  It might have looked like dressing with respect for the Lord, but it was often more about impressing others. Showing off one’s Easter bonnet, one’s Christmas dress.  Getting us 4 kids ready for Mass definitely made my mother nervous because of this.  We had to look good–because we were being judged.

I made my First Communion before Vatican II.  We knelt at the altar rails, and the priest put the Host on our tongues.  An altar boy, who was, of course, was always someone I knew from school, held the paten under our chins.  Later on at school, the boys snickered and made rude comments about the various parishioners and how stupid they looked, especially us girls.  I became too embarrassed to go to Communion, fearing being the butt of jokes and made excuses not to participate.

Aside from the homily, there was no adult catechesis.  The expectation was that Father would advise and expound upon the rules, and we would follow his direction without question or understanding.

Then . . . after Vatican II.  The priest turned around and faced us over the altar.  People seemed so much more attentive. I began to enjoy Mass, following closely what was happening and feeling part of the banquet.  It was in English, too. I could understand the words! There was much more participation, and more active enthusiasm among the congregation.  I really liked this, and still do.  The Mass is so simple, so elegant, so very beautiful, clean and clear.  The love and reverence fills me with awe for our God.

I also liked receiving the Eucharist in my hand.  It felt so positive to take Our Lord actively into ourselves, rather than a passive receiving.  It was a deliberate reaching out and choosing Him, and it made my faith stronger.

Sure, we could dress better for the liturgy, but it is a relief not to know that we are welcome just the way we are, without being anxious that we are not good enough to show up.  It was good for me as a child to see girls serving at the altar, knowing that the Church was something that I could participate in, too.

There is still no adult catechesis that I am aware of at any parish in town, no serious faith formation aside from an occasional parish revival or speaker.  (In the last few years, this seems to be changing.)  As adults, anything that we need or want to know, we must search out the answers for ourselves.   There are a LOT of resources available now, though.  But after Vatican II,  having been raised on passive reception of faith,  most people just don’t do this.  Most did not take ownership of their faith but simply drifted away.

* * * * * * *

While all of these changes were going on in the Church, our society and culture were undergoing a tremendous transformation.  The sexual revolution, protests against war, the pill, questioning authority, and the rise of hedonism and relativity.  These things were in the very air. Parishioners could not help but notice and to some extent absorb them.  They were actively and aggressively promoted on TV, through media, in the arts, and in schools at every level, particularly college.

I think that the widespread social changes that came about since the time of the Council have far more to do with the decline in attendance and the shortage of vocations than Vatican II ever did. Coming from such a non-engaged, detached version of parish life, many people were tempted away by materialism and easy comfortable lives.  There was not a widespread solid foundation for faith.

I submit that without Vatican II, there would have been an even greater hemorrhage of the faithful, especially the young, than there has been. Led by the Holy Spirit, the Council actually saved the Catholic Church and  now stands poised to revitalize it as the wisdom contained in the documents becomes more fully understood.

I’d love to see Catholics everywhere stop blaming, stop the infighting.  Take stock of where we are now–both good and bad, and begin anew to rebuild our Church.  Each one of us, walking unafraid in the steps of the early Church:  apostles, saints, and martyrs, bringing the love of God to all people.

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About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
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10 Responses to Before and After Vatican II

  1. SR says:

    Will be back. Have to give this some thought. This was so informative for me, as of course I do not know anything else but Vatican II. Thanks so much for sharing it with us all, as you made so many good points here. I just have to think about them before I can comment, as this is too important to give a “first reaction” comment. Good job! God Bless, SR

    • reinkat says:

      Thanks for the comment and like, SR. I appreciate your reaction, and am excited to hear your response. I do like to attend an occasional Tridentine traditional Latin Mass now and again, but it feels more like spectacle to me despite its beauty. For me, the modern English Mass brings me closer to Jesus and enriches my spiritual life. I do know others feel differently. Very strongly differently.

  2. SR says:

    Okay, I am back!!!!!!!! This post reminded me of something a friend of mine said, who was born a Catholic and is now 77 years old. She told me women could not go to the front and receive the Holy Eucharist, they had to go and stand at the back of the Church, before Vatican II. I could not even imagine doing such.

    I do not think Vatican II has anything to do with the decline numbers. I blame that more on the society we live in today, and especially the word, “busy.” I believe most parents today have totally lost it with the youth in many ways by wanting to be… their friend instead of their parents, letting their kids text message in Mass, the parents themselves doing this in front of their kids in Mass, being politically correct in everything and the list can go on and on.

    I do however think, (from all I have heard) Vatican II did bring forth a lack of reverence. Now I am not saying I want Mass in Latin, or the Priest turned away from me, etc… but when I talk with those who grew up during this time, and were young adults, I see something missing in us, as I watch them today. The “older generation Catholics” seem to have such reverence for Mass, the Church, prayers, dedication to going to Mass, and much more. It seems as if it all is first priority in their lives.

    On the other hand is the difference in the times they lived in and the times we live in, could be? Is it Vatican II? Could be. Is it our society on a whole just has no reverence for anything, anymore? Could be.

    This same friend told me, “We are trying to do so much for the youth.” Always the youth, and the question I ask is, “Where are they?” She went on to tell me, they as children never needed all of that. I follow her example all the time.

    So as I watch them, I do think something is missing. I think the “lack of reverence” also could be attributed to the things you mentioned. Lack of art, hymns, and all the things we need to reflect in a more devout way. Great post! God Bless, SR

    • reinkat says:

      Hey, thanks, SR, for your very thoughtful comment.
      I must say that I have never experienced what your 77 year old friend did–with women not being welcome at the front of the church, or anyplace in the church. But I don’t doubt that there were places that might have had that rule.
      At one point, we were travelling and stopped at a church in Weed, California. This was in the early 90s. We landed, unknowingly, in a small conservative church celebrating a Tridentine (pre-Vatican II) Mass. Latin. Priest with his back to us. Women all in dresses and wearing veils (except me). The really surprising thing was that families did not sit together. Women were on one side, men on the other. My kids, husband, and I did not like it at all.
      I totally agree with you that the culture has more to do with everything that displeases traditionalists than Vatican II does. I think it IS the difference in times, in attitude towards others/God/self that younger people have today. They do want instant gratification, and most of all, they want to be entertained. Mass doesn’t provide a lot of that . . . from my experience, people who do truly seek God and love the Mass are just as reverent. Their faces alight with faith, their prayers heartfelt, their belief palpable. Any age. I live in a college town, and my parish is the Newman Center for a major university. The young people there are on fire with faith. So are we, their elders.
      The problem: there aren’t enough of us of any age willing to put ourselves in God’s hands and give our lives to Him.
      If there is any one major place to affix blame for this, I say it is television. Television has been the great corruptor of minds, hearts, and culture. Vatican II has been a saving grace.
      OK, I’ll get off my soapbox now.

  3. amyseyamy says:

    I am enjoying your posts, thank you. In defense of the Latin Mass, if one studies even a little bit of Latin and the mass structure and psalmody, one can see the beauty of worship and the glory given to God in it. The same can be said for Divine Liturgy or Holy Mass said in other languages. One of the most beautiful services I have attended was Melkite Catholic and was given in 3 languages, English, Greek and Arabic. The church was so full, people were spilling out into the courtyard. Another great thing about studying Latin is that it is the basis for many of our English words. Understanding the etymology of our words adds richness, like the glow of an ancient icon 🙂

    • reinkat says:

      Thank you amyseyamy, I really appreciate your thoughtful response. Although I don’t care to attend Latin Mass, I know others do. I am glad that we have the opportunity to go to either or both (thank you, Pope Benedict!). Although my childhood impressions are not that positive, they are all I have to go on for describing it–and my intent was not to criticize the Latin Mass per se, but to protest the blaming of Vatican II for nearly everything that goes wrong. I find find the modern Mass in the vernacular to be very reverent and deeply meaningful.

      I also enjoy occasionally attending Ukranian Catholic services, and have attended a Melkite Mass/Divine Liturgy as well. Both are extremely beautiful, and quite different from Western Catholic liturgies. Like the Tridentine Mass, they are novelties for me, as magnificent as they might be. I find my greatest closeness to Our Lord in the English Mass.

      Yes, studying and knowing about something does enrich the experience. When attending my 12 years of Catholic school, I didn’t choose Latin for my language studies, although that was a course offering. I studied Spanish instead–only to find after 4 years that I have no gift for languages at all, and didn’t learn too much. That being said, I probably never would have grasped Latin either. . .

      I strongly feel that adult catechesis was sorely neglected both before AND after Vatican II. Relying on people to educate themselves does end up with many folks drifting away, without even realizing the importance of the gift of the Mass. I think that area is where our church should come together on, as a preparation for the New Evangelization and as a way to revitalize and reignite people’s faith. Not everyone is of the temperament to do individual study and teach themselves what they need to know. As Church, we need to reach out to all.

      May God bless you!

  4. njacacia says:

    I grew up attending both Latin rite and Ukrainian Greek Byzantine rite masses. I am 62 years old. I believe many in my generation fell away from regular attendance when we realized that what was a sin one day–eating meat on Fridays was suddenly a sin no longer. This and many other developments led us to extricate ourselves from the “manmade rules” so that we could concentrate on a direct relationship between ourselves and God. The rise of feminism also served to make us question why women did not even have a seat on the bus in this man made church of ours and we knew this was not as Christ had intended for it to be. Having attended Catholic school, I could add much more to this discussion, but I have outlined some major issues. Great conversation.

  5. reinkat says:

    Thanks for the comment, njacacia. I drifted away from the church as well for a while, but am strongly back. What changed it for me was finding out the “why” behind some of the “manmade rules, and the very good purpose some of the seemingly arbitrary things served. Doing lots of reading and studying about our faith has really helped my own faith grow.
    I do not believe that our church is “manmade” but established by Jesus Christ, God Himself. Sure, there are things that are not yet perfect–put a bunch of people in charge and there is sure to be mess-ups, but it will all work out because people really are not the ones who are in charge. God’s idea of time is different from ours, and His church will prevail, the way He wills it to be.
    I know many people have followed the path you have, and I was critical of some of the same things in my younger days. It was actually the icon that brought me back to the church, studying the form and symbolism and meaning, and the actual prayerfulness of the painting and drawing led me deeper and deeper into belief and in communion with the church.

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