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.
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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.