Vatican II at 50

| December 16, 2015 | 6 Comments

StPetersVatican2The Communion rail — a singular element of pre-Vatican II church architecture — symbolizes both the hope and the hurt in the Church connected with the Second Vatican Council.

The removal of the Communion rail, where the faithful once knelt to receive the Eucharist, was to some a sign of progress; to others it meant the loss of beauty, sanctity and tradition.

Prior to St. Pope John XXIII’s “opening the windows” by launching Vatican II in 1963, a church’s sanctuary was the territory of priests and altar boys. The Communion rail divided the sanctuary from the nave, the part of the church for everyone else.

After the three-year council, lay lectors, cantors and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist were present in the sanctuary on the other side of the Communion rail — if there was one. But its removal meant much more.

“When that Communion rail was taken down, there was a lot of social meaning,” said Father Michael O’Connell, now in his 49th year as a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “The Communion rail was emblematic of the tension points Vatican II surfaced. The differences between the clergy and laity were dissolving. In effect, Mass was a community in prayer, not just a priest.”

The act of removal itself was emblematic as well, and not always done tactfully. At St. Thomas the Apostle, for example, the Communion rail and other elements of popular piety were hastily extracted from the south Minneapolis church.

“We stripped it,” Father O’Connell said. “We were too abrupt. We didn’t respect the people enough to prepare them. It was very painful for people.”

Stripped from the Church, too, was the Latin, as well as Gregorian chant and polyphony that, as Father John Reidy noted, “got pushed aside” by newer forms of liturgical music. A retired University of St. Thomas English professor ordained in 1956, Father Reidy saw “a complete break with the past” being promoted. He felt “the mission of the Church changed from the salvation of souls to a social mission.”

‘Tumultuous, exciting, sad’

Although this month 50 years will have passed since the council ended in 1965, Vatican II continues to be a focal point, both positive and negative, for Catholics in the archdiocese. It was frequently evoked — with various connotations — during the listening session series in October and November for a new archbishop.

“At one time the Church had it right, and they screwed it up,” Timothy Huberty, a marketing executive active at Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, told The Catholic Spirit. “Vatican II made us too much like everybody else. We’re not special anymore.”

Ed Sellner, a pioneer lay religious educator, shared a different perspective: “From the majority of people in parishes there was a sense of affirmation, rejuvenation.”

Patricia Gries, the first female member of an archbishop’s executive team in the archdiocese, noted the immense growth in lay activity following Vatican II.

“This local Church was alive with many good people doing great things for the Church,” Gries said.

Father O’Connell called these times “tumultuous, exciting, tremendously aggravating and sad,” but said he wouldn’t trade living through it for any other period of human history.

Father Charles Lachowitzer, veteran pastor and the archdiocese’s moderator of the curia, said the council is often viewed as a litany of changes.

“People see Vatican II as an event, not as a document — an event that principally turned the priest around and put the Mass in English,” he said.

In reality, he said, “today’s Catholics live instinctively by the documents of Vatican II, and yet they couldn’t name them. For instance, people wouldn’t know what ‘Nostra Aetate’(Vatican II’s Declaration of the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) was, but ask them if Jews are going to hell and they’d say no. That’s ‘Nostra Aetate.’”

Marilou Eldred’s life changed as a result of one of the very visible impacts of Vatican II.

As a lay woman, she used her experience in education to chair the school board at St. Luke (now St. Thomas More) in St. Paul, and went on to become the director of the local Catholic Community Foundation.

Eldred values Vaticans II’s liturgical changes, especially the use of the vernacular — one’s own language — as opposed to Latin.

“I think my prayer at Mass became more sincere,” Eldred said. “It was easier to concentrate on prayer — the meaning of the words you were saying — when it was in English.”

Vatican II challenged lay people to use their talents in the work of the Church, Eldred said. “Catholics like the idea of inclusion,” she said. “They like the idea of being included as partners with bishops and priests.”

At the time of the council, Eldred was in the convent, where she spent 10 years as a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She wore the habit and was given a different name.

“With the changes that came with Vatican II, the order embraced the ability to be more modern, so it must have been in 1965 we stopped wearing the habit and resumed our baptismal names,” Eldred said.

“For me, I liked wearing the habit. I thought it set us apart; people were deferential toward us. I really liked living in community. I like the order of it, the regular prayer schedule.”

When many of the sisters her age began leaving the convent to live elsewhere, she was one of the few younger women who remained, living with much older sisters. She felt peer pressure to move out, too, and even now feels she may have done so to “go along with the crowd,” she admitted.

“I left the convent mainly for lack of community life. I was 29 at the time, and it had become a more lonely life for me than I thought it would be when I entered,” said Eldred, who ultimately left religious life and married. In the decade following the council, about thousands of women left religious life. Eldred called the exodus a setback.

“Nuns were immersed in the teachings of the Church, living the life of the Church,” Eldred said. “In the early years following the council the lay people rarely had the same experience as the sisters, who had been the majority of Catholic school teachers.”

Sisters had also often taught religion to public school children, and their leaving education for other ministries, or religious life altogether, left a gap.

Father Francis Kittock experienced that transition in 1973 when he was appointed pastor of St. Charles Borromeo, whose boundaries include the suburb of
St. Anthony and northeast Minneapolis.

The 1,800-family parish had gone two years without a pastor after the death of Father Robert Whittman at age 59. During the interim, 18 sisters left the parish school.

Father Kittock, ordained in 1955, said he took his cue for pastoring from the documents of the council and “Ecclesiam Suam” (“On the Church”), Blessed Pope Paul VI’s 1964 encyclical that described how to interpret and implement council teachings.

Undergirding his philosophy was the freshly articulated universal call to holiness, the idea that everyone — not just clergy and religious — were called to be saints. Father Kittock said he saw that his job was to make people saints.

As he spoke, he took from his pocket a piece of paper no larger than 5 by 7 inches on which he had outlined that “job.” After he read some of the outline aloud, he said, “I realized I couldn’t do it by myself, I had to have people to help me make saints out of everybody else.”

He held in-service training for the school and parish staff, and hired a lay theologian. He thinks St. Charles was possibly the first parish in the country to do so.

Confusion, creativity

Mark Croteau is a 30-year lay minister and faith formation leader who has served at St. Olaf in Minneapolis, the Cathedral of St. Paul, St. Hubert in Chanhassen and now is director of mission at St. Joseph in West St. Paul. He admitted that he has only grade-school memories of the time when Vatican II was underway. “I remember the excitement about what it means, but a lack of clarity of what it meant,” Croteau said. “There was a sense of hope, but caution. I think people wondered what was wrong that needed fixing.”

He called it a confusing time.

“There was a total rupture from what was before,” Croteau said.

The classics weren’t studied. Scholasticism was out. There were new ways of doing theology — more experiential. What’s right and what’s wrong? Leading thinkers said we’re not sure we can know.

“People were either digging in their heels [to preserve traditions] or embracing Vatican II so hard that they squeezed the juice out of it,” Croteau said. “There was no real plan; folks were left to devise their own programs, and that caused confusion.”

An anecdote Father O’Connell shared made the point: Prior to 1963, professors would write their curriculum and teach it year after year, because nothing was changing. In 1963, Father O’Connell recalled, a St. Thomas theology professor came into the classroom and dropped his notes in the wastebasket. “He said, ‘We gotta start all over.’ ”

Mary Kaye Medinger, one of the early lay ministers as a parish director of religious education, was a student at then-College of St. Catherine as the council was wrapping up. She recalled St. Joseph of Carondelet Sister Rosalie Ryan being on fire with Vatican II, using the Documents of Vatican II as a text along with a book on Scripture that she had written herself, and Jesuit Father John Reynolds teaching moral theology using as his texts the Beatitudes and Time magazine.

“We went from memorization to ongoing dialogue about what impact Scripture had on our lives,” Medinger said. Croteau, who was among the first to earn a master’s degree in theology offered at St. Thomas, made the point that it took the institutional Church “20 years or so after the council to give lay people the foundation they needed to work in a parish.”

Theological foundations

Years before the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul became a university, its leaders recognized the need to enable “lay people to do what Vatican II called them to do,” Ed Sellner said.

Sellner was hired in 1981 to teach theology and start St. Kate’s pastoral ministry program, “so the lay people being hired by parishes had the theology behind them,” he said. It was a logical step for the Catholic women’s college, Sellner said, because primarily women felt called to lay ministry.

Medinger earned a master of arts degree in catechetics and liturgy through the University of St. Thomas’s graduate program, where Sellner and others from St. Catherine’s theology depart taught. Gene Scapanski established the program at St. Thomas that later became the Master of Art in Pastoral Studies (MAPS).

Later St. Catherine began a master of theology program with a concentration on spirituality, again with mostly women in the program, although it was open to men.

After working at St. Luke (now St. Thomas More) in St. Paul and working for the archdiocese in faith formation, in 1994 Medinger became the founding director of Wisdom Ways Spirituality Center, an initiative with its origins in the theology department at St. Catherine.

“The people there took seriously Vatican II’s directive to go out into the broader community to share the Gospel,” Medinger said. “They were aware of the hunger for spirituality, that there were thinking people in the community who were looking for something more.”

As what Medinger described as “a natural grandchild of MAPS,” the archdiocese collaborated with St. Catherine and St. Thomas to launch the Institute for Christian Life and Ministry in 1997. The three-year certificate program offered practical theology training for volunteers, lay ministers and teachers.

Better off, but still learning

Today the archdiocese offers a similar, two-year program through the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute.

“We couldn’t have established the catechetical institute without Vatican II,” Father Reidy said as he and Father Kittock discussed the council. Asked if the Church was better off that Vatican II occurred, both said yes.

“Oh, for sure,” Father Kittock said. “Half of Africa has turned Catholic as a result of Vatican II. Our ecumenical relationships are another positive result.”

Father Reidy saw a collapse of catechetical teaching in the aftermath of Vatican II, quoting then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger by describing it as “a catastrophic failure.” Sellner and Huberty observed that personally.

On the other hand, Father Reidy said the council documents are “marvelous” in the way they explain the Catholic faith, and the fact that the council led to the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1994, “is a wonderful thing.”

Vatican II was also responsible for the suppression of popular devotions, Father Reidy said. “They just took them away.”

Father Kittock interjected: “But they focused on the Mass instead, and that’s what was more important.”

With regard to liturgical music, Father Kittock described a concern similar to one pastors had with lay ministers: “We had no one trained.”

While he misses chant and polyphony, Father Reidy acknowledged that the council’s call for greater participation by the people in the pew — and in the vernacular — enabled new music to be written.

Before Minnesotans Father J. Michael Joncas, David Haas and Marty Haugen collaborated and made the archdiocese a leader in popular post-conciliar music for worship, the only liturgical music was often English translations of German Lutheran hymns, Father O’Connell recalled.  That was worthwhile, he said, because Lutherans taught catechesis and rooted their hymns in basic Christian theology.

However, he said, “It’s really hard for me to hear some of the early stuff that we had right after Vatican II.

“Latin was gorgeous. It was gorgeous because it was classic. We were reduced to ‘Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.’ The songs lacked musical integrity.

“It took a long time for us to get where we are today. We had the St. Louis Jesuits, and then Michael and David (Father Michael Joncas and David Haas), they advanced it, and it’s still growing. We’ve finally got to the point where we have fairly elegant Church music in English that has real integrity.”

Two pre-conciliar legacies — the Liturgical Movement led by the Benedictines at St. John’s Abbey 100 miles northwest of the Twin Cities in Collegeville and the social justice pioneering of this archdiocese’s own Msgr. John Ryan — eased the transition to the new liturgy here by supporting the council’s teaching that “worship and justice are married,” Father O’Connell said. That groundwork sprouted post-conciliar justice activity often headlined by the newly formed Urban Affairs Commission, which delved into race and housing issues, to name just a few.

“The legacy,” Father O’Connell said, “is that in order to have legitimate worship, you had to walk the walk, and you had to wash people’s feet like Christ did.”

Change in the 1960s

To be understood, Catholic leaders said, Vatican II needs to be viewed in the context of its times.

Catholic culture — like other societal traditions — was what was dissolving in the years surrounding the council, Father Kittock said. “Vatican II came like a tsunami,” along with all other kinds of revolution. The sexual revolution was one of those, and Father Reidy said it affected the Church and the clergy.

“It was a letting down of the bar, a laxity,” Father Reidy said. “There was the impression that we [the Catholic Church] had over-emphasized [sex] in the past, and people were looking for freedom.”

Huberty — the marketing executive and Nativity parishioner — said Vatican II was when “the wheels started coming off” the Church’s cultural norms.

Coming from a Hastings family that prayed the rosary every evening, Huberty studied American church history with the legendary Lutheran scholar Martin Marty as a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago.

“All the rules and all the regulations, that’s what it was all about,” he said. Because it was part of Catholic culture at the time, one was expected to follow the Church’s rules. “The relaxation of the rules was a bad thing,” Huberty added. “People are comfortable with rules. Vatican II pulled the rug out from everybody.”

Moving forward, not apart

The archdiocese’s moderator of the curia sees things differently.

“Catholics picture the Second Vatican Council as the middle aisle dividing the liberal and conservative sides of their Church,” and wrongly so, Father Lachowitzer said.

“Vatican II was about moving this Church forward to be able to cope with what was happening in the world,” he said.

“You can’t turn back the clock on the degree to which Vatican II is influencing Catholic life today,” added Father Lachowitzer, who was ordained in 1990.

“Take how we look at Scripture. In the past, Scripture came to us only at Mass. The idea that you could sit and read the Bible would have been foreign to Catholics. The Bible was something you put on your coffee table and entered the names of family members when they were born and when they died.”

“Verbum Dei”  — the council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation —  “gave us today’s emphasis on the role of the homily to pull us from the revelation of the word to the mystical level of the body of Christ,” he said.

“Gaudium et Spes,” Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, is still a prophetic document, he said. “Fifty years ago, ‘Gaudium et Spes’ was laying the foundation for what [Pope] Francis said at the United Nations this fall,” Father Lachowitzer said.

Much of the lay involvement today, he added, came out of “Lumen Gentium,” the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

“In the 1950s, to be a good Catholic you met your Sunday obligation and didn’t eat meat on Friday,” he said.

“Vatican II clarified our role, saying the shifts and changes weren’t just liturgical. The documents changed our ability to express our spiritual and deepest feelings,” he said, adding that involving laity in decision-making may have been the directive of the council that was done best in the archdiocese.

“In 1987, this archdiocese had 220 parishes, and 190 of those had parish councils,” Father Lachowitzer recalled. “I did a summer in south Boston as a seminarian, and the Archdiocese of Boston, with 500 parishes, had two parishes with parish councils.

“Lay ministry grew because pastors were dealing with increasingly complicated issues. ‘Father knows best’ became obsolete,” he said.

The reform that Vatican II brought about, he said, was building better structures between the people in the pews and the decision-makers.

A Church of unity

Polarization in the Catholic Church can be exaggerated, Father Lachowitzer said. “Americans are polarized, and it’s reflected in the Church,” he said.

“Vatican II is reform, laying out what the Church needs to do to meet the needs of a changing society.”

“[Popes] John Paul II and Benedict XVI embodied the necessary counter-reformation so that Francis could be the synthesis. We had reform, the counter-reformation and now we have renaissance.”

While some Catholics — and some priests — would side with the counter-reformation and others would see reforms as not yet finished, Father Lachowitzer makes the point that all continue to be part of the same Church.

“Is there room for both?” he asked rhetorically. “We’re doing both. Society and our experience tell us we have to choose, and I say we don’t. We can have both Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan. Unity is our gift to the world.”

It is good to realize, too, that the Church is still in the Vatican II era, Father Lachowitzer said.

One of his predecessors in the moderator of the curia’s chair, Father O’Connell, recalled a reporter asking Pope Francis if he was going to call for Vatican III.

Father O’Connell said, “Francis replied, ‘I’m going to complete Vatican II.’ ”



Category: Faith and Culture

  • DebraBrunsberg

    I think removing the communion rails was one of the worst decisions that came after Vatican II and the decision to do that had nothing to do with Vatican II. It seems to have been a free for all by Bishops and priests. I was just a child, but I well remember the anguish of my parents when the folk singing groups took over the music and the pastor, in his homily, told parents that if their children did not want to go to Mass, you should not make them. I have one of the statues that was also tossed out into the street, rescued by my great-aunt and kept in the family.
    One can see what 50 years of removing the line between clerical and laity has done within the Church, especially in the lack of reverence for the Eucharist. When one has to endure Extraordinary Ministers in excess, dressed in jeans, shorts, football jerseys, walking in front of the altar like it was nothing, standing behind the priest before he has even received. Nothing says respect than walking up to the front to receive the Lamb of God and on one side of the aisle you have the priest in his vestments and on the other, the guy in his shorts. Serious disconnect here and I weep for Jesus.
    We still have parishes that hold the fake group confession at Easter and Christmas. Parishioners that have no clue that they are not receiving absolution for anything when it is given to 500 people at once.
    We still have parishes where the focus of the Mass is the Christian rock music with the electric guitars and the drums, as if that music was truly an offering to God.
    We still have parishes where you will never have a moment of silence in the Church before or after Mass.
    I can’t take the high road as I walked out of the Church when I was 15 and was brought back when I was 51. I have to say I was very surprised at what the Mass had become or I should say, what was no longer there. It is sad that those who desire something more traditional or just more serious in the Mass are the minority. Easier to offend a few than the many, I guess.
    This Archdiocese has many, holy, spirit filled priests and I believe we are blessed in that. I believe that the focus has to return to the Center of the Mass and the Center of our Faith with teaching the truth of Jesus present in the Eucharist. That loss of belief is a byproduct of all the other changes of Vatican II. Maybe it is time to restore the communion rails. How could kneeling before God to receive this incredible gift, be a bad thing?

  • all knees shall bend

    i believe when they remove the rail the ‘reverence’ of the true presence of Christ was thus shoved into pockets, thrown on the floor , and just left behind in the pews like a bus token.

  • DebraBrunsberg

    Here is a link to someone who thinks like I do, but has that charity thing down pat. (I keep trying and failing)

  • Fr. BL

    Lots of sweeping generalizations here, mainly from the progressive voices interviewed. It’s very discouraging to see the old canards about II Vatican Council being trotted out again in the Catholic Spirit. For clarity on this topic, we can do no better than Pope Benedict’s XVI’s 2005 Christmas Address to the Roman Curia. Short and readable:

  • The so-called reformers ushered in a lot of nonsense while blurring the lines between the laity and clerics. This was justified as being in the “Spirit of Vatican II.” It created a mess. The elimination of the communion rails just one step in the process of the loss of understanding of the true presence of Christ under the signs of bread and wine. Communion in the had is another. Lay EMs dressed in Vikings jerseys is another. It is sometimes difficult to even differentiate between a Mass and a Lutheran service. I am not sure if the faithful in the pews even understand the difference. The implementation of Vatican II (not the documents themselves) by the progressives has resulted in a loss of the sense of mystery in the Mass and a loss of the faith by man. This is so sad.

  • Charles C.

    Thank you for these comments. They are largely kind, well intentioned and informed. They made me wonder about what the positive effects of the Council were, so I went looking. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I found an article by the author of the 2003 book “Index of Leading Catholic Indicators.”

    What part of the Church in America interests you? Priests, seminarians, seminaries, brothers, sisters, parochial schools, parochial school students, infant baptisms, adult baptisms, percentage of parishes with priests? All were going steadily up prior to Vatican II, and all have fallen seriously, and in some cases, disastrously in the generation since.

    Concerning Father Lachowitzer’s comment about turning the clock back, let me take a quote from G. K. Chesterton, provided in that same article:

    “Chesterton had an apt comment in his book, What’s Wrong With The World:
    “The need here is a need of complete freedom for restoration as well as
    revolution. … There is one metaphor of which the moderns are very
    fond; they are always saying, ‘You can’t put the clock back.’ The simple
    and obvious answer is ‘You can.’ … There is another proverb, ‘As you
    have made your bed, so you must lie on it’; which again is simply a lie.
    If I have made my bed uncomfortable, please God I will make it again.
    We could restore the Heptarchy or the stage coaches if we chose. It
    might take some time to do, and it might be very inadvisable to do it;
    but certainly it is not impossible as bringing back last Friday is
    impossible. This is, as I say, the first freedom that I claim: the
    freedom to restore.””

    And I’m still looking for the Council’s benefits, at least those which occurred in this country. I’m glad that some Catholics feel more comfortable with the new approach, but many do not. Some individual feelings aren’t the issue, though. Has the Church been strengthened by the Council? Nobody has shown that it has, but it’s supporters refuse to admit it.

    Now, where is that clock?