- Steve Addazio's inaugural press conference as Boston College head football coach (pg. 9)
- Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch's keynote address at the Sesquicentennial symposium "Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education" (pg. 34)
- David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., on "New Evangelization for Today's Parish" (pg. 42)
- Guerilla Orchestra: the Callithumpian Consort and student musicians rehearse John Zorn's Cobra (pg. 10)
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Old time religion for these times
Igrew up on an Irish farm that had a bog across the way. The bog provided good turf to heat the homes of the local people. But gradually it got cut away and went into disuse, and there it lay, soggy and overgrown. The government launched what it called a reclamation project to drain it and clear it. When the work was done, the bog provided fertile soil for vegetables and fruit—and that was my first encounter with the word reclaim.
The American Catholic community prior to the Second Vatican Council in 1962–65 can be numbered among the most vital expressions of Catholicism in the history of the Church. It was a vast network of vibrant parishes, with myriad associations and organizations and overflowing Sunday Mass attendance; it boasted as many as eight million students enrolled in Catholic schools, the largest independent educational system in the history of the world. Across the country, there were Church-sponsored coalitions of hospitals and social services, and, with American seminaries and novitiates thriving, there were priests, sisters, and brothers enough to export thousands as missionaries. Catholics must have been doing something very right back then.
To reclaim key perspectives and practices from that era would be neither nostalgic nor naïve. And it would not mean to repeat, without reservation or imagination, what was. This is now, and that was then. Yet, it is surely true that reclaiming spiritual wisdom from the pre–Vatican II era can enrich the faith lives of Catholics today.
In what scholars identify as a “summary statement,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew (13:52), “Every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings forth from the storeroom both the new and the old.” That message—of a Christian faith of enduring vitality—is echoed in Jesus’s conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:10–14), when Jesus promises her, and Christians ever after, that his Gospel will be like fresh waters, “welling up to eternal life.”
Most Catholics who came of age prior to 1962 experienced Vatican II as what Pope John XXIII said it would be, a monumental aggiornamento—updating and renewing—of the Church, or as John quipped informally, “an opening of the window to let in fresh air.” Later, Pope John Paul II hailed the council as “a providential event,” one of “utmost importance in the two-thousand-year history of the Church,” and the “beginning of a new era.” Yet the whole project might be summarized as a reclaiming, from the early Christian communities, of the radical theology of baptism—radical in that baptism is the root (Latin, radix) of who Christians are and should be as disciples of Jesus.
Vatican II took seriously our baptismal bonding with Jesus Christ as “priest, prophet, and ruler.” In the pews and on the altar, this was experienced as a transformed and participatory liturgy, emphasizing both word and sacrament and celebrated in the local language; as a heightened attention to the Church’s social teachings, making clear the mandate of faith to do God’s will for justice and peace, “on earth as it is done in heaven”; and as a penetrating awareness of the communal nature of the Church to be a “body of Christ,” a community of co-responsible sharers in Jesus’s mission. Additional developments would include ecumenical outreach to other Christians, interfaith dialogue with other religions, the renewal of religious life, and the emergence of parish and diocesan councils (a first seed of democracy). For younger generations of Catholics, all this and more is taken for granted; but for those of us of prior vintage, Vatican II was an earthquake with 40 years of aftershocks. The typical Catholic then did not recognize the deep continuity with the treasury of Christian tradition. Many experienced instead a great discontinuity with custom.
Almost overnight, we went from the priest who began Mass with his back to the people and his face toward an imposing altar, whispering in Latin, to the priest who greets congregants across a table with a cheery “good morning” and an invitation to worship together. The Catholic Church entered the council referring to Protestants as “heretics” and came out calling them “our brothers and sisters in Christ.” Such changes were bound to feel traumatic.
In hindsight, many of the changes were poorly catechized and often overstated to the point that people heard only a call to abandon old ways. When the Church decided, for example, to suspend the law of Friday abstinence outside Lent, Catholics should have been encouraged to continue the weekly practice of giving up meat as good ascetical discipline (indeed, the 1966 papal document announcing the change urged as much). Instead, the message most often was, “It’s no longer a sin to eat meat on Fridays,” and a tradition dating back to the early centuries was simply abandoned. We have time yet to reclaim that practice and, while not placing it under “pain of sin,” to continue it voluntarily, as an opportunity to express solidarity with the poor and remember the Lord’s crucifixion on Good Friday.
Among adolescent and young adult Catholics, there is a phenomenon now of returning to practices of pre–Vatican II Catholicism. It arises out of a growing feeling that their baby-boomer parents may have deprived them of something valuable by setting aside too many of the old Catholic ways. The risk, however, is that young Catholics will simply repeat past practices rather than build on accumulated wisdom in reclaiming them. Consider devotion to Mary. The Church after Vatican II rightly re-centered Catholics’ focus on Jesus, on sacred Scripture, and on the liturgy—with reforms that reduced the sometimes excessive attention to Mary in Catholic piety. Now, with those reforms well in place, we have an opportunity to reclaim authentic Marian devotion for our time, with a Mariology that more surely fosters discipleship to Jesus.
The intent should be creative appropriation. The Rosary, with its multiple repetitions of the Hail Mary, so long a cherished custom of Catholics but recently fallen off in practice, offers a prime example. It is worth reclaiming; its mantra-like rhythm and contemplative aspect could be a gentling prayer practice in our busy world. In this, Pope John Paul II led the way. He affirmed the Rosary as “a treasure to be rediscovered,” yet he recognized its limitations: namely, that the traditional sets of mysteries (joyful, sorrowful, glorious) that framed the original prayer cycles focused exclusively on the Christ of faith, skipping entirely the public life of Jesus. From the “Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple” (the fifth joyful mystery), they jumped to the “Agony in the Garden” (the first sorrowful mystery).
In 2002, John Paul II added the “Mysteries of Light”—five moments from the public ministry of Jesus. The events he chose were Jesus’s baptism, the wedding at Cana, Jesus’s proclamation of the Kingdom of God as recorded in Mark 1: 14–15, his transfiguration before Peter, John, and James as he prayed on a mountaintop, and the institution of the Eucharist.
This is the kind of appreciative, critical, and creative reclaiming that is wanted as we return to the storeroom of our faith to find treasures old and new.
Thomas Groome is professor of theology and religious education in the School of Theology and Ministry. His essay is drawn and adapted from Reclaiming Catholicism: Treasures Old and New (2010), which Groome co-edited with Michael J. Daley, by permission of Orbis Books.
Read more by Thomas H. Groome