Reclaiming Vatican II
There have been thousands of books—from classics to claptrap—written about the Catholic Church Council Vatican II. So, forgive my skepticism when a new release [October 2021] claims to announce what “really happened.” The author, Father Blake Britton, was ordained in 2018 and, based upon his two-year experience in his first parish and his personal research, he has attempted to present a correct interpretation of the teachings of Vatican II [1962-1965] and the ways that his corrections can renew priestly and parish life. All of this in 173 pages.
The very title “Reclaiming,” which strongly suggests a hijacking, sets the tenor of the book. Chapter One, “The Paracouncil,” introduces us to the author’s favorite handle: “Paracouncil,” a generic term here for individuals and camps who cherry picked [and, in his view, continue to pick] the Council documents for their own assessments of what the Council should have said, on matters as diverse as Latin in the Mass and interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures.
The Paracouncil narrative is not originally the author’s, nor is it new. Immediately after the Council it embodied the narrative that bishops and theologians from Western Europe had exercised undue liberal influence in the composition of the Council’s teachings. This reading overlooks the reality that unlike today, when Catholic theology is now a global undertaking, most of the world’s Catholic universities were in fact in Western Europe. In addition, Vatican II was less a reform Council than a reaction Council, a response to the horrors of the World Wars and the Holocaust. Western European experience played heavily into that Conciliar narrative, and rightfully so.
In a more recent iteration, the Paracouncil mystique provides a cover for the current generation of seminarians and clergy [not all, to be sure] who wish to siphon from Council documents a justification to return to a Church life of sixty years ago, by emphasizing texts that permit the retention of rites and practices of six decades earlier. No young cleric today can claim to have lived in that era; it appears that an oral tradition in some seminaries has kept alive the idea that the Church of the 1950’s was a golden age of the Faith, certainly in the United States, with a clear identity of priestly ministry. [No one in 1960 was talking about “priests smelling like their sheep,” in Pope Francis’ memorable comment.] I can understand that to a newly ordained priest of this generation, the challenges facing ministry must seem daunting. The difficulty with living in the past is the gradual discovery that “the good old days” were not as good as imagined.
The main body of the book addresses the four Vatican II documents on the Liturgy, the nature of the Church, Divine Revelation, and the role of the Church in the modern world. To each area the author brings a mix of his own research, a “Paracouncil commentary,” a highlighting of past and present anecdotal mistakes and abuses, and recommendations for correction and renewal. The flow of the narrative is choppy as the author wears many hats and switches them frequently—from Church historian to social critic to magisterial sheriff to retreat master to parochial consultant.
The Paracouncil theme colors much of his narrative, more than the author may realize. About Biblical study, the author writes: “The exclusive use of the historical-critical method for interpreting Scripture is prevalent in paraconciliar thought. Some clergy and theologians claim that events such as the feeding of the five thousand were not miracles but sociological phenomena.” [p. 135] On the subject of the Church, he writes “…the Paracouncil uses Vatican II as an opportunity to deemphasize the Church’s nature in an attempt to make her more relatable with the modern world and other Christian denominations.” [p. 101] These are serious charges that fail to consider how difficult the implementation of the Council actually was. I would take him more seriously if he acknowledged that he stands on the shoulders of giants, including many he easily dismisses.
The concluding chapter troubled me the most, “What Now?” This segment is highly autobiographical; the author becomes the embodiment of his arguments. He describes his first assignment after ordination: “I was sent to a community wounded by scandal and flailing in the spiritual life. After two decades of lackluster parish life, they had received a new pastor.” [p. 168] Later in the chapter he identifies the parish by name and states that attendance had dropped 66% in the previous administration. The public shaming of a clergyman [the previous pastor] and a community seems beyond the pale, and worse, because it sets the stage for the author’s own definition of his success. [A good friend of mine who read the book asked me, “For Pete’s sake, did this man have an editor?”]
The author narrates his two-year work in tandem with the new pastor. He describes their work as prioritizing the liturgy, catechizing the people about the history of the Church, offering regular parish missions, and increasing opportunities to celebrate the sacraments. I do agree with several of his recommendations for liturgical reform, notably on matters of music, silence, focus, etc. He is correct that reform requires study.
At the end of two years both he and the pastor were reassigned. [Ironically, his pastor was transferred to my parish—small world!] Upon leaving, the author reports that after two years “our finances are in order, the school is filled with children, and Mass attendance is steadily increasing.” [p. 170] It just seems a bit too self-serving, particularly when he presumes to counsel fellow priests—nearly all older and more experienced—that “patience is essential…the average parish takes three to five years to reform.” How does he know?
Given the successful tally he reports--balanced books, high walk-in traffic, satisfied customers—numbers that would please any CEO, I do wonder how the author integrates his own CEO into a parish reform agenda, namely Pope Francis, who has barely a cameo appearance between the covers of this book. Hopefully, the author does not count our present pontiff among the paraconciliarists.
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