ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
18. Priests, both secular and religious, who are already working in the Lord's vineyard are to be helped by every suitable means to understand ever more fully what it is that they are doing when they perform sacred rites; they are to be aided to live the liturgical life and to share it with the faithful entrusted to their care.
I have done considerable searching in recent years to find historical narratives or statistical research on American parish life, and specifically the priesthood, in the years during and after the Council. Section 18 of Sacrosanctum Concilium summarizes in a very few words the immense pressures facing priests, who were faced with the double whammy of coming to grips personally and intellectually with the new theological emphases of the Council and serving as conduit and support for the people in the pews. Thus, while section 18 indicates that “every suitable means” was to be put to the service of priests, several factors considerably neutered the term—some circumstantial, some accidental, and some of longstanding.
The circumstances of SC itself—its timing and implementation—led to priestly overload. SC was the first of the Council’s sixteen documents to be promulgated, in 1963, and Pope Paul VI immediately established the Vatican office to begin drawing up the revised Latin rite of the Mass and providing for vernacular translations and establishing norms for music. Consequently the “changes in the Mass” as we used to say arrived to the Catholic public and its priests like bicycle parts mailed one month at a time. One of my most prized possessions is a 1968 hybrid Missal, an English text of the old Tridentine Mass and calendar. Its historical curiosities include the hymnal section; since Catholics were not accustomed to congregational singing, liturgists went to the best source available, mainstream Protestant hymnals, for pieces like “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”
Normally a bishop maintains oversight and uniformity of rites in his diocese. But consider that the bishops themselves were in Rome for four months of 1964 and 1965, after the changes in the Mass were authorized in SC. And, truth be told, many American bishops were not prepared for the scholarship they encountered at the Council; my own home bishop, as legend has it, went to the Council with ideas for better retrieval of the tiny crumbs that fell to the altar at the breaking of the consecrated host. He was also the first bishop to die during the Council. Historians are in general agreement that the contributions of U.S. bishops to the discussions on the floor were minimal, as most were practical pastoral men who were not current with theological research. Nor were they fluent in Latin, the language of discussion.
It is fair to say that a typical American bishop was preoccupied with the business of Vatican II itself during the four years of the Council, and in many cases, would be digesting the thrust of the Council themselves. This set of circumstances takes us back to the original question: Quis custodes custodiet, or “who will shepherd the shepherds?” The answer varies widely across the priestly population. In no particular order, I will give my own eccentric breakdown.
In the first instance, I would venture a guess that priests in academia—particularly religious order priests—found the new atmosphere to be energizing, without the anxiety that plagued other clergy. I am a little biased here, as my experience of these years was living with doctoral theologians, some of them published. Their research took nearly all of them overseas and brought them into intimate contact with churches, universities, and theologians particularly in Europe. For the priests I lived with, new efforts on behalf of ecumenism or freedom of conscience, for example, were not only untroubling but long overdue. Religious order priests also had the advantage of international membership and less vulnerability to local bishops or disgruntled
The next instance would be the self-motivated priest who read widely, possibly traveled, and availed himself of works on various aspects of theology such as Scripture or Morality. He may have read Bernard Haring’s The Law of Christ or The Council: Reform and Reunion, written a few years before Vatican II by a young Swiss theologian, Hans Kung. Kung’s projection of possibilities was widely read by such priests as Thomas Merton and Pope John XXIII himself; perceptive readers, certainly priests among them, took him seriously enough. The Curia took him seriously enough to open a file on young Father Kung. A well-informed priest may have subscribed to Commonweal as well as the more in-house Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
The third group would be reasonably happy parish priests who, whatever the personal opinions, understood their critical roles as catechetical leaders for the Church and mustered enthusiasm to study the Council and its changes and introduce them to their congregations with sensitivity, background, and thoughtfulness.
The fourth group consisted of priests who, in good conscience, believed the New Mass or Novus Ordo of Pope Paul VI was doctrinally deficient or woefully off the mark vis-à-vis the Mass of Pius V from the Council of Trent (the Latin Mass rite at the opening of the 1962 Council.) I know of some priests who discontinued offering public Masses after the Council. A few went into schism or separation from Rome. I think that some precision should have been made by SC or its immediate follow-up to address the conscience crisis suffered by these priests and the laity who were similarly distressed. Fortunately, Rome has shown greater understanding of this population in recent decades.
The final group is priests for whom the era of change in the 1960’s was psychologically devastating to the point of near incapacitation. Again, in looking for hard data here, a telling indicator of the health of the clergy in 1962 became known in the 2004 John Jay Study on the nature and study of minors abused by priests. The Jay study found that almost 70% of the abusive priests were ordained before 1970, after attending pre-Vatican II seminaries or seminaries that had had little time to adapt to the reforms of Vatican II.” Specifically, the Jay study is calling attention to the poor screening of candidates for the priesthood in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
If the Jay study is correct, and it has not been refuted in thirteen years, many men were ordained with developmental or psychological impairments. Only the tiniest percentage of these abused minors, of course, but a fair number were holding themselves together with the predictability of church life, alcohol, eating, gambling, prescription medications, or some other means. As une event psychologique as the French would say, a priest’s life during Vatican II was turned upside down, and for some, it proved to be the last straw.
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