I am not attending Mass in my home parish weekend, as we are heading out to our diocesan retreat center this afternoon for a Mass and golden jubilee celebration for a religious sister with whom my wife has worked for a number of years. I got to thinking that religious order men and women celebrating golden jubilees over the next decade or so would have made first profession in the unsettled atmosphere immediately after Vatican II. Actually, a half-century ago at this time the fourth and final session of Vatican II was just about to begin. I am about halfway through the history of the Council as written by the mysterious Xavier Rynne, and it is mildly consoling to discover that there was as much humanity and disarray inside the Council as there was on the outside, the church of everyday.
I was simply professed in 1969 to the Franciscan Order, and solemnly professed in 1972 (in the midst of the severe and costly Tropical Storm Agnes.) Being a new religious in these years was interesting, to say the least. Vatican II had approved a number of reforms for religious, the primary being a return to the “spirit of the founder.” The Council did not lay down hard and fast rules about timetables, changes in apostolates or fields of work, except to say that this work should be spearheaded by the communities themselves (as opposed to being dictated by the Roman Curia) in chapters or general meetings within two or three years. With regard to the wearing of the habit, this determination was left to the orders themselves. I can remember very well that in 1968 my own province elected a Provincial or President who favored the outcome of Vatican II over another candidate who did not, by exactly one vote.
One complicating factor here is that the decree on religious life was one of the last instructions to come out of the Council (December, 1965). But thanks originally to Xavier Rynne and later to the bishops themselves who gave frequent press conferences in Rome to their hometown papers (much to the dismay of the secretive Vatican Press Office) a well-read Catholic could follow the debates and learn of the straw votes within a day or two of the happening. In the United States, to be sure, and certainly in northern Europe, religious leaders began programs of reform before there was official authorization. Another thing which very much affected my own college and graduate seminary years was the fact that many of my professors had been students of the periti, the expert theologians guiding each bishop, and we as students were introduced to their thinking and books. Our American friend Xavier was a doctor of moral theology teaching in Rome.
I lived in Washington from 1969 through 1974, in one of the many religious/academic houses that surrounded Catholic University. I went to class with men (and one or two women, I think) from many religious orders. I formed an impression—backed up by no reputable source besides me—that religious communities could be categorized into three groups: (1) those with pedal to the metal in experimenting with new freedoms and methods of living religious life; (2) those attempting to find a middle road between the old customs and the new; and (3) a few communities steadfastly opposed to change. My community waffled between #1 and #2, to the degree that after five years of hearing arguments about what constituted poverty in our house (orange juice with breakfast was often mentioned) I was just as happy to be moving on to ordination to the priesthood in 1974 and on to my first assignment.
Looking back, it is easy to see the anguish of the men in charge. When I applied to the Vatican for laicization, I provided a list of ten such superiors, spiritual directors, professors and the like. I learned that nine of the ten had themselves left the Order and the priesthood after my ordination. We did not receive what I think most would consider a rather important part of priestly training—prayer and meditation. Moreover, since the community was generally composed of students and professors, our schedules were shaped by course times as much as anything, such that daily common Mass was not always “daily.” (This is probably not an issue in diocesan seminaries today where priestly and academic formation occur under the same roof.)
Another factor of the times was adjusting to the new freedoms of the big city. In my own case, I had begun my seminary training at age 14 in a strict seminary where absence from the grounds was forbidden. This covered my high school and junior college years. The one year of novitiate was equally strict. But at age 21 I arrived in D.C. to register for my philosophy degree at Catholic University; by this time the philosophy of religious formation in my Order had turned 180 degrees toward a “full personal responsibility” approach. Were we ready to turn on a dime, so to speak? I think not, and this created a great deal of personal tension, and our mentors were agonizing along with us. Interestingly, I happened to read some significant new research within the past year on the psychosocial development of candidates for the priesthood, which indicates that today’s seminarians, like their secular peers, learn about their personal sexual being in the old “trial and error” method and well into their twenties. Formation for celibacy, virtually ignored in my training, is evidently still an area of concern fifty years later. I would be curious to know what contemporary seminary rectors are thinking along these lines.
One other factor of the post Vatican II era was the deep division within the Church over its effects. There were communities within my Order deemed “unsafe” for friars in training (and even the newly ordained) because of friar hostilities toward the English Mass, concelebrating, friars’ not wearing habits, etc. This was not a problem in my Washington home, but after ordination I was assigned to a large community where a number of the friars did not speak to me, though they often spoke about me and the modern ways I said Mass.
So, when I attend these jubilees at this phase of my life, I often wonder how the individual being honored was able to navigate those unpredictable waters of the early post-Vatican II era. As Mickey Mantle famously muttered after hitting a 500’ home run with a terrible hangover, “Those folks have no idea how hard that really was.”
On My Mind