What did the Roman meeting ever do for us?
After Vatican II, Mass was heard in English, Protestants were no longer scary, and Fr Trendy was born, writes JOE HUMPHREYS. Illustrations: CHRIS JUDGE
MASS IN THE MOTHER TONGUE
Nelson Mandela once said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Something like that informed the Vatican Council’s decision to allow the use of the vernacular instead of Latin in the liturgy. Not just the spoken language, but the body language of priests changed.
Before Vatican II, they said Mass with their backs to the people; their about-face was a more than symbolic move. The distance between clergy and ordinary Catholics closed. As Dr Andrew Pierce of the Irish School of Ecumenics puts it, “The image of the church had [until then] been lots of lace and lots of Latin.”
Vatican II took place in the Sean Lemass era, and Ireland was already in the throes of a modernising drive.
Out went austere practices such as the 24-hour fast before the Eucharist, and “the dry black bread and the sugarless tea” of penance, as recalled by Kavanagh. In came guitars, folk groups and a new type of media-savvy priest later parodied as Fr Trendy.
There were complaints about what was sacrificed in the name of progress. Much-loved May processions and devotional sodalities reduced in number, while several saints – Philomena, Barbara and Christopher included – lost their feast days under a streamlined Roman Catholic calendar.
Church leaders realised, however, there were competing against popular culture, as well as the growing influence of TV and radio. For some people, this led to the Irish church’s greatest innovation: the parish disco.
Increased involvement of the laity, combined with greater emphasis on individual conscience, presented a new challenge for the church. People took responsibility for shaping their own faith; the “a la carte Catholic” became a new phenomenon. As with many of the changes which began 50 years ago, it is hard to disentangle the impact of Vatican II from other social and historical influences. According to Pierce, however, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid was well off the mark when he told Irish Catholics on his return from the Council in 1965 that “no change will worry the tranquillity of your Christian lives”.
“Very soon the tranquillity of their lives was very much upset,” says Pierce and still today “when people hear John XXIII talk about throwing open the windows [of the church] they respond to that.”
AN END TO EXCLUSIVITY
A crude summary of the pre-Vatican II mindset was that the world was evil and Catholics were best advised to withdraw from it.
The council advised “openness to the world”, partly informed by the horrors of the second World War, which was still fresh in the memory. Many things flowed from this shift. Obsessing about death-bed conversions all but disappeared, as did talk of limbo – though the idea of unbaptised babies being trapped there was not removed from church teaching until 2007.
It was acknowledged other world religions had “seeds of truth” and, as such, deserved respect. For Irish Catholics that meant a new relationship with Protestants. “Once the other churches cease to be ‘in error’ and the people in them no longer need to be rescued they became partners in dialogue,” says Pierce, albeit “it takes a while for the penny to drop on that.”
The spirit of Vatican II, allied with that of Paris 1968, led to a deeper engagement with social issues. Illustrative of this was the Jesuits’ decision to move their Dublin base form leafy Milltown to Gardiner Place in the north inner city. The “option for the poor” was popularised, and liberation theology grew in strength.
Some priests and missionaries became more radical and outspoken. Suddenly it seemed okay to be Christian and socialist. But not all were comfortable with the move.
Against the backdrop of the communist threat, Pope John Paul II spoke out strongly against those who “purport to depict Jesus as a political activist” or “someone involved in the class struggle”. The fault lines remain today.