This is not a post on the documents or formal results of the Council, but more on how things changed in a day-to-day way in the wake of it.
I asked my mother (aged 83) once about what she remembered about the pre-Vatican II Church, and she said, “I remember going up to Father before Mass and saying, ‘Father, I swallowed some toothpaste when I was brushing my teeth this morning – may I still receive communion?’
“Father said something like, ‘yes, child, but you should be careful about that.'”
I told that story to a friend who is a Carmelite priest in his early seventies, and he chuckled and said, “I had that exact conversation with my priest when I was that age.”
I suspect that if you talk to virtually anyone older than their early sixties who was a practicing Catholic back in those days, they could tell very similar stories.
The “voice” of the Church hierarchy – that is, what it sounded like when it talked, as experienced by huge numbers of ordinary people before the early 1960s – was authoritarian, rule-bound, excessively rigorist, and resulted in a sometimes crippling scrupulosity in the everyday pew-sitter.
This scene is from the film Heaven Help Us, which tells the story of a Brooklyn parochial high school in the immediate wake of Vatican II. It is caricature, but it isn’t calumny:
(For the record: I don’t think any teenager has ever gone to Hell just for “admiring the shape of someone’s buttocks.”)
My mother has also told me that until well into adulthood, she had no sense of “the Love of God” as something other than a Thing She Had To Memorize in religion classes. The idea that we might have a “relationship” with God would have been seen as strange at best, and presumptuous at worst. God was Way Up There, and we were Way Down Here, and that was that.
Here’s the introduction, and then the 11th Station of the Cross, as written in an older Douay-Rheims bible:
A Preparatory Act of Contrition
O Jesus, treasure of my soul, infinitely good, infinitely merciful, behold me prostrate at Thy sacred feet! Sinner as I am, I fly to the arms of Thy mercy, and implore that grace which melts and converts – the grace of true compunction. I have offended Thee, adorable Jesus! I repent; let the favor of my love equal the baseness of my ingratitude. This Way of the Cross, grant me to offer devoutly in memory of that painful journey Thou hast travelled for our redemption, to the Cross of Calvary, with the holy design to reform my morals, amend my life and gain these indulgences granted by Thy vicars on earth. I apply one for my miserable soul, the rest in suffrage for the souls in purgatory, particularly N.N. [Here mention the souls for whom you intend to apply them.] I begin this devotion under Thy sacred protection, and in imitation of Thy dolorous Mother. Let then this holy exercise obtain for me mercy in this life, and glory in the next. Amen. JESUS!
Station 11: Christ is nailed to the Cross
This Station represents the place where Jesus Christ, in the presence of His afflicted mother, is stretched on the Cross, and nailed to it. How insufferable the torture – the nerves and sinews are rent by the nails. Consider the exceeding desolation, the anguish of the tender Mother, eye-witness of this inhuman punishment of her beloved Jesus. Generously resolve then to crucify your criminal desires, and nail your sins to the wood of the Cross. Contemplate the suffering resignation of the Son of God to the will of His Father, while you are impatient in trifling afflictions, in trivial disappointments. Purpose henceforth to embrace your cross with ready resignation to the will of God.
O patient Jesus! meek Lamb of God! who promised, “When I shall be exalted from earth I will draw all things to myself,” attract my heart to Thee, and nail it to the Cross. I now renounce and detest my past impatience. Let me crucify my flesh with its concupiscence and vices. Here burn, here cut, but spare me for eternity. I throw myself into the arms of Thy mercy. Thy will be done in all things. Grant me resignation, grant me Thy love, I desire no more. Amen, Jesus!
(Our Father, Hail Mary & Glory be)
Compare that with a Stations of the Cross first published in the late 1960s, called Everyone’s Way of the Cross, by Clarence Enzler:
These fourteen steps
That you are now about to walk
You do not take alone.
I walk with you.
Though you are you,
And I am I,
Yet we are truly one –
My way of the cross
Two thousand years ago
And your “way” now
Are also one.
But note this difference.
My life was incomplete until I crowned it
By My death.
Your fourteen steps
Will only be complete
When you have crowned them
By your life.
Station 11: Jesus is crucified
Can you imagine what a crucifixion is?
My executioners stretch My arms;
They hold My hand and wrist against the wood
And press the nail until it stabs My flesh.
Then with one heavy hammer smash
They drive it through –
Bursts like a bomb of fire in My brain.
They seize the other arm;
And agony again explodes.
Then raising up My knees
So that My feet are flat against the wood,
They hammer them fast, too.
I look at You and think:
Is my soul worth this much?
What can I give You in return?
I here and now accept
For all my life
Whatever sickness, torment, agony may come.
To every cross I touch my lips.
O blessed cross that lets me be –
With You –
A co-redeemer of humanity.
The language here is far more stripped down and simple than the former stations, but is all the more powerful for it. There is an almost harrowing intimacy being communicated here: Jesus is inviting us – each of us, personally – to experience His crucifixion with Him. To imagine it happening. To see it through the eyes of His Mother. It is much closer to the Quiet, Still Voice I encounter in prayer.
Here’s station 4 – Jesus meets His Mother:
My Mother sees Me whipped.
She sees Me kicked and driven like a
She counts My every wound.
But though her soul cries out in agony,
No protest or complaint
Escapes her lips
Or even enters on her thoughts.
She shares My martyrdom –
And I share hers.
We hide no pain,
From each other’s eyes
This is My Father’s will.
My Jesus, Lord,
I know what You are telling me.
To watch the pain of those we love
Is harder than to bear our own.
To carry my cross after You,
I, too, must stand and watch
The sufferings of my dear ones;
The heartaches, sicknesses and grief
Of those I love.
And I must let them watch mine, too.
I do believe –
For those who love You
All things work together unto good.
I’ve led the Stations with this version, and there are usually tears in the eyes of many of those praying the Stations with me. The Love of God is here made powerfully tangible – incarnate – and we respond with love ourselves.
The culture of the Church before the Council was saturated by the priorities of the Council of Trent – Keep the Troops In Line.
More on that in Part 2.