In the 1970s, I inhabited a world where the Second Vatican Council was seen as an unmitigated disaster. Nuns stopped wearing their old habits — or simply left their convents altogether. Priests left their ministry. There was trite music at Mass, and Benediction seemed to have been abolished. Doctrine wasn’t taught anymore, and catechesis for young people seemed to be restricted to talk about abolishing war and working for racial harmony. It was an extraordinary time to be taking first steps in Catholic journalism. Newsletters and lobby groups abounded. One visionary claimed to know that Pope Paul VI was being held a prisoner in the Vatican. A false pope was being paraded for public occasions, but he was not the real Paul VI, and you could tell by looking at his ears.
There were dark predictions of gloom and a general sense of drift within the Church. There was also a great sense of division: The increasing number of diocesan bureaucrats — in charge of departments labeled “Justice and Peace” and so on — seemed to be a “they,” with the rest of us a “we.” The pope seemed largely to be ignored; people only ever quoted one phrase of his, which was that “the smoke of Satan” had entered the sanctuary. With photocopying just coming into general use, publications promoting all sorts of outlandish conspiracies flourished. I remember being sent one pamphlet filled with hate-fuelled nastiness denouncing Jews and claiming the Holocaust hadn’t happened, while others were filled with drivel suggesting that Christ wasn’t really divine, that the Church must wholly remodel its understanding of salvation, and more.
It was a good while before I actually read the documents of Vatican II and realized that they frequently bore little or no relation to the claims made about them. One reason I hadn’t read them sooner was because the older generation had more or less taken for granted the pointlessness of this particular council. They spoke of the pre-Vatican II Catholic world of Bing Crosby films — packed churches, strong community bonds, revered priests, general admiration from the wider public. Why had there been any need for change?
In fact, it was this image that gave me pause. For I had by this time begun to discover that America, and my own Britain, were only part of the world. There was also a Europe that twice in a half century had been ripped apart by war, with people on both sides worshipping the same God and attending the same Mass and placing trust and hope in the same Christ. In this Christian Europe, truly dreadful things had been done, and the glorious heritage of centuries of Christian worship and teaching and labor and love had somehow been squandered. In the 1950s, everyone was busy rebuilding and coping, but they were also asking questions about the relationship between the Church and people’s lives, about how great truths could have been so hideously ignored.
It simply wasn’t enough to be told that both wars were the result of a Masonic plot, or alternatively that “there have always been wars.” Nearer the mark was the view summed up by G. K. Chesterton when he wrote that Christianity hadn’t been tried and found wanting, but had been found difficult and left untried. When Pope John XXIII called a Vatican council, it was as though to explore the great need to re-evangelize, to put the great truths in a fresh way.
In the 1970s, the idea of studying Church documents — whether of Vatican II or anything else — was regarded as slightly ridiculous. People sneered at Humanae Vitae — modernists because they disagreed with it (and had, it seemed, all the mass media and general popular opinion on their side), and more traditional Catholics because it had arrived rather late on the scene, when much ground had already been lost and contraception already accepted by many.
The Church at its official level, I slowly realized, often seems to tackle things a bit late, but she gets there in the end. In the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution arrived and people left their old rural ways for new lives surrounded by factories and mass-production, the Church was actually there with them — churches and schools were built, priests and nuns labored heroically, saints were nurtured, magnificent things achieved. The decades of industrialization rolled on, but only in the 1890s did the Church produce an encyclical: Rerum Novarum, “Of New Things” (new!), looking at the plight of the poor in this industrialized world and offering a message for a just social order and common life. It came some years after the Communist Manifesto, but it made much more sense; a century later, when Communism in Europe had finally been vanquished, the Church’s voice still spoke and speaks with truth and hope.
Under Pope John Paul II, the Church seemed at last to be finding that voice. There was a fresh sense of zest and a new equilibrium. The old newsletters disappeared. Instead, we got a sense of hope — new movements stirred in the Church, bringing a sense of continuity and an awareness that Christian life never was and never should be in the hands of diocesan bureaucrats or anxious campaigners. It is lived in faith and service, centered on prayer.
And so to the 21st century. In the first part of this new decade, I was told that World Youth Day was a ghastly idea, that the New Movements (Communion and Liberation, the Neo-Catechumenate, various charismatic-based groups, and in Britain things like Youth 2000 and the Faith Movement) wouldn’t last. John Paul II certainly looked old and frail as he opened the door of St. Peter’s as the year 2000 began. But things weren’t quite as they seemed: When he died five years later, the piety and devotion of the vast crowds at his funeral — priests hearing confessions by the roadside around St. Peter’s Square, voices raised in the Rosary — seemed quite extraordinary.
Pope Benedict XVI — a man of the Second Vatican Council, chief architect of its main fruit, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a man of outstanding wisdom and in tune with the centuries of the Church’s teaching — is leading the Church as we approach the second decade of this new century. He’s coming under ferocious — hideous — attack from secularists who can’t bear the thought that the Church has survived the upheavals that followed Vatican II and not changed its doctrine and its message. He’s calling out to a Europe and a world that yearns for truth but is scarred by sin and cannot cope with the brightness of that truth when it is revealed.
The 1970s seem long ago. Today, Catholic youth activity usually involves adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, catechesis in World Youth Day style, pro-life activities, fundraising for charitable projects, and practical action as volunteers in all sorts of outreach programs. At Mass, guitars are on the way out, Latin chant in: The revival of the Extraordinary Form seems likely to serve as a benchmark as the Novus Ordo evolves, and the buzzword is “convergence.” We’re beginning to realize that Vatican II wasn’t the great break with our traditions that was claimed: Christ is the same, His message is the same, sins are the same (child abuse in the 1950s and the 1980s, alas), grace is the same, mankind’s need of God is the same.
Pray for Benedict XVI. The Church is obviously getting something right, because the Enemy is now hurling lies and filth around with greater force than ever. How Satan must loathe the young people who gather to pray before the Blessed Sacrament, who go to confession in such large numbers at World Youth Day and its linked events, who surge forward to greet the pope in St. Peter’s Square and elsewhere. How Satan must have loathed John Paul II and the example of faithfulness that he gave, as well as the good and holy man who is now St. Peter’s successor and suffering the taunts and abuse, the exhaustion and the libel, the pressure and the peril of that great office. How Satan must loathe the grace-given way in which the Church moves forward through history and the heroic way in which she is served by saints and martyrs. How much, much more rich and glorious is the Christian Faith than we often realize. How undeserving we are of God’s goodness, and how awesome is our responsibility to respond to it.