Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"What parish are youse from?" The church in Philly only 40 years ago

Sisters of St. Joseph.

As recently as 1974 the destruction that Vatican II caused hadn't yet hurt the Archdiocese of Philadelphia: still lots of nuns and in nice habits. The Sisters of St. Joseph and the Immaculate Heart of Mary nuns were our big teaching orders at the time. One of the council's most visible effects is that nuns have almost disappeared. Not only not in habits; there aren't any. For 50 years the archdiocese has been living off the financial and social capital it earned before the council, pretending that the council made things better than ever. (Remember when the charismatic movement was "in"?) That has run out. Now it's closing parishes and schools. Throughout the country, little local conservative orders are doing well. In 50 years we'll be like this picture again, but in miniature.
Can you really say that Vatican II was responsible for the decline in these orders? No one can say for sure what the Church would be like had the Council never happened, but somehow I suspect that there would have been some type of decline in religious life and observance. Just look at other churches such as the Eastern Orthodox. They never had a Vatican II (although they do have some liberals working "behind the scenes" to bring about one). Yet they also seem to have experienced some type of decline in both church membership and active believers, at least in the US. I'll blame Vatican II for making a sloppy mess out of things with a lot of its rushed and artificial changes, but I think the change in people's attitudes towards religion have also worked to weaken faith.
Yes, I can, even though I agree with you that we still would have taken a hit from the Sixties. But if we'd kept our cultural integrity, if we hadn't bought into space-age "progress," if we hadn't lost our nerve at that crucial time, it would have been smaller. The Orthodox and Greek Catholics handled the liturgy right at the time: just translate the old rite! But both have taken a big hit too as you say. With them it's both because of the Sixties and assimilation: when the third generation is wholly American, they leave, plus the Greek Catholics often go Novus Ordo when they move (often the only Catholic church in town is Novus) or marry, so they're not lost to the church but they lose that wonderful culture.
It's a shame. I wish that these problems could have somehow been avoided. I certainly believe that, had a lot of those bishops been able to see into the future, many of them would have acted very differently during the council and its aftermath (I think there have been a few who actually had the guts to admit that before they died).
Heretics such as Bugnini helped create the new Mass but most of the bishops at the council meant well. They weren't heretics but fell for the Zeitgeist: "If we get rid of our cultural baggage to streamline for the space age, the church will get even bigger and better, and the American Protestants will love us and join even more than they are now."
Here's one bishop's take on things shortly after the council:
"When whole segments of the contemporary Church are set on a downward course of vulgarization, of anti-intellectualism, of revolt, and rebellion against all standards and authority, it is exceedingly difficult to put a stop to the trend, holding back the enormous weight, and then attempting to turn these segments back the other way, to begin all over again the slow, laborious climb to the high and distant peaks.

It is just such a catastrophe which overwhelms us today. We recall the dream of St. Francis and Pope Innocent III where the little Poor Man was holding up with his feeble hands the collapsing fabric of the Lateran…

We are in a veritable landslide of vulgarization. What was intended by Vatican Council II as a means of making the liturgy more easily understood by the average Christian, has turned out to be something more like an orgy of stripping it of all sense of holiness and reverence, bringing it down to the level of commonness where the very people for whom the changes were made now only yawn out of sheer boredom with the banality of the result.

What was the great poetic style of the Bible has been transmogrified and cheapened into some of the most graceless, flat, plodding prose ever inflicted upon undeserving dullards. Matters are bad enough now, but wait until the new Order of the Mass is released as compulsory for a revelation of what crimes can be committed by men in committee!

It might have been thought, in the interest of ecumenism, that consideration could have been given to strengthening the old Douai-Challoner text with the great style, the ‘organ roll’ of the King James version. But no! In the minds of those commissioned by hierarchy to do the work, the great object or target, manifestly, was to denude the liturgy of its last claim to literary dignity…

With polite pious acquiescence, the Bishops received the results with no more than an occasional feeble, almost only grunted protest. Thusly, do we lose a priceless cultural inheritance."
— Archbishop Robert J. Dwyer of Portland, Oregon, quoted from
The Clarion, Parish Bulletin, Glenview, Ill., July 26, 1971
Great churchmen like him are why I think we could have ridden out the Sixties and its aftermath with less damage than we had. The problem, again, was even most of the orthodox such as Fulton Sheen fell for the Zeitgeist, often with good intentions.
You don't like Bishop Sheen? He always seemed pretty conservative to me. Even after Vatican II, he was decrying a lot of the abuses of it and calling for a more orthodox interpretation.
I like him before the council; after, he was orthodox but like bishops almost everywhere he implemented the changes.
They really had no choice in the matter. The mandates came from Rome. If Sheen or any of them had resisted, they probably would have been removed by Pope Paul for doing so.
As the saintly Archbishop Lefebvre wrote, it was a masterstroke of Satan to misuse obedience that way. And again, most of the bishops innocently thought that was the way to go in the space age: streamline the church.


  1. Anonymous9:22 am

    Great piece. Thank you.

  2. Anonymous9:51 am

    By the way, why are you speaking with a Dublin accent??!!

    1. Note the quotes (what the Irish call inverted commas). It's how many working-class Catholic Philadelphians talk, and yes, it's from Ireland as many of them were generations ago. Youse is a refinement missing in standard English: a plural you like the standard Spanish vosotros and ustedes.

    2. Anonymous6:58 pm

      That's interesting. I didn't know that some Philadelphians used the expression. I often used it myself as a child, to fit in in the company of certain people.


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