In the early part of the twentieth century, G.K Chesterton reigned as one of the most popular literary figures in the English-speaking world. He also made no attempt to hide the fact that he was a convinced, and convincing, aggressively Catholic layman and apologist.
In one of his works on English history in the Catholic days before the Reformation, so often slandered by the later Protestant propagandists, he made an observation about Saint Thomas Becket, the 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr. As many of you might remember, Thomas had started life a boon companion and minister of King Henry II who was elevated from a worldly life to the pinnacle of the English Church as Primate and Archbishop. The King had thought that in so convincing the Pope to appoint his old friend as the highest churchman in the Kingdom he might have thereby a pliant and submissive partner in his plans for the governance of England and the regulation of the place of the Church in that realm.
Well, once consecrated and enthroned at Canterbury in the Chair of St. Augustine, Henry found that “his” new Archbishop was no meek tool but resisted him as he had hitherto supported him. Henry II was a vigorous and passionate man who did not brook resistance well. The story finally ended with the violent murder of the Archbishop in his own cathedral at Vespers on December 29, 1170, by knights ashamed by the King’s drunken lament Have I no men about me? Who will rid me of this insolent priest?
The event shocked all Europe and Thomas was canonized soon after his death and his shrine at Canterbury became a renowned place of pilgrimage. That is until a later Henry (VIII) wanted no resistance to his plans and sent his Thomas (More) to his death in 1535. Saint Thomas a Becket was declared a posthumous traitor and his very bones destroyed (so it is assumed) and his great shrine leveled.
It can be said with some justice that the 12th century Henry was not all wrong: the issue that divided him from his former friend is one no one quibbles at now: that a priest accused of a civil crime should be handed over to the royal (or public) justice system. Also, Thomas Becket retained his old lordly temper and taste for command even as Archbishop. It was remarked too that he kept a splendid table (we would say today he entertained guests well) and never stinted on the brilliance and ceremony of his office.
Chesterton made a shrewd observation about that last point: Becket was outwardly magnificent alright. He wore his gold outside in the form of ornate and gorgeous vestments and plate, but wore a grey hair shirt next to his skin underneath it all and personally fed poor travelers in his hall. However, our modern millionaires, said Chesterton, are outwardly sober and grey in their apparel, but keep their gold close to the hearts and only feed the poor through proxy organizations.
The outward display of beauty and ceremony is free and gives joy to the onlookers and the worshippers whatever their status. The outwardly drab but greedy man rejoices himself alone if that.
I take this as a springboard to another of my series of columns on the “Pre-Vatican 2”/”Post-Vatican 2” dichotomy I’ve been commenting on in prior blogs.
Back in 1978 when Pope Paul VI died and Pope John Paul I was elected we saw for the first time a “post-Vatican 2” cycle of papal liturgy at its most intense. After it was over, a man approached me and said “We Catholics used to know how to do two things: grandeur and grief. Now we don’t do either.”
While one can dispute that, it is unmistakably true that the outward ceremonies and rites of the Church had been significantly altered.
It is indeed true, in the words of Pope St. Gregory the Great, that Ecclesia semper reformanda (The Church is always in need of reform.)
However, in the light of the past forty years, I believe one has some perspective on what went on in the name of an oft-quoted phrase in one of the Council’s documents: noble simplicity.
For the average Catholic, lay or priest, the most visible and striking changes are those in the Liturgy.
I mentioned in my last entry of the destruction or at least “burying” and burning (in some cases literally) of artifacts and books associated with what was called “the old Liturgy”. It seemed what was let loose was not so much a “reformation” in the Catholic sense but an iconoclastic passion.
That outward “gold” that Becket displayed had to be removed, indeed, derided it was felt.
There was (and is) a view that somehow “the Council” required that everything be plain, unadorned, if not cheap: “Vestments on the half-shell”: chasubles so cheaply made that whatever symbol is on it is only on one side; chalices become “cups”, often so poorly made that they tarnish; altars stripped of all adornment; Hosts become huge ugly brown roundels scored in a dozen places; everything “plain and simple”.
I remember thirty-five years ago now when we were in the Seminary a classmate turning to me on “Candlemas Day” (February 2nd) and saying “I’m starved for ceremony!” Every day Mass was the same there at that time: a bare square wooden block-altar, two wooden candle-sticks; dark green ceramic “cups and plates”; the same off-white non-descript chasubles with the same plain overlay stoles. Any suggestion of anything more “traditional” would invite mockery and a not so veiled danger to one’s ordination with the dread label “ Pre-Vatican 2!!” or the ultimate in epithets “Pre-Trent!”
So deep did this go, that there is still an entrenched ( though aging generation) of the clergy, religious, and laity who react with horror, fear, and even anger, at what seems like any “going back” or return to “the old Church”. Adorned and beautified altars, more ornate or beautiful vestments, the use of incense and Holy Water ( at least apart from their vestigial survival at Funeral Masses); the use of even the simplest Latin Chants can produce a deep unease in the “post-Vatican 2” generation.
Again, allow me a historical anecdote. It is recorded that the 5th century Frankish chieftain Clovis decided that he would turn from a persecuting paganism to an equally rigorous Christianity both for himself and his people. At the event that would later go down in history as “The Baptism of France” one of his paladins remarked with wonder “We will now adore what we have burnt, and burn what we have adored.”
The 1940’s and 50’s were in the United States at least a “boom time” in vocations. Seminaries routinely turned away men with even the slightest defect of body and still produced ordination classes of 20, 30, even 40 ordinands a year; Religious Orders were building new “motherhouses” and novitiates to accommodate all the postulants, etc.
And if the truth be told, many were attracted by the very things at first (the “mystique” of the Mass, the priestly look, and style, the religious habit, the life of obedience, simplicity and silence, etc.) that they would be called upon to burn. While these things are superficial and are not enough to sustain a lifetime’s vocation all by themselves; is not man himself a bit “superficial”? Are we nothing but intellect? Or do we all crave at some level for the outward beauty, color, ritual, sounds, sights, and smells that produce in us what one historian of religion called “the awe-filled and fearsome mystery”?
However, many were told now that such things were “infantile”, “outdated”, “childish” and had “to be let go”. And let go they were. We got back to “the early Church” or to the “original charism of the Founder/Foundress.” And soon after, even the very vocation was “let go” too.
Thousands of clergy and religious abandoned the sacramental and vowed life that had once attracted them to go “back to the world.” Many ( but not all) to “get married” but all at some level found what once they had “adored” was now unsupportable or even toxic without the “externals”.
It was the age of “finding yourself”. The comedian Alan King once remarked about someone that “Once he finds himself, he’s going to be disappointed.”
Many found that if you do strip away all the “externals”, the “internals” don’t stand by themselves: any more than the “substance” of a being can stand without any “accidents”.
In these last few decades, just when we thought we were making the Church more ”relevant” or attractive to the world, and our Liturgy more “meaningful” the pews began to slowly, but inexorably empty as well as our rectories and convents.
I know there is a logical fallacy called the “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc” fallacy: meaning that just because something happens AFTER something else it doesn’t mean that it happened BECAUSE of that thing.
But let’s assume that if in the last few decades that Church became even more numerous, vigorous, respected and our seminaries and convents were overflowing and our Masses packed, I think someone might say that “maybe” the “Changes” worked.
But it seems…well…enough for now, dear reader.