In the thousands of years before the inventions of the telegraph, television, and Internet, continents and even countries were isolated from each other for most intents and purposes. Other than trade and conquest, there were really no reasons or means for one culture to be influenced by another.
And for most of her history, the United States of America was a nation of immigrants who arrived with some vestiges of their former ethnicities that did not separate, but served only to forge what became known as the American culture: founded on Judeo-Christian values but with an abiding tolerance for all faiths; grounded in the rule of law yet tempered with a love for justice. She was an odd but lovely combination, overwhelming spirit of Yankee individualism that expressed itself in a deep concern for the rights and freedoms of all.
But with the advance of technology, the world became a “smaller” place, as they say, bringing many benefits to our shores. But coupled with the great moral upheavals of the 1960s, this increased access to the world also led to a dimming of the light of our culture; the diminution of what was once known as the American Way, our unique identity.
In the Catholic Church, technology and cultural upheaval brought a desire — an inordinately misguided one, according to many — to open her windows to “let in some fresh air.” And this was nowhere more true than in the United States, where the interpretations of the “spirit” of the Second Vatican Council by American bishops wreaked havoc upon the faithful in this country. As reported by an eager media teeming with young anti-establishment types for whom the Church represented perhaps the ultimate evil, Vatican II was portrayed as a get-out-of-jail card for millions of Catholic Americans imprisoned by the cruel and outdated dictates of Rome.
But these changes were met with dismay and confusion by most of the faithful. How well I remember my grandmother bewailing that St. Christopher had been “done away with!” when in fact, he was very much still a saint, whose feast day was merely removed from the General Roman Calendar due to difficulties with his historical identification. It was the relatively minor actions of Vatican II like this which received much gleeful attention from the media.
Still, there were other, more significant changes which, whether or not officially sanctioned by Rome, led to much more confusion and disillusionment. Perhaps willfully misjudging the intent of the Council, the majority of American bishops followed the lead of the press and ignored what was contained in most of the actual documents, in favor of the broadest interpretations of a few, and even expanding beyond them. Gone in just a few years were many of the traditional treasures of Catholic worship, the worst loss being the virtual abandonment of the Tridentine, or Latin, Mass in America.
Today, many folks I know are Catholics in name only: those who treat their faith as some sort of inherited, ethnic embarrassment. They readily abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent and, indeed, resolve to “give up” something during it. They are thrilled to parade around with black smudges on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday but otherwise rarely see the inside of their local parish. But regrettably, it is probably mostly due to the abuses of Vatican II that they have no clue as to why they are doing these things. A truly sad state of affairs.
But as has happened throughout her history, through adversity — whether heresies or the personal sins of her members — the Church has grown stronger. There are millions of American Catholics who faithfully soldiered through the past few tumultuous decades, only to see young people and new converts embrace the faith in recent years. Pope Benedict XVI’s call for the return of the Latin Mass, as well as the new English translation of the Roman Missal, are encouraging to those who long for a more traditional form of worship.
In his address to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last week, Cardinal Timothy Dolan called for a restoration of Friday abstinence, commonly referred to as meatless Fridays, as well as a renewed commitment to the frequent practice of the Sacrament of Penance, better known as confession. While many faithful Catholics have never stopped these practices, and indeed find their faith strengthened and even confirmed by them, a whole generation has been robbed of a precious heritage by their obsolescence.
A return to these solemn and ancient practices might seem strange at first to a generation of Catholics who have been raised in a culture of relativism and taught that nothing old is worthwhile. But even a discussion of the reasons behind these practices cannot but strengthen the entire Church.
Time will tell if, at this late date, the Church in America can recover her identity. But if she can, might not the rest of America? Stay tuned.