16 September 2010

Kumbaya in the Key of G

A former nun, now married, discusses the part she played in post-Vatican II changes and reveals the true motives behind some of them:
Who thought it was a good idea to turn the Roman Catholic liturgy on its heels—to tear out the magnificent pipe organs that accompanied solemn, meditative, Gregorian chant and replace them with a couple of guitars and folk music?

Well, I did.

And there I am with my “choir” on a Catholic campus in New York, in 1967. And, yes, those are staples down the centerfold of a religious magazine. The young man in black on my right, Bob C., was a seminarian at the time. He was lead guitar. I led the singing.

This Little Light of Mine. Kumbaya.

No kidding.

After the second Vatican council (1962-1965), we who embraced its spirit couldn’t be held back. The liturgy was one facet of Catholic life that has never been the same.

Before Vatican II’s aggiornamento—”bringing up-to-date”—priests in flowing vestments stood at the altar, their backs to the congregation, saying mass in Latin. After Vatican II, we held liturgies in apartments and at picnic tables; priests in Irish knit sweaters sat with us and consecrated bread from the deli. If a tasteless wafer of unleavened bread could be turned into the body of Christ, why not a brownie?

It made sense: The priest either had special powers or he didn’t. If he could transform bread and wine, he could transform danish and coffee. The scholarly priests among us told us that we weren’t being irreverent, but rather returning to the true spirit of the gospel, to the earliest days of the liturgy. With great delight, we believed them.

Campuses especially welcomed the changes. Chapels built for individuals in rows of pews were taken apart and remodeled to accommodate groups of people who hugged often while praying.

Many resisted, regretting the loss of Latin in the liturgy. Better a universal language that no one understands, they said, than the vernacular, like English, that only some understand. The vernacular prevailed.

The religious habit and lifestyle were also casualties of Vatican II. I was on a legislative council, much like Congress, who voted on big issues, like whether we’d modify our bonnets so we could get drivers licenses. [Last week's photo shows me in the full bonnet; above, five years later, I'm in a bonnet with its blinder sides cut away.]

I remember long hours of lobbying and heated discussions at meetings over the length of the habit skirt. What was the breakeven point between religious and lay? And by the way, did we really need that rule of silence at meals? Didn’t Jesus enjoy a good chat with his disciples?

Every day there was a new theology book to talk about, a new idea of God, a new cause to embrace. We believed sweeping the streets of the inner city had as much value as saying the Office. There was excitement--and maybe a false sense of heroism--as we bustled about, doing the work of Jesus the Social Worker.

The resisters warned us that once we removed our veils and shortened our skirts, soon we’d be in lay clothes with only a lapel pin to indicate that we were nuns.
Slippery slope, we cried! A fallacy! That will never happen!

But they were right. I was a member of the order for almost eighteen years. By the end of that period, I wore nothing distinguishing except a small cross on my lapel.

I lost track of Bob C. and don’t know where he is today. Maybe he’s a bishop in New Jersey, or maybe he’s a husband and father of three living in Philadelphia. Looking at the stats, the chances are very great that, like me, he’s no longer in religious life.

There’s a sadness to aggiornamento--we were never able to complete it. We managed to pick away at the externals of both the liturgy and religious life but we never got to the real issues. New popes intervened and called a halt just as we were about to tackle the exclusion of women from the leading sacrament, intolerance of the gay and lesbian lifestyles, outdated notions of birth control and other matters of life and death.

We fought to change the Church and then walked away, leaving those who loved it as it was with the remnants of our botched attempt.

I have to wonder if we should have started the revolution at all.