You may regard the Second Vatican Council as a chastisement visited by God upon His Church or as a blessing and a marvellous new start. As a result of the Conciliar easing of discipline, both views chastisement or blessing may now he safely held.
Yet on a human level, of course, it is impossible finally to evaluate the effects of the Council. It is too early. The final truth is simply not available to us in a question which covers so many different sorts of people.
As a old-fashioned sort of Catholic I tend to conform, which is to do what I am told, and I tend to edge back into a thunderous silence when people argue about the Council. I admit historians will regard it as one of the most important of the Councils, for its implications rather than for anything specific that it did.
They will also fight like theologians over its implications. I would prefer a little limited reportage on the subject, a sort of interim balance-sheet.
Appropriately, since it killed that emotion dead, the Council was one of the last really great triumphal occasions of the Church that sluggish river of bishops moving into St Peters; the long tulip-beds of white mitres. And later the flood of luncheon-hound purple pouring down the steps of the basilica into the sun.
And one learnt what was going on inside largely from the French press because the French bishops sang like birds to the French journalists.
The first sign that the man in the pew had of a change was in church. So, long ago, the English must have got their first inkling that there was a Reformation in progress in the same place.
But this time we pulled down our own rood screens, stared with uncertainty at large and expensive reredo es, moved the altar or hopefully ordered a temporary one whose wooden legs could be hidden with cloths. And we started talking English.
The great cathedrals shuddered away from any hint of triumphalism with bishops doffing their own mitres. The monasteries strained with limited success to maintain in a new form the old exquisite decorum. Some rich churches economised on the choir.
The hymns of Luther, Wesley and Watts began to shake the rafters that had once been sacred to Fathers Faber and Caswell. Our mis
sals became obsolete and there was nowhere any more to keep the memorial and First Communion "holy pictures".
We all began to go to Confession a-great deal less often. Monstrances were slowly edged to the back of sacristy cupboards. And the attendance figures took a wild leap downwards.
And priests began to bolt the fold. The early ones got a great deal of publicity. The later ones get only a resigned tip of the head. All this is certainly post hoc, whether it is propter hoc, I simply cannot say.
These were the outward and visible changes in the urban temples. In one parish I know the changes came in unpredictable jerks. And those whose memories span the essential ten years find the extent of the change is astonishing. And it is clearly not over yet.
The parish is that of a small prosperous town and it includes its attendant villages and farmhouses. The church was the small, pleasantly dark chapel of an ancient house. Here the Mass was celebrated in a manner that Crouchback would have approved and Belloc have loved.
The priest came down the aisle behind a pair of inelegant altar boys. His vestments tended to be heavy sandwich boards. There was even a hint of fiddle-back now and again.
Some of them were antique and of a magnificence and interest worthy of a' museum. And that is not a suggestion they belonged or belong in such a deadly place.
It was all very decent. The flowers were arranged with love and would have cost someone a packet in London. The hymns were the sort that were written and sung in England after the Act of Emancipation.
It is still there. Large oil paintings on the wall, statues on plinths in awkward places, Massive altar rails, solid and comfortable pews, an air of traditional and unchangeable piety.
It was a place of triumph, but a place that was set apart guarding its share of a great secret, but content and courteous and proud of its knowledge of its own exact identity. In fact the squire was in the gallery and all was well with the world. Or that is how I remember it.
Indeed there was another chapel at the other end of the town in an elegant orangery overlooking a rose garden. And the same, in its carefully apportioned turn, went on there, with nuns at the back standing-round the harmonium as if they were a bar room quartet.
But, came the Council, and we built a new church in the middle between the old ones. (So we now probably have more churches per head of Catholic population than any town since medieval, bell-crazed Norwich.) It is very bare and very plain and you can tell it is a Catholic church because it has a Crucifix and a tabernacle.
Everyone knows the present form, so there is no need to dwell on that. Everyone knows the present complaints, so they too can be left on one side.
The extreme progressives who would probably p 6.1.1 to have no church at all, and the priest to fish a cup out of her handbag anywhere and at any time and so celebrate the Eucharist are not represented here. The support for the new order comes chiefly, then, from the centre.
It would be the grossest impertinence to particularise. Yet I think there has been a change in the nature of the parish. True, the parish council stops well short of democracy. But the participation is far wider than it used to he. All but a few of the rosaries have disappeared and there is now an active participation where before there was a passive reception. Both are admirable ways of attending the Mysteries. It may even be a happier parish than it was before. Not because of any organisational change, but because so many have to be part of it all. It is not possible to sit as quiet as a mouse and about as creative, with all that to-ing and fro-ing of talk going on.
Even the grumbles and the reaching back towards the well-loved past are a sign of life. Far more people know each other — not because they exchange shamfaced handshakes late in the Mass, but because of the openness and simplicity and involvement of it all.
And gradually, because of that other by-product of the Council, far more people of other faiths now know and really rather like the Catholics.
If we are less sure of ourselves, we are less ex clusive. We have not lost the
splendours of plainsong or polyphony here — we never had them. We are beginning to forget how to sing the Creed in Latin; I doubt if we could now manage a Gloria.
We can still rise to occasions, and we do a very nice funeral. The parish gossip is neither kinder nor crueller than it always was.
Our numbers have certainly not fallen, but then the new style does not suit our small numbers and our intimate church. The women still do most of the
tiresome work. We have developed a social con
science. The Council has wrought no great miracle here — yet.
The general view is that anyway one must soldier on, and that, as an act of con scious will, is probably as strong an act of faith as most men can make. Such an act was seldom called for before the Conciliar Deluge.