Historical Reflections

Edmund Campion

One day in 1975 Mary Hoban, a Melbourne housewife, was in her garden picking daisies at Eastertime. As she picked, the honey smell of the flowers sent her mind back fifty years and she remembered how her mother used to pick Easter Daisy to take to their parish church, where she and the other ladies of the Altar Society would weave it with asparagus fern, geraniums and Cecil Brunner rosebuds. Then they would wind their garland round the Easter Candle, as a floral expression of resurrection joy growing out of the crucifixion. Mrs Hoban mused, ‘How long is it since I’ve seen that done?’ She thought of other little practices that had washed away from Catholic life, such as crowning Our Lady’s statue as Queen in May or singing ‘Faith of Our Fathers’.

So she sat down and wrote an article for a new magazine, Footprints, asking people to record for posterity their memories of the customs and usages of the Australian church before Vatican II in the 1960s. This was not mere nostalgia, for Mary Hoban was a serious historian: her Life of Caroline Chisholm had filled out with many interesting details the standard work by Margaret Kiddle of Melbourne University. Her article had some shrewd hits at enthusiasts for novelty, but she insisted that she was not interested in nostalgia. ‘I love the Latin mass’, she wrote, ‘but I love the English more’. Collecting and recording the customs of the past were things worth doing: ‘They were part of an Australian-Catholic subculture which was discarded rather too quickly, leaving a devotional vacuum in some hearts’.

Mary Hoban was surely right about the ‘devotional vacuum’. For one of the unintended consequences of Vatican II was the evaporation of much of the popular religious culture which had sustained ordinary Catholics and given their lives a spirituality. You cannot think about the century of consolidation in Australian Catholicism, from the death of Father Therry, in 1864, to the Vatican II era, without seeing everywhere that lush overgrowth of a people’s religion: holy water, guardian angels, miraculous medals, the nine First Fridays, feast days, stories of the saints … Then the picture begins to fade.

No one ordered its closure; it just began to evaporate. Those engaged in pastoral work noticed that people had begun to feel a hole in their hearts, a gap in their sense of Catholic selfhood.

The reason, as Mary Hoban saw, stemmed from the demise of the Latin mass. In those years of consolidation people went to mass in great numbers and, while there, they said private prayers from books such as The Garden of the Soul or they recited the rosary — they attended mass rather than celebrated it: their prayer life was elsewhere.

Catholics took some pride in the seemingly unchanging form of the mass; but such immobilism could breed curious reactions. Among the laity, the frozen remoteness of the Latin mass brought on the efflorescences of popular piety. (Among priests it bred rubricism, the disabling psychology which fixated them on the rules of performance.)

This was a serious matter because at its deepest level the Christian community is a eucharistic people. Its most profound story is written when it is at mass. Indeed, you can say that the history of the Catholic Church is the history of the mass. So changes in the mass must reflect changes already observable in the community at large. This is particularly true of major changes, such as changing the language in which you celebrate. A vernacular mass means a seismic shift deep inside the community. Which is why the English mass became the emblem of all that is meant by ‘Vatican II’.

How did it happen? The twentieth century can fairly be called the century of the laity, with the lay apostolate one of its most significant movements. The lay apostolate tried to form a new Catholic laity, who would make its own impact on the world. It was Catholicism coming out of the ghetto after the Middle Ages and trying to find a place for itself in modern history. The lay apostolate put the Bible, especially the Gospels, into the hands of lay men and women, encouraging them to know the biblical Jesus; it developed their social conscience through discussion and reading of topical Catholic writers and papal encyclicals; it made them self-reliant and loosened clerical controls; it opened their minds to new ideas, not all of them with a church provenance; and it brought them closer to the mass and made the liturgy the wellspring of people’s spirituality.

The universities were testbeds of the lay apostolate. From 1950, Commonwealth scholarships, a Menzies government initiative, had opened up our universities to more and more young Catholics. The Menzies scholarships are a key element in the Australian Catholic story. They enabled great numbers of Catholics to move into the professions, thus changing the demographics of Australian Catholicism (and, in time, its politics).

As well, university experience would introduce Catholics to unfamiliar ideas and principles, such as the liberal principle of free speech. Not only that – the Catholic culture they experienced at university was somewhat different from the culture of the parishes. Clergy and laity were closer together, so that there was a ready acceptance of lay leadership.

Ecumenism, biblical spirituality, congregational liturgy, openness to Australian culture – such were the waves of the future already being experienced in lay apostolate groups at the universities and elsewhere. You cannot help noticing here many of the central themes of Vatican II, already up and running in Australia years before the bishops caught the ship for Italy, in 1962. That is to say, what the bishops did at the council was to stand on a high peak and discern what the Holy Spirit had been doing in the worldwide church. They then put their seal of authorisation on these initiatives. Vatican II did not start in 1962; it had been going on for many years before that date.

You can see what I mean by returning to the emblematic story of the liturgy. The year 1955 is something of an annus mirabilis in this story. That was the year of the national liturgical week, when 750 enthusiasts came to Melbourne during the January holidays, to swap experiences, hear about successes and failures, listen to lectures and, in general, renew their energies for what lay ahead. Binding them together was their commitment to making the mass central to Catholics’ prayer life once again and giving lay people a place in the mass again, as if they too were responsible for Christ’s work. Later that year – another straw in the wind? – The Sydney Marist magazine Harvest would publish an article by the Chicago parish priest, H A Reinhold, arguing for the mass in English.

The same year, 1955, saw the beginnings of a remarkable artistic collaboration that transformed the Australian church at prayer. The link man was a young priest, a year out of the Manly seminary, who had been appointed to the parish of Ryde, Ted Kennedy. In the parish he found a gifted musician, Richard Connolly, who had pursued theological studies in Rome almost up to ordination to the priesthood. In 1956 he would join the ABC’s religion department and by the time he retired he would be head of radio features and drama at the ABC. One Saturday afternoon at Ryde, Father Kennedy brought him round a page of verses and asked him to set them to music. Connolly had done very little composing, but he tried his hand, producing music, which complemented the muscular, even martial, imagery of the hymn, he had been given:

Help of Christians, guard this land,

From assault or inward stain;

Let it be what Christ has planned,

His new Eden where you reign.

The writer of the verses was another Ryde parishioner, James McAuley. When Kennedy learned that the McAuley family lived in the parish, he remembered how in 1953, as newly ordained priests, he and his classmates had heard Cardinal Gilroy enthusing about the recent convert and his long didactic Letter to John Dryden. By 1955, however, the cardinal and the convert poet had fallen out: they were on opposing sides of the Catholic political split – indeed, Help of Christians would become the battle hymn of the Catholic Right and it is not hard still to detect McAuley’s political preoccupations in its words.

No matter: a new, decidedly Australian, hymn existed. Kennedy took it to a group of priests committed to realising the vision of the Melbourne liturgical week and they asked Connolly to compose some hymns to sing at various parts of the mass. Thus began one of the most successful hymn-making teams of the twentieth century, McAuley and Connolly.

In 1960 their work would anchor the Living Parish hymnbook, edited by Tony Newman and published by a group round Roger Pryke, which would sell one million copies over the next decade, enabling congregations to sing worthy hymns in an Australian voice.

In the annus mirabilis of 1955, Guilford Clyde Young became archbishop of Hobart. Aged thirty-one when he became a bishop, he relied on his commanding presence and the clergy’s ingrained respect for authority to see him through. When he needed it, he could exert a powerful, self-conscious magnetism. In Hobart he used this ability, allied to his imperial intellect, to gentle the whole diocese into the tracks of the liturgical movement.

He began with the priests, whom he convinced about the validity of the new thinking. Putting his own mind to work, he went beyond the Roman theology he had taught as a young lecturer in the Brisbane seminary. He saw that the German Jesuit Karl Rahner was at the core of this new theology, so he set himself to master Rahner’s complex thought. He saw too that history had practical use; so he re-read the history of the church, especially concentrating on those creative centuries which saw the crossover from Greco-Roman culture to the new Western nations. His findings he presented in lectures and seminars to priests, nuns and other diocesan leaders.

Here was a fine example of episcopal leadership confronting pastoral challenges in the world of ideas. The priests on side, he got them to preach systematically on the major themes of the new thinking. Thus over several years Tasmanian Catholics worked their way through a corpus of theology. Only then did the parishes attempt to move liturgically.

Again, it was gently done … slowly, slowly, a few minutes each Sunday. The bishop liked to mix with his people and gauge their reactions. Over time, he noticed that fewer people were complaining about novelties and more were expressing their joy at the spiritual depthing his liturgical campaign had achieved.

By 1960, Young would report later, every mass in Tasmania featured full lay participation; and Tasmanians who traveled to the mainland expressed surprise at the silent, gloomy masses there. His campaign had succeeded because he had appealed to the people’s intelligence; not, as would be done elsewhere, to their obedience.

Guilford Young was the only Australian bishop to leave his mark on Vatican II. When the American Jesuit Walter M Abbott was compiling the first standard English translation of Vatican II documents – the book which would energise and inspire thousands of parish discussion groups – he turned to Young to write the introduction to the decree on the ministry and life of priests. When Derek Worlock, archbishop of Liverpool in England, died, in 1996, they found among his papers an unpublished essay on his personal spiritual journey. In this essay he recalled a dinner in Rome the night Patrick Keegan of the Young Christian Workers addressed the council (the first time, some said, that a layman had addressed an ecumenical council since the Emperor Constantine spoke at Nicaea, in 325). At the dinner, Worlock remembered, ‘Archbishop Gillie Young of Hobart made an inspired speech about the caravan of God, trundling forward, some pulling ahead, some pulling back, some hanging on like grim death to the sides’. He was a bishop for a grown-up, Vatican II church.

(Father Edmund Campion teaches history at the Catholic Institute of Sydney.)