The late 1960s and the 1970s was an era of revolution in society as well as in the Church. There was a widespread misconception among many Catholics that the Second Vatican Council marked a break with “the old Church” and the birth of a “new Church.” Almost overnight it seemed everything from the Latin Mass to religious habits for nuns to meatless Fridays throughout the year had been swept away. And the changes nearly never stopped.
Out with the old
Another victim of this revolution was Catholic devotional life. Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, public recitation of the Rosary, novenas, Stations of the Cross, the annual Corpus Christi procession, the Forty Hours devotion — they all vanished in many parishes. Again, the Vatican II-inspired leadership within the Church in the United States — clerical, religious and lay — often put forward the argument that these timeless devotions were no longer suitable in the progressive post-Vatican II Church.
In 1971, the Benedictine monks at St. Vincent Archabbey in Pennsylvania began collecting data on the attitudes and religious practices of laypeople who came to the abbey for retreats, and the laypeople who led these retreats. The survey found that the retreatants favored traditional devotions such a Holy Hour, Benediction, Stations of the Cross and praying the Rosary at twice the rate of the retreat’s leaders. In spite of their popularity, the time-honored Catholic devotions began to vanish from parish life in America.
Leading by example
Then came the papal election of Karol Wojtyla. When it came to traditional Catholic devotional life, John Paul led by example, beginning in his diocese: Rome. Every year he participated in a solemn Corpus Christi procession from the Basilica of St. John Lateran to the Basilica of St. Mary Major. On the evening of Good Friday, he led the Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum. His impressive record of canonizations put the veneration of saints back in the spotlight, and no one could miss his intense devotion to the Blessed Mother.
In 2002, John Paul published an apostolic letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, encouraging the faithful to return to praying the Rosary. “Simple yet profound,” he wrote, “(the Rosary) still remains, at the dawn of this third millennium, a prayer of great significance, destined to bring forth a harvest of holiness.” At the same time, the pope proposed a new set of mysteries — the Luminous Mysteries, also known as the Mysteries of Light — which focus on the years of Christ’s public ministry.
He encouraged bishops to accommodate Catholics who were devoted to the traditional Latin Mass. He approved traditionalist religious communities such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and the Institute of Christ the King, and he welcomed back to the Church traditionalist groups that had gone into schism. His purpose in all of this was to emphasize what was not only authentically Catholic, but also profoundly beneficial to the spiritual life of Catholics, while correcting the misconception that Vatican II had marked a complete rupture with the past.
Little by little, parishes began to revive the old devotions and traditions. Some parishes have even begun to restore their churches to their pre-Vatican II appearance. And after Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed that priests can offer the traditional Latin Mass, the “old Mass,” as it is often called, began to reappear in dioceses where it had not been seen in 40 years.
It was John Paul II who sparked this renaissance in Catholic devotional life. The Church is better for it and so are the countless souls who are growing in holiness as they pray these venerable devotions.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of “Patron Saints”(OSV, $14.95).