It seems to me that there are several certainties in human life: birth, death, and change. The first two are absolutes. We cannot change them because they are part of God’s inscrutable ways. Change is also an absolute, but there are things that we can do about it. We can stem the tide if we want or we can be carried by it.
Fifty years ago, Pope Pius XII died. Pius XII was a bulwark against many different things: communism, fascism modernism, and secularism. All of these were things that had been encroaching on the world for centuries and yet Pius XII spoke about them authoritatively. Indeed, he was a man who genuinely suffered with the flock that had been entrusted to him by God’s will. There are many beautiful photographs of him holding out his arms and imploring God’s mercy on the people of Rome and the world. In the decades after Pius XII’s death, what happened to the Church and the world?
The most immediate thing that happened after Pope Pius XII’s death was the accession of Pope John XXIII. The two popes were as different from each other as day and night. Where Pope Pius XII was a severe ascetic and mystic, Pope John XXIII was very much a man of the people. While one had spent most of his entire life working in the Curia and had worked as a diplomat, the other had spent years working in the missions in Bulgaria, Turkey, and France. The two of them were complete studies in contrast as personalities and as men.
When Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, it was time for the Church to reassess many things that had been held up as sacred truths over the last few centuries. Mind you, Vatican II is a very controversial topic even among non-traditionalist Catholics. The problem lies in principle with what the documents said and how they were implemented by the bishops, priests, and superiors in various countries. Objectively speaking, the problem does not lie with the documents themselves, but with how they were implemented.
If we look at various religious congregations around the world today, we might say that some are thriving, while others are not. Indeed, there is a sharp decline in priestly and religious vocations. During the 1950s and early 1960s, the Church was flooded to overflowing with vocations. Motherhouses suddenly became too small to hold a novitiate and, therefore, more money was spent on new buildings. Seminaries grew rapidly and minor seminaries were flooded with candidates to the priesthood. What happened to all of this? Why did it change?
In many ways, the fault does not lie with any one person or document. Rather, Vatican II happened to coincide with the period of time that we know as the 1960s. This period was one of tremendous change in terms of morality, religion, and even in war. In America, we saw the Civil Rights movement, the hippies, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a time, to quote a famous composer, when all that we had come to accept was swept away.
WIth the emergence of the women’s movement, vocations to convents no longer seemed as attractive as they had before. The priesthood was not on the mind of so many aspirants. Convents and schools were closed, while minor seminaries emptied. Everywhere, Catholics began to reassess what had happened and why.
Indeed, religious orders started to think about their dwindling numbers rather than new vocations. Perhaps, it also had to do with the fact that so many sisters chose to leave their convent walls and to live among the people that they served. Their roles also changed from nursing and teaching to social justice ministries and other apostolates. In many ways, they were dealing with the changing times as much as other people were in other situations.
Indeed, the Church was forced to adapt to the changing times. It was a rude awakening, most surely, to find oneself in a world, where absolutes had been thrown away in the garbage. Where the order of life had been completely turned upside down. Yet the Church had to find some way to deal with these changes and to make do with what it had.
Fifty years after the death of Pope Pius XII, we are still dealing with the effects of Vatican II. Some of them have been very profound and life-changing for many people. Yet it seems to me that Pope Benedict XVI is trying his best to make the Church better. We are very lucky, indeed, to have a Holy Father that is willing to dialogue with the traditionalists and many people have embraced him indeed.
Although vocations are still in a state of crisis, they are increasing. In third world countries and other parts of the world, religious orders have houses that are swarming with young people. Indeed, our prayers for vocations are being fulfilled in distant parts of the world. Perhaps, we should continue to pray for vocations in our own areas and that change will occur once again. We may not return to the 1950s, but positive changes can occur in the Church.