That is perhaps the central Catholic memory of every Catholic who grew up before the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65: early morning low Mass, said or sung, the rapid murmur of Latin and the high, passionless voices of nuns. The touchstone of the Catholic existence, the glowing mystery at its heart. Ancient, beautiful, austere, intense, objective, holy, Introibo ad altare Dei ... We went in unto the altar of God, to God Who gave joy to our youth.
If you were enough of a Catholic to go to Mass on Sunday, then you belonged to a strong contemporary culture that remained through the '50s vital, unself-conscious and growing, in spite of the pressures of Modernism, secularism, affluence, war and technology. If you were a Catholic, you were different, you stood out, and you didn't mind. Sometimes you looked different…you refused meat, you had ashes on your brow, you had lots of children. Even when you did the same things as non-Catholics, you thought about them differently. Sooner or later there would come a moment when, as in the British army's church parade, you would have to obey the command: "Roman Catholics, fall out!"
Now that Catholics aren't different anymore, now that the Catholic world view and the culture it informed have perished, it is almost impossible to make that way of life, so clear cut and satisfying at the time, seem credible, not only to my children, who never knew it, but even to my contemporaries, who once lived it themselves.
Catholicism pervaded every aspect of life. Even our play was Catholic. My cousin Teresa and I used to hear each other's confessions through the stair rail and play at being nuns. And we used to fantasize, in those reverent days when only priests were allowed to touch the Blessed Sacrament, that the Church was burning down, or the Vikings were attacking, in which wonderful crises we would be permitted to carry It to safety at our lives' glad risk. When Paul Comtois, lieutenant-governor of Quebec, died during a fire while trying to rescue the Blessed Sacrament from his private chapel, I remembered those days, and felt a strange certainty that that man, raised in the same Catholic culture, had rushed to realize a similar childhood dream, and I congratulated him on his death cradling his Lord.
We were not at all unusual; we were working-class children in a new factory town less than half Catholic, the same sort of children, we had been taught, to whom the Blessed Virgin Mary had appeared in the famous apparitions at Lourdes, Fatima and LaSalette. We thought it not entirely impossible that she might appear to us if we said the rosary on the way to school. And we believed in our guardian angels as comfortably as we believed in our grandmothers.
The secular and the sacral did not occupy separate compartments in our lives. They were completely, operationally integrated. I remember a conversation with my closest school friend. Sitting on a hill near home, overlooking the sea, in the exquisite light of a Newfoundland spring evening, waiting for the mill whistle and the Angelus Bell to announce suppertime, we discussed with equal matter-of-factness what my grandmother would have made for supper (she was a notable cook) and whether we could follow the example of St. Felicity, with whose dramatic history we had been regaled in that day in school. St. Felicity (whose name was recalled at every Mass until she was discarded without feminist protest at the change) was beheaded in the second century for refusing to sacrifice to idols and for encouraging her seven sons to do likewise. "Take pity on your children, Felicity, they are in the bloom of youth," urged her Roman prosecutor. "Your pity is impiety," she told the Roman, and to her sons, before they went to their various cruel deaths, she said, "Look up to heaven, where Jesus Christ with His saints expects you. Be faithful in His love and fight courageously for your souls." They gave up a life in which they had to die and began life eternal. Terrific stuff, very stirring to the feminine imagination. We thought we might have managed to die bravely ourselves, but could we have watched our children suffer? I didn't know then, and I don't know now.
That story did for us what it was intended to do. It impressed on us indelibly the operational principle of Catholicism: that here we have no lasting city, therefore human acts have eternal consequences, and the soul's honor must be valued above the body's. Contrary to present propaganda, that view was the opposite of tragic. In this light, the Catholic life was heroic and dramatic, romantic without being sentimental, at once hierarchical and egalitarian. The stupidest, scruffiest Catholic was presented with the possibility of moral grandeur. Not surprisingly, Catholic education to this world view was long on martyrs, crusades and missions, all the splendid Catholic derring-do. But the real genius of Catholicism was that it managed to invest the private conduct of the humblest Catholic life with all the excitement and danger of the early centuries of the Church. Its greatest achievement was to make being good look as glamorous as being evil. It convinced us all that the person who bridled a passion, accepted suffering and injustice patiently, endured the abridgement of worldly possibilities for the sake of Christian principles was as grand and glorious as St. Thomas More or St. Felicity, and as eternally rewarded.
It pushed us to bring a moral imagination to bear on personal conduct, to accept the consequences of free will freely exercise. "Take what you want," says God, "and pay for it."
I remember my cousin breaking her engagement because there would be no possibility of her children being brought up Catholic. My aunt told me, in distress, of hearing her cry night after night. We all felt so sorry, but so sure she was right. I remember a friend who fell deeply in love with a married man at her job, and he with her; she removed herself out of temptation to another city and fled again when he followed her. And I also remember kneeling at the wedding of a beloved friend who had confided to some of us that he and his future wife did not intend to obey the Church in the matter of birth control. It was the custom in our parish to honor the bride and groom by allowing them to kneel inside the sanctuary rails, at the very foot of the altar. They knelt on white satin covered prie dieux on the scarlet altar dais as on a stage. We waited while the priest approached them with the Blessed Sacrament and watched un-comprehendingly as they shook their heads and as he hovered, obviously unprepared for their refusal. Then we understood. After a stricken little gasp from the older members of the congregation, we hastily went forward around them to receive Holy Communion ourselves. Her head drooped, and his came stubbornly up. The back of his neck got very red. As we went back to our pews, many of us exchanged looks of sympathy, though none of us ever spoke about it afterward. Regret for their decision was mixed with admiration for their sense of honor, their refusal to pretend to God.
How attractive that Catholic honor was and how gallantly rendered at every level of Catholic society. I remember an illiterate Indian woman who lived common-law with a married man in our town. Very pious herself, she brought up her children to be pious. Several of them were altar boys, their grave dark faces beautiful above their white surplices; I am godmother to one of them. She was always at Mass, lost in devotion, but she never went to Holy Communion. "Surely God wouldn't mind if she went?" I used to ask myself. I know now that that was condescending, and that the answer was: "Perhaps not, but she would."
I thought of this woman and of my friends lately, when a Catholic teacher from Waterloo, Ontario, who married a divorced man in a Protestant service appealed the separate school board's decision to dismiss her from her job. I think of them whenever I hear the increasing demand, some of it from priests, that Catholics who disobey the Church's laws on marriage should nevertheless be admitted to Holy Communion. It is a mark of the great change in the Catholic world view that this is not considered any longer to be, at the very least, extremely shabby behavior. Pity has become impiety.
There is not the tiniest part of this Catholic fabric of twenty years ago that has not changed beyond recognition. Catholicism is like a city destroyed by war. Most of its inhabitants have fled, and those who remain are picking through the ruins trying to salvage things not too battered to be useful. John Kenneth Galbraith remarked that the collapse of Catholicism was the most surprising thing that had happened in his lifetime. For anyone who loved the Catholic world, this collapse was traumatic.
I was never so shocked in my life as when my father told me, several years before he died, that he was no longer going to Mass. "I don't believe you!" I said. "It can't be true! Blessed God! Why?"
"Well, girl," he replied haltingly, "it's the changes. I just don't feel there's anything happening there anymore. I try, but I can't."
My father, whose faith through the poor times, and through my mother's agonizing death, had remained so innocent, cheerful and trusting, who until then would rather have died than miss Mass intentionally, who took Holy Communion so seriously that he wouldn't receive It if he had so much as laughed at a blasphemous joke in the mill…now, for him, the miracle had departed. They had taken away his Lord, and he didn't know where they had laid Him.
Since the Mass was, in Aquinas' words, "the central pillar of the Church," it was the first target of the revolution that accompanied the Second Vatican Council. It was the first matter to be discussed at the Council, and radical changes were introduced into it even before the Council ended. The liturgical changes devised by idealogues and enforced by dupes, at one stroke altered the face and mood of Catholicism unrecognizably. The cult was kicked down, and the culture fell with it. There was no point in insisting, as one did endlessly, that the Council had not changed Catholic doctrine.
Everything Catholic seemed at once archaic, discredited. Revolutionary change became the one absolute. Overnight, people reversed themselves dramatically. The nuns who had taught us that chastity was fire, not ice, fidelity to a Beloved Person, Christ, rather than repression, became at once Sex-Ed Sisters. Impossible to believe that the girl with whom I once discussed St. Felicity is now an ardent feminist, working very hard for abortion on demand. Impossible to credit that a Cardinal and a Bishop are dancing hand in hand at a charismatic revel; that a Catholic University is participating in Gay Awareness Week. Appalling to see, in the St. Catharine's Church where I began my married life, ecstatic Catholic women "slain in the Spirit," falling to the floor of the sanctuary in the course of a charismatic service, and lying there in a trance.
It has been the most disconcerting experience, like stepping through the looking-glass to find everyone horribly reversed. People only a short time ago utterly committed to Catholic orthodoxy and tradition have, without change of pace, taken up diametrically opposite positions. Since these people are also firmly in power, the Catholic who hasn't reversed is made to look subversive or mad. Five minutes into a Catholic gathering I begin to feel like a displaced person.
One doesn't feel virtuous, just stupid and lonely. With the disintegration of the Catholic matrix, it has become impossible to live the Catholic life unselfconsciously. Apart from the unpleasantness of holding positions against a hostile majority, the joylessness of a society, many of whose leaders have put aside their belief in eternity, affects one with despair.
Now that the heart is broken, Catholicism is an act of the will performed out of honor, and out of love, but it is love among the ruins. One keeps on going to the gutted Masses with their antic priests, manufactured excitement and cafeteria casualness at Holy Communion, and one closes one's eyes and prays the desperate prayer of the agnostic believer: "Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief!"