Vatican II and the Suburban Commune

CHAPTER 9 – Vatican II and the Suburban Commune 1967-72

Life in Martbern Crescent began with the continuing struggle to make ends meet with a young family and a mortgage. It seemed to take ages to get just enough to pay for a fence, or to put down a concrete path, and a garage and drive was just a dream.

Simon and Dominic help build a sundeck.

Building a sundeck, creating a lawn, digging out couch grass, and planting trees became weekend tasks, which everyone in neighbourhood did as well. At St Gregory’s Parish we met the Dillons and the Laceys and the van der Meervens: all of which had large families and we became involved in the issues of the day – social justice.

Social Justice issues were strongly felt by the Celtic families who dominated life in Catholic parishes and thus in New Zealand. And Social Justice issues became the dominant focus of religious belief from this time in the late 1960s right through to the 21st century.

The “Spirit” of Vatican II

Vatican II Council had ended, and its effects were felt very quickly. From much of my Catholic reading, I had become enthusiastic about the possibilities of an extended Catholic cultural presence in the modern world. Thomistic scholars had been engaged in applying the fruits of Scholastic theology to music and to art. There was a growing hope of a renewed renaissance in Catholic culture where the best of art and music would be employed in the liturgy. It was hoped that Catholic artists and musicians would use modern insights and restate traditional beliefs with an excellence borne on the wings of the deep Catholic heritage of European culture. So, I looked forward to the New Mass. It was going to be in beautiful English, with chanting based on the riches of the old English traditions. I hoped for a Catholic High Mass even richer than from that of the Anglicans. I was also led to believe that the modern pop culture would provide a new form into which the riches of Catholic art and culture would permeate.

These hopes and visions I had for an exciting cultural future were crushed, time and time again.

The first shock was meeting the new ideology of the Spirit of Vatican II in its standard-bearer, our parish priest, Fr John Curnow. Fr John, who did not like to be called “Father”, but “John”, and whom I found out much later, was the leader of the Liberation Theology movement in Christchurch and whose whole focus was in social justice.

Liberation Theology is an off-shoot of Marxism – a Marxism whereby Catholic religious belief and Atheism are reconciled by reinterpreting all Catholic belief. Marxists believe in the apotheosis of Man, communal Man, Man as God. Catholics believe Christ is the God-Man, and identifies with all humanity – Man. By taking Christ’s command about loving one’s neighbour as the only message of God to this world, then one can fit this neatly into the ideology of Marxism – Communal Man=God (Christ), Communal God=Man (Christ).

Liturgical Experimentation Begins

So, all Catholic ritual, devotions, practices, beliefs then were reinterpreted as focussing on Man, and St Gregory’s parish and Fr Curnow was the earliest and original “cell” for the storming of the old “Bastille” Church. St Gregory’s was among the first where the revolutionary movement in New Zealand was to happen: No kneelers, the Mass said facing the people, the end of traditional devotions, the end of the Mass as a loving Sacrifice – away with the rosaries, the novenas, the medallions, the saints – and in came the Shared Social Meal Mass, the folk guitars and the focus group sessions. And this all became the standard fare for Catholicism right across the Western world till the present.

The Provisional New Mass of 1965 was fair. This first effort made in the presence of the Council fathers and the Pope was an attempt to modernise without destroying a sense of the sacred. And the English translation was fair. But much, much worse was to come, when the so-called “liturgical” experts were put in charge after the council had ended and produced the Novus Ordo of 1975: the most outright revolutionary change in the Mass for 2000 years! And even that was not as bad as the English translation of the original document: the English version set out to destroy any sense of mystery, of the sacred, of inner consistency, of lasting literary value – giving all of us in the English-speaking world the plain prose of the 1950s Angry Generation.

And, as I was later to find out, the very foundations of Catholic cultural theory, and belief in the sacramental universe as reflected in architecture, sculpture, paintings, and literature, channeled through a unified Scholastic tradition were swept away as well, so that there would be no trace of the enthusiastic expectations of that trail in the future. All was to be inculturated (or better described as “adulterated”) by the secular world so as to establish no preconceptions of what is “good” or “bad” in culture.

Our First Revolutionary Focus Groups

And we were both swept away in it for a time. Aubynne and I became a Christian Family Group leaders trained to bring the revolution to the suburbs – no time for us new converts to even come to grips and to grow in the Fatih by traditional Catholic practices. We were to examine the social justice issues in the street and address them. We had our cell group and our cell leaders. We discussed the need for “communes”, for sharing all our goods with our neighbours. We would turn to our neighbour Catholic friends when in doubt and be told “You don’t need to learn the Rosary: Save the World!”

By the end of 1967 I started to doubt the whole direction of the Church, the hierarchy and our priests. Social justice was not the reason for why I had become a Catholic. I yearned for beauty, for truth, for order, for some solidity of belief and action. There was none in this – it was cold and just basically arrogant, ignorant and naive. Yes, Father Curnow patronisingly arranged for Mother Teresa of Calcutta to visit just our parish when she came to Christchurch, but Mother Teresa was very much the old-fashioned Catholic and social justice issues were not her focus. She loved Christ and Him in His brothers and sisters. She loved them because she loved Christ. Ideology did not get in the way, much to the horror of the Progressives of the world then and now.
And a little story to illustrate just how silly ideology is: I needed to put in fence posts. Our section was rock-hard and I needed support from my neighbours to put in the posts. It would take about two hours at the most. I arranged with one of our most socially-active Catholic neighbours for him to help me put in the posts. He came at 10am on a sunny Saturday morning. After an hour he received a message from his wife, who was most active in focus group sessions and riding around the community to solve social justice issues. The message: “Please come home now. We need to meet now on how we can best help our neighbour.” Her husband walked home. I was left holding the post!

And hold the post I did. From then on I became increasing the “prophet of doom”, standing for the “traditional” without really knowing what it was, nor having the intellectual nor moral strength nor experiencing leadership from others to really do anything about what was going on.

Looking for Catholic Leadership

But the biggest tragedy in all of this was the effect on me, on Aubynne, and eventually on our children. Here we were, a family desperately needing to grow in virtue. I needed to become less immoderate, less intemperate, less impatient. I needed to set a true example of fatherly love to my children – to model myself on St Joseph. I needed what other devout born Catholics had been fed on from childhood: a solid grounding in the virtues of humility and prudence, temperance and modesty – and the rest of the seven gifts. The only Catholics I knew were very kind, gentle people. They of course could now launch themselves into social action with that strength given to them after being raised in such a solid traditional Catholic life.

On the other hand, there was myself – desperate for that grounding in real Catholic devotional life. The humbling family Rosary, family grace, the First Fridays and First Saturdays, etc., would have grounded me and my family in those virtues and given me a more proportionate and realistic understanding of my place in the world. That was not to be. I was driven by doctrinal truth only, and absolute commitment to Mass on Sundays, and that would have to be the ground to work from. I became a passionate crusader without an army and the only thing which I could give to others was a passionate openness to a modern culture searching for truth.

I was to discover 50 years later – a half-century! – that my intuitions were indeed proved right. The Catholic Faith is not only a body of doctrine but a rich tradition of ritual, prayers, and physical actions evolved for 2000 years. These practices contain the Faith indivisibly. The doctrinal purity of the Revelation of God to Man cannot breath outside the richness of its developed unconscious cultural expressions wrought to a large extent by grace – the touch of God. To modernise, rationalise, inculturate and contrive the liturgy, to jettison the so-called “pious” practices, and to consciously manipulate culture, created a Church filled with social workers with an increasingly sentimental and out-of-date liturgy, and, at the same time, a decreasing sense of its own identity. In this year of 2012 for the first time since the Council, Vatican officials are only now realising that there is a cultural problem!

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