Vatican II Declares: In with the Banners! Out with the Statues!

Robert Orsi offers insight on how devout Catholics were affected by the changes of Vatican II in Thank You Saint Jude:

It is generally thought that the liturgical reforms insured by the Second Vatican Council brought an end to the great era of popular piety. As journalist Paul Hendrickson has written in his evocative memoir of seminary life in these years, it seemed as if one day in the mid-1960s the saints suddenly disappeared from the churches, replace by huge and colorful banners with the words of moral exhortation, like PEACE and AGAPE, stitched on them in big felt letters.

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The effort to change the inner lives of American Catholics, to reconfigure the ways they engaged the sacred, practiced their faith and indeed, the way they faced the everyday challenges of their lives unfolded as a tense and complex process that met with resistance, ambivalence, and uncertainty at all levels, as such efforts to “reform” popular piety always do. A bitter internecine conflict erupted over the continued appropriateness of some of the most beloved practices associated with American Catholic popular piety and the cult of the saints.

mary shrine

The many devotional forms that had been developed in the preceding decades were criticized as regressive and irrelevant expressions of an infantile faith no longer acceptable in a spiritually sophisticated community. In postconciliar culture, the saints and the Virgin Mary were to be reimagined in the language of friendship, morality or mythology, deemphasizing what the reformers considered an inappropriate extravagant emphasis on the miraculous and the material. The reformers insisted that if popular devotions were to remain a feature of Catholic life, they would have to surrounded by words.

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One way of understanding the transitions of the early 1960s, as Paul Hendrickson’s recollection of the banners suggest, is as a shift from a culture of intimacy with many different holy figures, vividly imagined as real persons with foibles and idiosyncrasies, who entered into complex relations with their devout

saint statues

in a domain relatively unmediated by official authorities, to a culture in which religious practice was to be bounded and authorized by words. Devotions now had to accompanied by some sort of discursive practice, either explanatory sermon, clerical reflections on the meaning of particular expressions of piety or readings of scripture, as if by hedging popular practices with the written and spoken word, their improvisatory and discursive potential could be controlled or diminished. Words were not absent from preconciliar culture, of course, with its prayer cards,

priest holy card

novena booklets, and pious ejaculations—short utterances of praise, thanksgiving, or petition. The difference is that the words of the old devotionalism were efficacious in relation to specific cultic practices and disciplines, such as vows and novenas, and only as they expressed and realized relationships with particular holy figures. The new words belonged to highly educated, professionalized class of specialist in church life—teachers, liturgists, educators, administrators—whose emergence at this time reflected the confident entry of American Catholics into the middle class; the words on the banners derived their power and legitimacy from the authority of this class in the ecclesiastical institution, not from their association with a beloved saint.

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2 thoughts on “Vatican II Declares: In with the Banners! Out with the Statues!

  1. There’s a lot to unpack here, but I want to say first: this is a great site. Please, keep writing.

    I’ve been thinking about starting a site about the desire for the disembodied life, and when I look at those banner, that’s what I see. The Word exists as Christ, recalled in the Bible as a living document; those banners are more like idols. They are disembodied words, taking their model from modern advertisements. Regardless of literacy a person can approach an icon or painting or enter into a cathedral and worship, because God created us and matter is good. But to put abstract slogans in chipper fonts on banners devoid of context cheapens both the content and the surroundings.

    That’s all I’ve got?

    Like

    • Thanks so much for visiting! How did you find me?

      Great thoughts about banners as idols. I have been thinking about that, too. I recently read Rod Dreher’s book “How Dante Can Save Your Life”. Rod says that icons can help you see through to God. He quotes Andrew Frisardi, translator of the English version of Dante’s first book “Vita Nova”:

      “An icon is an image for contemplating a reality that transcends the specific image; the image leads the mind, through the senses, to direct communion with the intelligibles. An idol is an image to which we are attached for the sake of the image per se. Obviously one and the same object can be an idol or an icon–our approach is what makes the difference.”

      Icons can lead us towards transcendence, to a place we know not in fullness, not yet. The abstract symbols and isolated words on banners cannot usher us to another place. Their stunted images and isolated words limit the interplay to a volley back and forth from viewer to banner and back to viewer.

      Banners serve as powerful tools to accomplish Vatican II’s goal of modernization. They flatten the transcendent – literally moving from a three-dimensional statue to a two-dimensional banner. Banners can provide visual stimulation but they cannot be icons. Statues can be idols but they can also be icons.

      Your insightful comments sparked an idea for another post. Thanks so much. I look forward to continuing our conversation.

      I encourage you to start your site.

      Kathleen

      Like

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