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Since 1732, the Redemptorists — a congregation of missionary priests and brothers — have followed in Jesus’ footsteps, preaching the Word and serving the poor and most abandoned.
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The way we were and the way we are becoming

Reproduced from the Spring 2013 edition of Plentiful Redemption.

By Rev. John McGowan, C.Ss.R.

Editor’s Note: During this Year of Faith, we present a series of reflections from Redemptorists who began their religious and/or priestly lives in the years during or immediately after the Second Vatican Council.

I was ordained three months before the opening session of the Second Vatican Council. Ordination as a Redemptorist priest remains the greatest blessing of my life. The second blessing is Vatican II. Everything was black and white in the years before the Council. Order and obedience topped the list of our faith response. We now refer to those times as “the old Church.”

Pope John XXIII opened windows and allowed the fresh air of the Holy Spirit to sweep through the rooms, the halls and the corridors of our lives. Prior to that, Latin was the Church’s language. We didn’t mind that too much because popular piety, with devotions to Mary and the saints, was more popular. We loved our novenas, benedictions and rosaries, and we watched passively from our pews as the priest, with his back to us, silently prayed “his Mass.” In those days, the pope, bishops, priests and nuns were the Church; the laity’s job was “to pray, pay and obey.”

We fasted from food and drink from midnight until Communion time the next morning. We went to confession weekly or monthly where every confessional had lines of penitents. We enjoyed Low Masses, High Masses and even Solemn High Masses with three priests serving as celebrant, deacon and sub-deacon, respectively. Black was the color of the vestments at funerals. Priests were the only ones who gave us Communion, and that was from a marble rail that kept us in our place and away from the sanctuary floor. Our Sunday Masses were standing-room only, and often Communion was distributed from the Offertory to the “Agnus Dei.” We had to be at Mass before the Gospel in order for it “to count.” Our Sunday sermons usually treated of Catholic doctrine, morality, virtue or sin. Only priests and religious had “vocations.” We truly believed that we belonged to the one, true church that was forever changeless.

Then the windows flew open and the fresh air of the Holy Spirit arrived.

For me, personally, the greatest gift of the Council was the universal call to holiness. All of us are called to be holy, and we all make up “the Body of Christ.” This came across especially when the Council called us to full, active participation in the celebration of the Eucharist. Sacred Scripture was given a prominent role at each Mass as we listened to “homilies” reflecting the readings. Priests now faced the people and celebrated Mass in our language. Concelebrated Mass took precedence over several Masses going on at the same time on different side altars.

So many good things came from the Council: the revision of the sacraments, the Lectionary, the Sacramentary and the liturgical calendar; the introduction of lay ecclesial ministries; the emphasis that we are the Church, the People of God, the Body of Christ and so many more involvements to which we are now accustomed. Most important of all was the Council’s stress on the centrality of the Eucharist as “the source and summit of our Christian life.”

I lived my pre-ordination time in Council of Trent years and my ordained days in the Vatican II years. I was happy during both periods, but I thank God each day for the countless blessings that the Holy Spirit brought and continues to bring to each of us and the Church because of the work and the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

Fr. McGowan professed vows as a Redemptorist in 1957 and was ordained in 1962. He is currently stationed at San Alfonso Retreat House in Long Branch, NJ.