In with the banners! Out with the statues!

Robert Orsi offers insight on how 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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John Zmirak seems to remember banners from these enlightening times with catchy phrases like “REJOICE DAMMIT!” and “GOD DON’T MAKE JUNK” in his book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism.

Back to Orsi:

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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