For readers who are old enough to remember the time of the Second Vatican Council, this book will feel like a combination of both objective history and personal nostalgia; for those who did not live through that period, Father Harlow’s book will be an interesting and even astonishing look at a Church in transition, as they are made privy to discussions and debates concerning practices that 21st-Century Catholics now take for granted.
The vehicle for telling this compelling history is a particularly apt one for people living in the Diocese of Burlington. Bishop Robert F. Joyce – who was born in Proctor in 1896, educated at the University of Vermont, ordained at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Burlington in 1923, served as bishop of Burlington from 1957 until his retirement in 1971, and died peacefully at St. Joseph’s Home in Burlington in 1990 – was both a native son and an enthusiastic supporter of the Second Vatican Council. For four years Bishop Joyce arranged his schedule so that he could be present at every session of the Council, and he was diligent about reporting back to his people, both in print, in person and on television, exactly what was happening at this historic event. His letters, which Father Harlow has reproduced here, were informative, pastoral and, at times, even humorous. As primary documents, they give us an invaluable snapshot of this most historic period in Church history.
Father Harlow’s approach in this book demonstrates that his research was exceptionally thorough. In addition to Bishop Joyce’s letters, he also includes extensive information about what was going on in Rome at the time – issues under debate, who was participating, what was being said and how decisions were reached. He also includes pertinent excerpts from the particular documents being discussed which are, of necessity, brief. “It is my hope,” he notes in his introductory comments, “that the reader will continue to read the entire decrees and constitutions.”
Although all that transpired in Rome was of interest to Bishop Joyce, there were some issues that appear to have been especially near and dear to his heart, and these he communicated with particular enthusiasm. The first, which was apparently on the minds of Catholic Vermonters as well, was the change in liturgical language from Latin to the vernacular. “There was quite a response to my call for suggestions,” he stated at one point, referring to a diocesan consultation conducted prior to the opening of the Council in 1962. “The greatest number of them…asked for a greater use of the vernacular, especially in the forepart of the Mass… [and] in the administration of the Sacraments.”
Also important to the bishop was the move toward ecumenism. In an article he wrote for The Vermont Catholic Tribune in November 1963, he noted, “As the Council developed…ecumenism became more and more important as a chief aim, and insistent and universal has been the response to the subject throughout the world.” He himself had close relationships with many Vermonters who were not of the Catholic faith and, in 1965, he was asked to fill in for an ailing Cardinal Cushing at the Grand Master’s Masonic Convention in Connecticut because “he had been hailed as one of the most imaginative and forward-looking leaders in the ecumenical movement.”
Father Harlow’s book is primarily an historical work and thus will probably be of greatest interest to historians and students of the Second Vatican Council. However, that should not prevent the average reader from looking back at an event, the ramifications of which will be felt for centuries to come. As Bishop Joyce himself said in a letter home in 1964, “Not only will the world be different as a result of the Council, but all of us who are part of it will be profoundly affected by it for the rest of our lives.”
Father Lance W. Harlow is the rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph Co-Cathedral Parishes in Burlington. His other books include “True Devotion to Mary by Louis de Montfort” and “Vermont's First Catholic Bishop: The Life of Bishop Louis De Goesbriand, 1816-1899.” He has also written three children’s books: “Holy Goldfish!”, “Sofia's Tea Party” and “Sofia's Ballet Lesson.”