Thursday, December 10, 2009

"The Signs of the Times"

I'm almost through with a really great book called The Signs of the Times: Understanding the Church Since Vatican II by Fr. Richard W. Gilsdorf, edited by Patrick Beno (Star of the Bay Press, 2008). I was originally told about this book by our Music Director (see here) who had very high things to say about it. At first I thought it would just be another book chronicling the confusion and disobedience in the post-Conciliar Church, but upon reading it I was pleased to find that it is not your run-of-the-mill critique of the post-V2 Church. This book is quite unique and deserves to be read, even if you've already had a healthy diet of stuff like Liturgical Timebombs, Heresy of Formlessness and The Reform of the Roman Rite.

The main value of this book lies in the fact that it is not reflective but is written "at ground zero", so to speak. What I mean by this is that though the book was published in 2008 (three years after the author's death), it is a collection of essays and articles written by Fr. Gilsdorf spanning 1959-1992, but most of them coming from the darkest period of the modern Church's history, 1975-1984. The essays were originally published in diocesan newspapers (Green Bay, Wisconsin) and chronicle the degeneration of the Catholic Church as it was happening. When reading Fr. Gilsdorf's book you don't get a reflective view of what did go wrong in the Church, but an alarmed first-person view of what is happening as Fr. Gilsdorf takes us through the 70's and 80's with all their chaos. The drafts of the articles were found among Fr. Gilsdorf's personal papers after his death and published posthumously.

Another great thing about this book is Fr. Gilsdorf's interest in the pastoral implications of the Church crisis. A pastor himself (he was a parish priest at Holy Trinity in Casco, WI for 23 years), Fr. Gilsdorf is keenly interested in how the crisis in Catholic identity effects the pastoral practice of the priest in his ministry. For example, when discussing the many "options" available to a priest in the modern liturgical books, Fr. Gilsdorf tells the following story:

Several years ago on a dark and blustery late fall afternoon, I was called to the side of a man striken by a heart attack in a small crossroads village some 10 miles from my rectory.

I found the victim lying on the ground outside a small cheese factory where he had been installing a cement platform. By the time I arrived, his wife and son, several fellow workers, and some neighboring farmers had gathered and watched in silence while rescue squad personnel attempted in vain to resuscitate him. The wife was in nigh hysterical state.

Enter the priest, holy oil, and current ritual in hand. I immediately recited the conditional absolution from memory. Next, I recall frantically paging for the essentials of the rite, which I located at long last near the center of the book. Then, after the anointing in extremis, I hunted for the apostolic blessing. Having awkwardly thumbed back and forth through the book, I found it obscurely tucked near the index with the numerous other "meaningful" options. Finally, for the consolation of the family and friends, I fumbled through options A, B, C, D, and E at every stage of the rite, the wind tearing at the pages of my standard ICEL ritual book, hoping (and struggling) to discover some suitable prayers.

That event was traumatic. It "raised my consciousness" as to the madness of the unpastoral aspects of optionalism
(Pg. 177).

Indeed, the entire book is written to highlight the plight of priests and the pastoral difficulties they encounter when trying to remain loyal to the Church and the Pope in an atmosphere of what Fr. Gilsdorf unapologetically calls "Modernism." The book sets up a dichotomy between what Father calls "Papist" priests and "Modernist" priests, in which the priest who remains loyal to Rome find himself a pariah within his diocese and sometimes in opposition to the Bishop himself. The most heart-rending passages of this book come when Fr. Gilsdorf describes the interior anguish priests go through when they find they have to choose between loyalty to the Bishop or the Pope.

Fr. Gilsdorf is not a traditionalist; he is simply a priest who wants to do what the documents of Vatican II state and throughout his book, which begins in 1959 and ends in 1992, we share with him his dismay as one directive after another churns out of various diocesan bureaucracies contradicting the clear intent of Rome and the Council Fathers. He speaks about the abuses and the crisis not as a traditionalist urging a return to historical Catholicism, but as a pastorally oriented priest who simply wants what is best for his flock. In that sense, this book is a very strong defense of tradition due to its impassioned (and sometimes even coarse or harsh) denunciations of certain modern practices. Father pulls no punches and is not afraid to refer to people or organizations as modernists, heretics, wolves, hirelings and Judases.

Most of the book was written during the early or middle years of John Paul II's pontificate, and the only thing to keep in mind is that the condition has gotten substantially better since those years. But overall Signs of the Times was a great book and a very balanced addition to other works on the post-Vatican II crisis because of its pastoral dimension and the first-person view it gives the reader, who watches the crisis unfold through Fr. Gilsdorf's own eyes. I highly recommend it and will have it linked up in the "Books I Have Read Recently" section. It has also gotten a great review at The Curt Jester (see here).

Anybody out there from the Diocese of Green Bay who knew Fr. Gilsdorf? He sounds like an outstanding priest.

4 comments:

Steve Calovich said...

I knew Father Gilsdorf through the excellent audio tapes he recorded years ago for Keep the Faith. I even sent Father a letter and he was gracious enough to reply. He was a Scripture Scholar and very interesting to listen to!

Mr S said...

Hey Steve, any chance I can get the cassettes so I can convert to CD?

If so, we could either "employ" Boniface as an intermediary....
or I can provide a contact email etc.

Steve Calovich said...

Hi Mr S,

I no longer have the tapes, but Keep the Faith has them available in several different formats.

mikedrabik said...

I've seen your Blog at times - just doing general searches on the Net. Today I was looking for something from G.K. Chesterton and your Blog came up as a google result.

Thanks for this post on the book "Signs of the Times".

I especially liked this quote in your commentary:

"Fr. Gilsdorf is not a traditionalist; he is simply a priest who wants to do what the documents of Vatican II state and throughout his book, which begins in 1959 and ends in 1992, we share with him his dismay as one directive after another churns out of various diocesan bureaucracies contradicting the clear intent of Rome and the Council Fathers. He speaks about the abuses and the crisis not as a traditionalist urging a return to historical Catholicism, but as a pastorally oriented priest who simply wants what is best for his flock."

I am not a priest, but I am seminary educated and have been struggling with the same thing for many years. Caught between so-called Progressives and Traditionalists I so feel the effects of the abuses foisted upon me from one side (which they describe as living the 'spirit' of V II) while having to hear from the other side a call, (often angry and nostalgic from the older crowd who grew up before or came of age during V II and the often ignorant statements and beliefs of those born years after the Council) to toss out Vatican II and return to "true" untainted Catholicism.

Thanks again for the post. The book I will check out.