This book is a collection of four essays on American Catholics and their day-to-day religious practices in the twentieth century. The volume's editor, James O'Toole, identifies these treatments as a "first effort", but O'Toole's modesty should not distract the reader from appreciating the accomplishments of these four "first efforts". The authors chose to make their research more challenging and potentially more valuable in focusing upon the everyday, often less easily documented aspects of American Catholic religious practice, rather than on more extraordinary or vivid devotions. The practices are treated using a combination of statistical evidence, documentary descriptions, and skillful interpretation to present the broad continuities and discontinuities across American Catholic practice.
The subtitle of the book could easily have been "Catholic Practice and Its Relation to Vatican II," since understanding American Catholic practice, and the historiography of that practice, in the light of the Council is the major focus of these essays. Joseph P. Chinicci, O.F.M., provides the longest, programmatic first chapter in the collection on the experience of prayer in the American Catholic community. His study sets out to investigate the perception that "everything changed" after the Council, and to examine the continuities and discontinuities between pre- and post-conciliar American Catholic practice. He discusses some of the pre-conciliar changes in liturgy and in prayer practice that provided a foundation for later reforms; the use of missals, dialogue masses, and the pedagogy and practice associated with the sodality movement and other lay associations led the way in American Catholicism's movement from the thick devotional world of the urban parish to its new setting in the middle-class suburbs, especially after World War Two. Chinicci's work identifies the continuities and discontinuities occasioned not only by the Council, but by pre-conciliar changes in social, political and moral attitudes within the American Catholic community. His well-documented research calls into question historiography which places a strict division between "before" and "after" the Council: Catholic prayer had already moved away from the world of pre-war urban piety before the Council, but, he suggests, it was not until the upheavals of the late 1960s that their absence was nostalgically noted and the changes became polarized.
Paula Kane's witty essay on Marian devotion after 1940 raises similar questions about the reduction of popular devotion to Mary among American Catholics to her contemporary status as a "sign among signs in the religious landscape." (126) Between the World Wars, Catholic Marian devotion came out of the closet, in a manner of speaking, and became a primary tool of boundary-setting between a socially and economically ascendant Catholic community and their non-Catholic neighbors. Kane discusses the very public nature of post-war Catholic devotion, including the role Marian devotion and imagery played against two major cultural enemies of the community in the 1950s, communism and moral impurity. While summarizing the decline of Marian devotion after the Council, contemporary traditionalist practice and continuing possibilities for a re-evaluation of Marian devotion, Kane comes to conclusions similar to those of Chinicci about the role non-conciliar factors played in the decline of Marian piety: the Council and its change in Catholic ethos, she argues, continued an earlier trend of post-war decline.
James O'Toole's essay on confession, "In the Court of Conscience", creatively uses priests' record, personal memoirs, missionary statistics and instructional materials to leap the methodological hurdle of discussing what ought not to be discussed. While the pre-conciliar confessor's reputation for juridical severity is in many ways confirmed, what might be most surprising for today's Catholic is O'Toole's account of the impersonality and almost mechanical efficiency of the sacrament as administered to hundreds on an average Saturday afternoon in a busy parish. O'Toole looks at the growing dissatisfaction with confession among post-war Catholics as one of the more important causes for the unexpected (and unlegislated) "collapse" of confession after Vatican II.
Finally, in "Let Us Go to the Altar", Margaret McGuinness addresses the mass and various paraliturgical devotions centered on the Eucharist. McGuinness bookends her essay with the different attitudes and events surrounding the Eucharistic Congresses of 1926 and 1976. Her analysis of practices of Eucharistic reception and etiquette as defining important boundaries between Catholics and non-Catholics, also helps to explain some of the changes in Eucharistic practice in the 1960s. Like the decline in Marian devotions, shifts in Eucharistic devotion were not simply the result of conciliar directives from on high, but responses to a changed situation in which the maintenance of such boundaries became less of a concern among a new generation of Catholic Americans.