"The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America" by  Colleen McDannell. Basic Books (New York, 2011). 304 pp., $26.99.
"The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America" by Colleen McDannell. Basic Books (New York, 2011). 304 pp., $26.99.

Reviewed by Brother Jeffrey Gros, FSC | Catholic News Service

One of the monumental moments of global history, secular or religious, in the 20th century is the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church. It was an event that had a rich and deep prehistory and continues to cast its long shadow down the halls of the world's future.

For those who lived through these years and remember the resurgence of religion after World War II in America and the coming of age of Catholicism in the United States and U.S. Catholicism in the universal church, Colleen McDannell's "The Spirit of Vatican II" will be a warm and welcome reprise. For those for whom the council and its prehistory is known only from the elders' stories and the history books, this will be a vital and engaging introduction to how life was lived on the ground and how the faith evolved in congregations, families and communities across this country.

The book is a personal tale, woven around the mother, family and congregations of the author. However, it a volume richly informed by the history and theology of universal Catholicism and the details of the council debates, as well as by the history, demography and personal stories of the congregations and dioceses through which the author's family moved -- from the Second World War marriage of her parents before the council, through their travels and developments in the years during and after the council, including their relationships to the church, the culture and the particular congregations in which they were active in their life.

The book shows how the council was received by faithful Catholics, as we see the author's mother moving from family focus during the period of the council, engaged in rosary circles in her parish to engagement in liturgical participation and small group Bible study. It shows how the current polarization can be traced to the variety of leadership styles of those returning from the council, from resistance and foot-dragging on the part of some bishops to serious educational programs and promotion of the renewal of the spiritual life of the church in the spirit of the council. Above all, the book demonstrates the positive effects of the council in the spiritual lives of laypeople and congregations where it was implemented with vigor and fidelity.

The book consists of eight chapters, the first three setting the stage recounting the immigrant church, the move to the suburbs and early stirrings of renewal even before the council opened in Rome. The story is traced through the author's three generations of progenitors and the parish dynamics in which they lived out their Catholicism. The fourth chapter deftly summarizes the council's debates and its decisions. The next two chapters outline the complexity and diversity of the council's reception and implementation in different dioceses and parishes across the U.S., during a period when the author's parents gave them the opportunity of providing a window on the experience of this diversity in Catholic schools, parishes and dioceses. The last two chapters develop the emerging role of the laity and lay conscience formation in the wake of the 1968 birth control encyclical and as the more recent sex abuse scandal came to light. The last chapter reflects on the legacy of American Catholicism as it enters the 21st century and some of the author's personal reflections.

The United States may be a minor part of global Catholicism, in spite of the secular influence of the nation in which it lives. However, it provides a fascinating story of the Spirit's action in one moment of history in one corner of the worldwide Christian movement. For the depth of scholarship and intimacy of this narrative we can be grateful.

Brother Gros, a member of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, is resident scholar in Catholic studies at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill.