Priests share their memories of Vatican II

Father Roy Stiles, left, and Father Joseph Merkt, were in Rome during the Second Vatican Council as seminarians. (By Marnie McAllister)

By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor

Fathers Joseph Merkt and Roy Stiles, who were seminarians during the Second Vatican Council, had a special glimpse into the innerworkings of that years-long meeting while studying in Rome.

They were working behind the scenes when the council began to consider and later promulgated its first document, the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” or “Sacrosanctum Consilium.” The landmark document, which would substantially change the Mass and set the stage for the documents to come, was approved and announced to the world on Dec. 4, 1963.

Father Merkt, then a young seminarian, was a server at the Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica 50 years ago when the document was decreed.

“I was standing about 20 feet away from Pope Paul VI when he made the announcement. It’s etched in my brain. It was very exciting,” he said during an interview at The Record office last week. Father Merkt, now a retired archdiocesan priest, celebrates Mass at Mercy Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Peace. He lives at St. Francis of Assisi Church.

Fathers Stiles and Merkt have, in these five decades since, adapted to and lived the post-Vatican II church, along with the countless other clergy, religious and lay people who were asked to adapt to the new sights and sounds of the Catholic Mass. Unlike most others though, they had front-row seats to the council’s backstage.

Father Stiles, a retired priest of the archdiocese who serves as its vicar for senior clergy and lives at St. Bartholomew Church, attended the council’s opening public session on Oct. 11, 1962. He was a year away from his presbyteral ordination then. He snapped pictures of the bishops processing into the session, including a couple of Archbishop John A. Floersch, Louisville’s archbishop at the time.

Archbishop Floersch, second prelate from right, enters the council on its opening day. Father Roy Stiles took this picture as a seminarian in 1962.

During the council, Father Stiles lived at the Pontifical North American College, a residence and meeting place for the bishops from the United States participating in the council. That’s where the Louisville seminarians would find their inside view.

“Our mimeograph room became a copy room for the bishops,” said Father Stiles. “We were running off some of the preliminary documents” of what would become the “Constitition on the Sacred Liturgy.”

Father Stiles said he read the documents that came through the copy room and “I was just amazed at the early documents on the liturgy.”

In retrospect, he said, “The implication of it and all it was going to do wasn’t clear at the time.”

Father Merkt, who arrived in Rome in September of 1963 and also lived at the North American College, noted that the American bishops meeting at the college eventually set up a press office there. He worked in that office for three years while in formation for the priesthood.

“It was amazing to see what was happening behind the scenes — though you couldn’t talk about it,” he said. “The document (Father) Roy saw was changed very little” by the time it was promulgated.

The document was decreed “the very month of my ordination in 1963,” Father Stiles said.

“We who were students at the time were being educated the way they had been for 400 years,” he noted. “One of my classmates said we were ordained 400 years ago according to the Council of Trent.”

Yet so much was about to change.

“I said Mass in Latin for a year and a half after I came home,” he said. By 1967, he would be celebrating Mass while facing his congregation and speaking their language, his first language.

Father Merkt was ordained to the priesthood on Dec. 17, 1966, in St. Peter’s Basilica, just months before the changes were implemented,.

“We were ordained in the old Roman Rite, but we were expected to go out and say Mass in Rome. And by Easter, the new ritual was going to be out. They didn’t know how to test us or to teach us to say Mass because it was going to change.

“There was a continuity and discontunuity that we experienced,” he said.

There also was a fair amount of uncertainty, Father Merkt noted. While the document had been approved, “the implementation committee would make decisions about how it would be enfleshed,” he said.

“Everybody was on edge, because we didn’t know how it would be worked out,” he said. And they were full of questions, “How would it be for the priest to face the people?”

Father Stiles said the changes wrought by the document were “a sort of dream of many people who had done the spade work” in the years leading up to the council. Others, he and Father Merkt noted, were appalled by the idea that the liturgy would be changed. As priests, though, they primarily encountered people who wanted to learn what the changes were and why they were made.

By the time the document was promulgated, Father Stiles was at home in Louisville and his parishioners started asking him, “ ‘What do you mean they’re going to change the Mass?’ ”

He was assigned to St. Rita Church in Okolona at the time and began offering “home Masses.” These events for small groups included Mass and a catechetical session in the homes of parishioners.

“We would gather and try to explain the difference between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the way the Scripture reading would be enhanced” under the new rituals, he said. “Once you exprienced Mass in the small group, you didn’t picture it the same anymore.

“The majority were very pleased that they could hear and understand what was going on,” he said. “They said they prayed better.”

The Archdiocese of Louisville became proactive about the liturgical changes and initiated the Congress of Evolving Worship, which consisted of workshops at the Louisville Gardens where lay people, clergy and religious gathered to understand the liturgcal changes, Father Stiles said.

“Our diocese really got into it then and got national experts” to speak at the events, he said. “People got really excited about it.”

Archbishop Thomas J. McDonough, who became Archbishop of Louisville in 1967, “proclaimed he was a Vatican II bishop. That was his platform. He wanted to implement what Vatican II meant,” Father Stiles said.

Father Merkt said he still looks back on the events of the Second Vatican Council and wonders at its result.

“It borders on the miraculous,” he said, noting that the document on liturgy was only voted down by four bishops. It was approved by 2,147 bishops from around the world. He believes the Holy Spirit must have been at work.

“You got this sense that the bishops knew, the theologians knew something much bigger than themselves was at stake,” he said. “You felt it.”

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