When I first received The
Signs of the Times “Understanding the Church since Vatican II by Fr.
Richard W. Gilsdorf I wasn’t much
enthused. I thought “Oh great a 500 plus page book from someone I
hadn’t heard of and it is probably a crank complaining about Vatican
II. ” A chapter into the book though I was spending any of
my spare time racing through this book and finished it in relatively
short order. I am quite thankful to have been introduced to
the writings of Fr. Gilsdorf who passed away in 2005.
This book is a compilation of a life’s
writing from a former seminary professor, parish priest, and scripture
scholar. The books main title comes from a series of columns
he wrote for The Compass, the newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay.
The book contains these columns along with a wealth of his
other writings that were published in places like Homiletic &
Pastoral Review and the The Wanderer. Also included
were various speeches he gave at conferences along with
several book reviews. The book is edited by Patrick F. Beno who took on
the task from Fr. Gilsdorf to take his published as well as unpublished
writings to be made into a book for publication. The editor
has provided copious footnotes to give the reader context and
background information on persons and events describes as well as
translations for Latin phrases used throughout.
The “Signs of the Times” columns were
written during the Pontificate of Paul VI and largely address the
errors that were being promulgated in the aftermath of Vatican II.
Father describes himself as a “Vatican II liberal” where
liberal is meant in the older and truer sense of the word. He
fully supports the Council and the documents of the Council and it is
the dissent and the “spirit of Vatican II” that he sets himself in
opposition to. One phrase used a couple of times in his
writings is that he is “As liberal as the Pope is liberal and as
conservative as the Pope is conservative.” I think this is a great
definition and much better than the left/right descriptions so often
bandied about that contain so little clarity.
As a convert and someone that often writes
on dissent within the Church I found it quite interesting to see a
history of some of the errors that are now quite familiar and how they
developed in the first place. Father’s writings often include
the history of how certain theology and practices entered the Church in
the first place. Practices like no confession before First
Communion, Communal penance services without integral sacramental communion,
downplaying of devotional practices, and the loss of Eucharistic piety.
He details these movements and the lack of response to these
errors by the large majority of diocese. As a priest who
lived during these times and saw first hand these practices he has
great insights into the reasons for these developments, but most of all
great insights into the error of these practices and the harm they
What I really enjoyed about Father’s
writings that even though there were on contentious subjects he writes
with great charity and sometimes great humor. At multiple points in the
book he will write something that made me laugh out loud such as when
he described the “Holy Office of Greeley” or when he writes about a
priest-lecturer who had found “a fertile crop of itching ears.” Another
“One of the abused words is
‘relevance.’ It nauseates me even to type the blasted word.
Where is the emesis basin?”
A thought I totally concur with.
One of the best aspects of Fr. Gilsdorf
writings is that he never lets bitterness creep in or to show
frustration at the lack of response to dissent and liturgical abuses.
He never falls into name calling and while he has severe
disagreements with the thoughts of several people addressed in the
book, his criticisms are always pointed to the subject of the
disagreement itself. He was not the type to just whine and
complain, but to respond with thoughtful commentary and to take action
where he could. I found reading this book that he was the
founder and first president of the excellent Confraternity of Catholic Clergy
which continues to do great work and is totally faithful to the
Magisterium of the Catholic Church.
One of my favorite pieces in the book was
a short column that appeared in his parish bulletin called “A little
corner of Heaven” It is quite touching his reflection of his
small parish Church and the baptisms, marriages, and funerals that took
place there. His great love for his parish shines through.
The editor of the book notes that because of Fr. Gildorf’s
forthright orthodoxy he was likely relegated to this parish in
a town of of only 550 persons where his influence would be minimal and
where he served for the large majority of his life.
The book though is chock full of great
writing and some influential pieces that evoked a lot of support.
One of these excellent pieces is “The Pirates of Penance” (I
just love that title) on the bad times that the great sacrament of
penance has fallen on and the theology that lead to the downplaying of
confession. No doubt the downplaying of sin is the error that lead to
this. He gave me lots to think about from this essay and
several others that addressed this sacrament and will certainly lead me
to post on this in the future. Another great piece
is The plight of the papist priest” which at the time was
printed anonymously. This addresses the tension of being
totally faithful to the Pope and the Magisterium of the Church while at
the same time being faithful to your Bishop who is not faithful for the
most part to either. This article was great encouragement to
other “papist priests” throughout the world and ended up being printed
in five different languages and the most requested piece at Homiletics
& Pastoral Review.
Several chapters of the book also address
the writings of scripture scholar Father Raymond Brown and how
destructive some of his ideas were especially regarding the
consciousness of Christ and how the “Ignorant Jesus” came to be taught
in seminaries and every outlet of Catholic education. He
shows multiple instances where Father Brown’s writing totally conflict
with Magisterial teaching and wonders just how it is that he became so
influential and supported by so many bishops without an qualms.
Since Fr. Gilsdorf is a scripture scholar himself he is able
to ask some excellent questions and give some rebuttals to the some of
Fr. Raymond Brown’s writings. His scripture scholarship also
is quite evident is several other pieces he writes on the papacy and
the priesthood, and really throughout the book.
There were in fact so many great pieces in
the book that I could easily turn this review into a summary of every
chapter in the book since I just plain loved and enjoyed this book so
much. Instead I would encourage everyone to pick up this book
for their own enjoyment. For those already aware of Fr. Gilsdorf they
will be rewarded with his other writings and for those such as myself
for who this was a new introduction – the joy and education of
reading his works.