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 thought 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 Gilsdorf to take his published as well as unpublished writings to be made into a book for publication.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 cause.
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 example is:
"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.