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Feb. 3, 2005 • Volume 13 Number 10

Prof. James O'Toole (History)

Historian Explores 'Rituals of Faith'

By Reid Oslin
Staff Writer

The timing is perfect for the next Boston College "Writers Among Us" event, featuring Prof. James O'Toole (History).

An historian of American Catholicism, O'Toole will present "Rituals of Faith: American Catholic Religious Practice Then and Now" on Feb. 9, which this year is Ash Wednesday - the start of Lent and a day that traditionally has its own set of rituals and outward religious symbols for Catholics.

O'Toole is editor and contributor to a new book, Habits of Devotion: Catholic Religious Practices in Twentieth Century America, which traces the causes and development of some significant changes in religious practices in the American Catholic Church between 1925 and 1975, many of them fueled by the sweeping reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and others the result of changing religious attitudes among a new generation of US Catholics.

O'Toole and his co-authors chose to concentrate on four major areas of traditional Catholic religious practice in : community prayer, devotion to Mary, the sacrament of penance and the Holy Eucharist.

"What we were trying to get at was 'week-to-week' religion," said O'Toole, whose talk will take place at 7:30 p.m. in Devlin 101. "What do the people who go to church every Sunday do? These four - prayer, Mary, confession and communion - for this period seem to be the most basic or most common."

O'Toole says changes in Catholic religious practice following the Vatican II era deserve close study. "There has been a lot of scholarship in recent years looking at so-called 'lived' religion," he said. "It's not just 'What does the catechism say?' or 'What do the preachers preach?' but it is 'What are people actually doing?'"

O'Toole's chapter on confession, for example, indicates that more than 100,000 confessions a year were heard by priests in some urban parishes during the 1940s and '50s. Today the confessional form of the sacrament is nearly nonexistent. "It's phenomenal when you look at the number of people who were going to confession on a regular basis," O'Toole said.

By comparison, the number of Catholics receiving the Eucharist on a regular basis has increased just as dramatically, O'Toole says. "In a relatively short period of time, you went from a situation in which a relatively few and probably not a majority of people at any given Mass or on any given Sunday would receive the Eucharist. The situation today is that virtually everybody does, and they would be encouraged to do that.

"In organizing the project, and in particular focusing on the middle years of the 20th century, we wanted to be sure to get the period before, during and after Vatican II so that we could see both sides of the changes in the Church.

"There is this sense that any Catholics who had lived through that were thinking 'Wow, that was really a period of revolutionary change!' This devotional, religious world that had existed beforehand just disappeared, it seemed, overnight and was replaced by something new."

Other changes evolved over longer periods of time, says O'Toole. "If you look at things like prayer in general or the chapter on Mary, I think that they make more of a persuasive case that yes, we did come to a point at which there was a lot of change, but there was also a lot of groundwork, a lot of preparation for the change."

The "Writers Among Us" event is sponsored by Boston College Magazine, the Boston College Bookstore and The Church in the 21st Century initiative.

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