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Retiring after 48 years, Fr. Anthony Shonis looks back on the changes in the Church

(Left image) The future Fr. Anthony Shonis in his First Communion suit | COURTESY OF HOLY NAME OF JESUS PARISH; (Middle image) Fr. Anthony Shonis | FILE PHOTO; (Right image) Fr. Anthony Shonis as a young priest | COURTESY OF HOLY NAME OF JESUS PARISH


Editor’s note: On Sept. 3, 2019, The Western Kentucky Catholic sat down with Fr. Anthony Shonis, a priest of the diocese who retired in spring 2019. Having been raised in the Catholic Church prior to the Second Vatican Council, attending seminary during the council and being ordained after the council, Fr. Shonis shared with the WKC his reflections on the 50+ years since the world-altering events of Vatican II. The following is edited from a conversation with Fr. Shonis.

On the Church before Vatican II

“I have always considered it an advantage, as a priest, that I grew up in the Church before the council.

“All of my sacraments, except for ordination, were celebrated in Latin. And with that Latin came a sense of the sacred and the transcendent.

“I can honestly say that the people I lived with (in Scranton, Pennsylvania), my family, grandparents – these people were not phonies; they were real Catholics.

“A great deal was placed on devotions. And the churches were packed for devotions – novenas, Stations of the Cross, rosary, 40 Hours, parish missions. The devotions were maybe sentimental, but they were very effective in giving people a sense that God really did care for them personally, and the Blessed Mother was interested in their life. This was where we participated in the life of the Church.

“When you went to Mass in the ‘50s, it was packed. But you’d be lucky if 10%, 15% of people went to Communion. No one went to Communion.

“That was a serious lack in the life of the Church that people were not receiving the Eucharist. They were ‘assisting at Mass,’ fulfilling an obligation, but they weren’t being fed.”

On hints of the changes

“When I was in eighth grade, the sister who was teaching us said we’re going to do something very different for Mass this morning. She took us up to the chapel, and the priest was there, and she said this morning we’re going to have a dialogue Mass.

“She passed out little booklets with the responses. They were all in Latin still, but we were going to respond to the priest, instead of the altar boy doing that.

“That was the first indication that I think we ever had, and it was the first time we actually participated in the Mass as a community. There was something afoot in the Church.”

On seminary during the council

“When I entered the seminary, in 1962, that was the very year that the council began.

“They asked our opinion – ‘Do you think the Church should change from Latin?’

“My first reaction was no. Now I think, years later, looking back, the change was sort of seen as maybe a threat to my identity.

“As soon as the council’s documents were released the seminary library would have copies. People were devouring these documents. People were finally picking up that major changes were happening in the Church.

“In the Diocese of Scranton, the first change in the Mass might have been Advent 1964; they said ‘We’re going to do the readings in English.’

“The bishop asked the rector of my seminary to go to an ecumenical service. The rector came back and said ‘I did something that I never imagined I could do. I sang the hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God,’ which was written by Martin Luther.

“Five years before, you could never have imagined this!”

On post-council enthusiasm

“The changes had to come, and they were wonderful. They caused an enthusiasm for ministry among seminarians and young religious sisters.

“That’s why I left the seminary for a year and moved to work in ministry in Kentucky. I still wanted to be a priest but I wanted to do this year of mission work. I did that for a year before returning to seminary.

“This enthusiasm continued, and I think what was happening was the seminary professors were overwhelmed by the changes in the Church. So we were reading books about things that were happening, and so guys were confronting them in class, ‘What about this?’ In other words they were no longer the authority they once were.

“You had to have a certain maturity, otherwise there were no real guidelines. It was wide open. And basically you tried to find a priest who seemed to be fairly stable and identify with him. That’s where your only sense of ‘how to get through this’ would be.

“Somehow, I came away with the notion that – and only years later can I articulate this – that if I just worked hard enough, I could change the world. And almost as if we could usher in the kingdom of God. That it was really up to us, and that human beings who were committed, could through social planning, that this would be the kingdom of God.

“But that’s really a distortion of Christianity, of Catholicism. Because only Christ can usher in the kingdom of God. Now we could prepare people for it, but this was his work.”

On the Church after the council

“When I entered the seminary – everything was in Latin, nothing had changed – and when I was ordained for the Diocese of Owensboro in 1971, the whole world had turned upside down.

“Next to the changes from Latin to English, no change meant as much that really touched their everyday life as much as the change to the Sacrament of Penance. The name was changing to ‘Sacrament of Reconciliation,’ and they now had the option of going face to face, and the format was in English.

“This was a big change.”

On viewing the abuse crisis through the lens of Vatican II

“Growing up, we were taught that the Church was perfect. You never heard of a scandal in the Church. And people had a very idealized image of the Church. So if what is happening today with the sex abuse scandal and the cover-up would have happened in the ‘50s, I think it would have broken the Church.

“But when that scandal did break in the 1990s and 2000s, people predicted there was going to be this great exodus. There wasn’t. The Church held.

“And people said, ‘The priests are not the Church. They’re part of the Church but they’re not the Church, and we’re sticking with this Church and we’re going to change this Church. But it doesn’t mean that God isn’t with the Church.’”

On the identity of today’s Church

“The new image that came out of the council was of the ‘People of God.’ That phrase was never, ever heard before Vatican II. And once you say ‘People of God,’ you get a sense that it’s human. And there’s frailty.

“But I think you have to watch that too. Because this is not General Motors. This is also the Body of Christ.

“Every generation sort of sees what the previous generation has done and sort of missed the boat. But the same Holy Spirit, that came upon the apostles at Pentecost, has never left the Church, and will raise up a new generation of leaders, so nothing will be lost.”

Originally printed in the October 2019 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.

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