The Council on Campus: The Experience of Vatican II at Boston College

By O'Toole, James M. | The Catholic Historical Review, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

The Council on Campus: The Experience of Vatican II at Boston College


O'Toole, James M., The Catholic Historical Review


In early October 1962, just before he left for Rome to participate in the opening session of the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Richard Cushing, the archbishop of Boston, welcomed two undergraduates from Boston College to his residence. The students, one an English major and the other an economics major, both of them juniors, presented the cardinal with a "spiritual bouquet" (see Figure 1). Most mid-twentieth century American Catholics would have immediately recognized a spiritual bouquet, defined by one encyclopedia as "an enumerated collection of prayers, devotional exercises, and acts of self-denial offered . . . for spiritual benefit." The idea was that a group of the faithful could undertake a large number of religious activities for a particular purpose, and then pool them together so as to increase the power and efficacy of their individual prayers. To symbolize the effort, an elaborate, hand-lettered and illustrated document was usually prepared (as it was in this case) and formally presented to the individual whose spiritual intentions would profit from the exercise. This particular bouquet had been assembled over the previous weeks by the students and faculty of the college, all of it done, they said, "for the success of the Council." It was an impressive effort, amounting to 15,226 Masses attended, 12,350 communions received, 9,972 recitations of the rosary, 9,579 "acts of penance," and 11,333 "acts of fraternal charity." And there was more to come. The Jesuit priests at the school had pledged to offer an additional 304 future Masses for this intention. Mass would be said in the chapel of the Jesuit residence every hour on the hour on October 11, the Council's opening day, and the bells in the tower of the main college building would all be rung at once at noon that day, only the fourth time in the history of the school that this had been done-most recently on VJ Day in 1945.1

It would be difficult to prove, one way or another, but this may very well have been the last time that the students of Boston College ever assembled a spiritual bouquet. That common devotion and object, entirely familiar (especially to school children) in the era before the Council, all but disappeared from the American Catholic religious imagination in the years after 1965, swept away like so many other practices that suddenly seemed outdated. "The custom," that same reference book noted with an air of disapproval in the middle 1990s, "passed out of favor because it tended to view spiritual realities, including Mass, as quantifiable entities whose spiritual benefits are readily transferable to others."2 Perhaps. But that last spiritual bouquet may be taken as a marker of transition, a change prompted by the Vatican Council and its work. We know that the reception and lived experience of the Council varied considerably from place to place, and the impact on local parishes and dioceses was multi-layered.3 Other kinds of localities were affected too, including the campuses of Catholic universities.

The era of Vatican II would have been a significant one for Boston College even if the Council fathers had never assembled. Founded in 1863 by Jesuit priests to serve the exploding immigrant population of the city, the school was in the process of celebrating its centennial as the Council met, and its leaders were moving the institution in new directions. Several decades of programmatic expansion, beginning in the 1920s, had added graduate and professional schools to the familiar undergraduate liberal arts curriculum. Though it may thus have technically qualified as such earlier, not until the 1950s did it become common for those on campus to refer to the institution in shorthand as "the university" rather than "the college"; sometimes, it was "the University." (The trustees considered changing the name to reflect this but then rejected the idea, probably because the most obvious name-Boston University-was already taken.) Lay men and women far outnumbered Jesuits as teachers, and the quality of the faculty was being improved through the deliberate hiring of academics with PhDs and other terminal degrees in their respective fields. …

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