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Jeremy Bonner, The Road to Renewal: Victor Joseph Reed & Oklahoma Catholicism, 1905-1971. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2008.

Reviewed by Thomas W. Jodziewicz
University of Dallas

In 1969, in the midst of the challenges and conflicts, and hopes, associated with the Second Vatican Council’s aggiornamento, Bishop Victor Reed of the Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa received several letters for Newman Club members at the University of Oklahoma. Positive about the elements of the renewal such as the new dialogue Mass, one student wisely noticed that “Our everyday lives can easily become detached from our religious faith,” but that this more participatory Mass allowed “the opportunity to seek a meaningful relationship between the two.” Another communication, also praising recent changes and innovations, was yet sensitive to the circumstance of their pastor:

The campus minister… must reinterpret traditional Christian symbols in terms that the 20th
century man can relate to, yet he must still maintain a consciousness of the heritage which
has created us. The job is one of delicate balance [italics added] and it requires that the
Campus minister possess unusual wisdom, love, dedication, and a sense of humor (145).

These campus comments can serve to frame this excellent, and dispassionate, study of the turmoil experienced by this progressive Midwestern Catholic diocese in the 1960s, and also to highlight the efforts of a kind and open-minded American bishop.

There are a number of strengths in the organization and presentation of this story. The author offers enough historical context for the Oklahoma narrative so that the reader is aware that the narrative is not occurring in an historical vacuum. While situated in what is sometimes inaccurately described as “fly-over country,” Oklahoma’s minority Catholic population enjoyed vibrancy and vitality informed by the stirrings of liturgical renewal and lay agency, particularly in imitation of Catholic Action, by the 1940s and 1950s. Centered in Oklahoma City and Tulsa as well as on several public college and university campuses, these connections with what was taking place in the Archdioceses of St. Louis and Chicago, for example, were a necessary preface to the energies of the 1960s. More rural Catholic parishes in the state, especially aware of the lingering prejudices toward Roman Catholics, had their own senses of ownership of the faith and their involvement. The book would suggest, though, that for the most part, these were Catholics who “happened” to be Americans. Or, at the least, there was a ghetto-like texture, hard or soft, to the challenge of integrating the faith and the contemporary culture.

In January 1958, Fr. Victor Reed, an Oklahoman since he was five years old, became the fourth bishop of his diocese. He was particularly interested in social justice issues, but his time as a pastor was marked particularly by efforts to recognize and encourage the emerging laity:

Both at St. Francis Xavier and later at Holy Family [both parishes in Tulsa], he sought to
model a form of clerical leadership that acknowledged the narrowing intellectual gulf
between priest and people. Such a style was conspicuously at odds with his ordinary
[Bishop Eugene J. McGuinness], and Reed’s almost accidental elevation to the episcopate
can be considered little short of miraculous, but for the Oklahoma Catholic community,
1958 might well be considered the year when the man and the hour had finally met. (76

And, further: “While many changes occurred in his diocese on his watch, they came at the initiative of those below him. He permitted them to occur, but he rarely conceived them himself. Ultimately, perhaps, the title of pastor fits him best.” (8) There was much to pastor!

Throughout the 1960s, the diocese was the scene of a struggle between “progressive” and “traditionalist” priests and laity. The issues were those common to similar conflicts throughout the United States: lay participation in parish and diocesan affairs, liturgical and disciplinary changes, parochial education, ecumenism, diocesan missionary activity (Guatemala), the Vietnam War, civil rights, birth control, clerical celibacy. The diocese also lost many priests and sisters during the decade. One is tempted to offer the Oklahoma diocese (it would be divided into two in 1972: the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa) and its efforts to join “everyday lives” and “religious faith” as a heartland microcosm of the difficulties of the immediate post-Vatican II Catholic Church in the United States. The two sides of the conflict that often receive the most attention—“progressive” and “traditionalist”—were emphatically represented in Oklahoma. The upper-hand, though, seemed to be enjoyed by the former as the diocese received national publicity “as a place in which the full potential of the renewal process was being realized” by the late 1960s (382). Bishop Reed drew fire from both sides, although perhaps more from the “traditionalist” quarter. Was he yet sensitive not only to the “20th century man” but also to “traditional Christian symbols” and “a consciousness of the heritage which has created us”? Did he at all share an “unusual wisdom, love, dedication, and a sense of humor”? Did he pastor?

Another strength of this book is the author’s sensitive and balanced use of hundreds of letters to and from Reed in the midst of his embattled episcopacy. His correspondents, clergy and laity alike, could be very forthright in their criticisms and celebrations of Reed’s tenure as their pastor. Invariably, Reed’s responses were respectful and suggest openness to new ideas and a tendency to practice a subsidiarity often praised more in its absence than in its effective presence. The author’s oral interviews, especially those with diocesan clergy who were participants in the circumstances of the 1960s, reveals even more the sturdiness and spirituality of a bishop who was experiencing first-hand the tensions, and possibilities, of the relationship of Catholic faith and American culture. Such a confrontation of the faith and any human culture could never, authentically, be transformed into a completely comfortable and symbiotic kinship. What was needed, to use another well-worn term from the 1960s most often praised more in its absence than in its effective presence, was dialogue. And Bishop Reed, as a pastor-bishop, was not opposed to this.

Perhaps a good way to sum up the Oklahoma Catholic narrative, and a suggestive model for approaching the history of the American Church in the 1960s, is offered late in this excellent volume:

On the one hand could be found preconciliar Catholics… who hewed to the vision of the
“Church Triumphant,” a top-down hierarchical institution with its army of priests and
religious sisters and brothers, its hospitals and schools, and its unique access to salvation.
Opposing them was the postconciliar generation, with its social action advocates…, whose
philosophy could best be seen as that of the “Church Militant,” with its rejection of clerical
“authoritarianism” and embrace of the apostolate of the laity, its refusal to contemplate
salvation through institutions, and an ecumenical ethos that was deeply troubled by any
claim to Catholic exclusivity. Standing between the two fires…throughout the 1960s was
Victor Reed (arguably the standard-bearer of the “Church Expectant”), who had lived
through it all and was now called upon to try to resolve the issues to everyone’s satisfaction

Bishop Victor Reed was certainly in a difficult situation and his capacity to listen and to trust others was surely a graced response. One might wonder, though, at his reaction a generation further down the road of the faith journey to the situation of a faith that seems often to be more acculturated to a secular vocabulary and inclinations than a faith that is successfully inculturating the Good News into a relativistic and self-autonomous society.

© 2008 CatholicHistory.net