James P. McCartin: Prayers of the Faithful: The Shifting Spiritual Life of American Catholics

(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010, 225pp.)

Until fairly recently, what passed as Catholic history primarily included accounts of the lives and works of major clerical figures. A generation of scholars since the 1960s brought a much broader perspective to Catholic life, paying greater attention to social history and to the lives of ordinary Catholic believers. In this volume, McCartin (G'98, F'05) shifts the attention a bit further, towards understanding the changing spiritual lives of Catholics.

The book evinces some tension in terms of what it wants to be. The subtitle frames its purpose in somewhat broad terms, as a history of "the shifting spiritual life of American Catholics." The chapter titles all refer more specifically to different historical manifestations of prayer over a century and a half.

As a history of prayer in America – the volume suggested by those chapter titles – I was intrigued and yet left wanting more. The premise of the book, that American Catholics significantly changed their notions about how, where and what to pray for over the course of a century is particularly fascinating. Early in the century, devotions such as those to the Sacred Heart and the "Little Flower" were especially important. As the number of clergy and churches blossomed in the immigrant church, much of Catholics' spiritual lives became newly centered on parish and Eucharist. But over time that grew to include street festivals, retreat houses, shopping-mall chapels, charismatic prayer meetings, and home masses.

I was especially intrigued by McCartin's chapter on the efforts to turn prayer into a "crusade"—like the family Rosary crusade —in the 1940s and 50s, but was puzzled by the assertion of his next chapter title that in the era that followed prayer became "secular." What he meant by it can roughly be translated to mean that the expectation was that a spiritual life was most effectively manifested by how one behaves in the "secular" realm, but the title still confounds things. He covers events like the rise of the pro-life movement as a spiritual cause, and the turn among many Catholics towards social justice in the same era.

I was impressed with McCartin's thinking about the ways the laity actually experienced greater connection to the Mass in the 20th century. He shows that for decades before the changes of Vatican II Catholics were becoming more active in the liturgy, notably in terms of apprehension and spiritual connection.

The book is full of insights that re-frame the broader narratives of Catholic history in terms of larger trends and shifts. It gives us a richer sense of the larger social contexts that contributed to changing styles of prayer.

Nonetheless, the volume is not fully the social history I was expecting, though perhaps that is the fault of this reader's expectations. It focuses more on what we might call "thought leaders" in the church, and on what they were encouraging Catholics to do, and less on ordinary Catholics and data from their lives. I wish we could have seen much more of the content of particular prayers and devotions that large numbers of Catholics typically found important.

Some of the difficulties may arise from the volume's conciseness, and the difficulty of presenting a broad history of Catholic life in a short book . I have small quibbles with the failure to define terms. To take one example, he drops in phrases like "contemplative prayer" without explanation.
Most important, however, is the degree to which McCartin identifies some major trends and shifts, often in frameworks that are refreshing compared to many other narratives of American Catholicism. He certainly undermines the facile narrative that sees Catholic life in America as unchanging until Vatican II. This book is a nice contribution to a perspective on Catholic life that has gotten short shrift in the past.
Thomas M. Landy