A priest distributes Communion to soldiers during World War II in Russia.(CNS photo/KNA)

World War II and Post-War Years

Reviewing an era when Catholics walked lockstep with their bishops and priests

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The name change from The Acolyte to The Priest magazine was announced in December 1944, during the height of World War II. The U.S. involvement in the war started with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. I learned of this attack when our family was at the Famous Glass Barn in Cincinnati. I was 7 years old.

In reality, however, my recollections of this turning point in history go back further to a beautiful summer day in 1939. Along with my grandparents, parents, siblings, relatives and friends, we waited anxiously at Grandpa’s house on Joseph Street for the arrival of my Uncle Louis. He had recently been ordained a Maryknoll priest and planned to arrive in Cincinnati later that day. After he arrived, we enjoyed a delightful day. The next morning, he left by train for the West Coast on his way to do missionary work in China.

After he arrived at his mission, he wrote to us regularly for several months, during which time his letters reflected fear and anxiety. This arose from the increased bombing by Japanese aircraft of the area where he lived. The Japanese had engaged China in the Second Sino-Japanese War, a foretaste of World War II.

Gradually, the letters stopped, and we thought he might have been killed. Then, nine months later, he was found in India. How he got there is not clear, but for the rest of his life he suffered the ravages of war. My experience with him was my first encounter with the terrible effects of war.

As I think about his life, I think of other aspects of this war. I remember Joe Beckman from Cincinnati, a navigator on a bomber in the Pacific who eventually became a diocesan priest. I recall my uncles, Ray and Milford, who served in Europe. I consider the huge bronze plaque hanging inside our parish church with the names of servicemen and women who gave their lives for their country. I also think about my dad working in a war factory, food rationing, victory gardens and the devastation and death caused by the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Above all, I remember the day the war ended in 1945.

On that glorious day, there were spontaneous parties in the streets, parades up and down Sunset Avenue, horns beeping incessantly and church bells ringing for so long I thought they’d never stop. I remember the patriotism, grit and determination of the “greatest generation” who saved the world from domination by foreign countries.

The war effectively ended the remnants of the Great Depression, which preceded the sufferings encountered during World War II. What happened during the war set the tone for what eventually followed.

The Second World War opened up the world to new challenges and possibilities. We now turn to the conditions of society and the Church after the war, as the world was changing.

Post-WWII Culture

A distinction can be made between an open and a closed society. In the former, a free flow of data exists among people and organizations, as they come and go. For the most part, Western societies can be classified as such. In a closed society, there is a limited flow of data, and people are restricted in their coming and going. An example is a communist country. Somewhere in between these two, some groups can be classified as relatively closed societies. Many aspects of the Church prior to the Second Vatican Council allowed her to be placed in this category.

It is important to realize the quasi-closed nature of the pre-Vatican II Church to see the stronghold the Church had on its members. From early life, Catholics, largely through living in the Catholic culture of the time, learned and were faithful to the parameters necessary to be a good Catholic.

The overall Catholic culture taught her members on a preconscious and conscious level what they needed to know and do. It guided them on how they were to live. This included precepts, like no meat on Friday, Mass every Sunday and many more. The rules and obligations were learned from how Catholics acted, as well as from the Baltimore Catechism. Catholics did not question their way of life and walked lockstep with their bishops and priests, who guided the Catholic community as to what to do and what to avoid.

The relatively closed parameters of the Church were tightly set.

Catholics were satisfied with their faith, which they believed was necessary to win eternal life. They took pride in being Catholic, supported the Church and gave great respect to the clergy and religious women who taught them in Catholic schools. During this time, the Church was at the zenith of its existence,with vocations thriving and the laity in step with the dictates of the hierarchy.

This was the Church immediately after World War II. Being quasi-isolated psychologically in a relatively close way from the world, Catholics were not well prepared to deal with the challenges to come, such as the civil rights movement, which was about to commence. These burst into full view in the 1960s.

Pope John XXIII recognized the storm that was coming and called for a Church council to open the Church’s windows and doors, to allow in fresh air and new ways of doing things. This openness moved the Church from a relatively closed society to an open one that issued new ways of seeing and doing things. This new era of change radically changed the Church’s way of thinking and acting.

In our next article, we will look at the changes coming with Vatican II.

FATHER ROBERT J. HATER, Ph.D., a Cincinnati archdiocesan priest, is an internationally known author and lecturer. He is professor emeritus at the University of Dayton and resides at St. Clare Parish in Cincinnati.


A Reflection by Father Robert Hater

This year, The Priest magazine celebrates its 80th anniversary. Beginning in 1945, it has brought consolation, spiritual support and new insights to priests everywhere. To honor its achievements, The Priest will present a series of eight articles, appearing monthly, focused on the eight 10-year periods since its inception.

When invited to write these articles, I thought, “This time frame reflects my life, for in early 2024, I will be 90 years old. I remember many events that happened in the world and Church during this time. Hence, the eight articles that span the life cycle of The Priest magazine will focus, with the help of my perspective of each 10-year segment, on key happenings and the cultural context that shaped society at the time and affected the Church and our personal lives.

Writing these articles allowed me to think more deeply about what has happened over the past 80 years and I invite the readers to do the same by reflecting on what has occurred in secular society and the Church. Because we lived and ministered during these times, we are who we are. Many differences between the clergy, especially younger and older priests, are significantly influenced by the times in which we lived.

In these articles, I begin with my own memories, using stories and insights gleaned from my experiences during the past 80 years. These memories frame my comments on the culture of society and the Church in the decades involved.

Reflecting on these times allowed me to remember the great priests of the past and recall all they accomplished during these 80 years. I am humbled when I reflect on what has happened and the quality of the men I knew. Like me, I am confident that you have known many great priests, not great because of their intelligence or ability to preach alone, but more so because they were real, genuine human beings who dedicated their lives to the service of Jesus and his Church.


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