Great Risks Had to be Taken

The Jesuit Response to the Second Vatican Council, 1958 - 2018

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Patrick J. Howell
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , February
     236 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Patrick Howell’s Great Risks Had To Be Taken calls to mind a 2014 conference—“The Lived History of Vatican II”—and its resulting publication, Catholics in the Vatican II Era: Local Histories of a Global Event (Cambridge, 2017). Howell has written an unusual hybrid, a “lived history” of global events as experienced in and viewed through his personal life. Howell interweaves distinct yet related histories on multiple levels: the global Catholic Church, Society of Jesus (Jesuits), and world historical events; American Jesuit institutions of secondary and higher education; and Howell’s own individual life. Although the complexity sometimes threatens the narrative’s cohesion, Howell ultimately succeeds in his split-level view of the period 1958 to 2018: on the macro-level, an account of conflicts and issues at stake; on the micro-level, a frank and vivid account of what it felt like to experience these tumultuous times.

The book’s subtitle provokes a reflection on what might now be considered “the long Vatican II”—following some historians’ designation of 1789 to 1918 as “the long 19th century”—stretching from the Council’s opening in October 1962 to the election of Pope Francis in March 2013. In the summer of 1961, Howell entered a Jesuit novitiate characterized by a highly structured quasi-monastic secluded rural existence. Within three short years, when he entered the next stage of Jesuit studies in the fall of 1964, “all these time-honored customs [including Latin] had vanished.” (29) The pace of change would accelerate dramatically after Fr. Pedro Arrupe’s election as Jesuit Superior General the following May, shortly preceding the December 1965 closure of the Council. In 1967, the Vietnam War catalyzed global social, political, and cultural upheavals. In July 1968, Pope Paul VI’s “birth control encyclical” Humanae Vitae provoked a fierce backlash. Well into the 1970s, the mass exodus of nuns, brothers, and priests—including in the Jesuit order—was experienced as pain, confusion, and a loss of identity.

Howell arrives at March 1975, his fourteenth year in the Society, with the Jesuits’ 32nd General Congregation (GC 32) and its bold, definitive, and (to many) radical left declaration of contemporary Jesuit identity. Arriving ten years after Vatican II’s closure, this might seem an opportune moment with which to wrap up a more conventional “short” Vatican II. However, two-thirds of Howell’s book still remains to be told, and the following chapters unfold ongoing turmoil during the “long” Vatican II: the difficulties in Jesuit schools’ adapting to GC 32's radical shift in identity; and the early 1980s conflict with the staunchly anti-communist Pope (now Saint) John Paul II (1978–2005).

In the summer of 1975, at age 35, Howell experienced an exceptionally severe psychotic break. He first mentions this event early on in a consideration of the post-1965 Jesuits’ return to their original 16th-century practice of spiritual direction and individually directed retreats, a return that was necessarily an inward psychological turn. (86) A hundred pages later, in the chapter “Mental Illness and the Jesuits,” Howell provides a more detailed account of his break in the context of his assignment as a high school principal. He names a number of acute traumatic triggers during the preceding 1974–1975 school year, noting more generally that these were “the years when the turmoil that characterized the universities had seeped on down to the high schools.” An abbreviated account of a later conversation with his psychiatrist is both personally revealing and structurally useful. (178–81)

This highly personal self-reflection allows the reader to synthesize earlier chapters into a new whole: the rigid monastic structure that Howell had entered as a 21-year-old novice just fourteen years earlier; the rapid succession of profound dislocations; the identity crises of Jesuit educational  institutions in which he functioned as an authority figure; and acute identity crises in both the Catholic priesthood and the Jesuit order from 1966 onward. The psychological event also lets Howell connect Jesuit spirituality’s 1960s inward psychological—especially the “discernment” process that he identifies as the core unifying thread in this book—with memories and thoughts about mental illness more generally.

From a historian’s perspective, had the book been organized in strictly chronological order, the sheer density of radical uncertainty and change at nearly every level would have made the arrival at this key 1975 moment seem not only logical but nearly inevitable.  However, Howell made the right choice in overall structure: a linear organization of the book with this many concurrent plots would likely have made it a difficult if not inaccessible journey for a general audience.

The book’s penultimate chapter narrates “The Sexual Abuse Scandal.” This chapter is especially detailed since Howell was a member of the only USA Jesuit province forced to declare bankruptcy in order to arrange financial settlements. However, looking again from a historian’s perspective, Howell might have created a broader synthesis had he located the abuse scandal (erupting in 2002) more specifically within John Paul II’s 1980s and 1990s pontificate. During these years following Vatican II’s upheaval, biopolitical issues (reproduction, gender relations, sexual identity) played commanding roles. By unveiling the very core of that elaborately constructed identity, the abuse scandal went straight for the jugular.

Howell might have ended his story with the fact that the number of American Jesuits has “diminished from over 8,600 in the early 1960s to 2,229 in 2017.” (214) However, he ends instead with an upbeat global event: the March 2013 election of the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Catholicism’s first Jesuit and first non-European pope. Francis’s revolutionary identity symbolizes this book’s main overarching trajectory, an identity transformation Howell attributes specifically to Seattle (Jesuit) University but with much broader applications: the transition from “a Jesuit college within a Catholic subculture within a Protestant country” to “a Jesuit university in a secular society in a worldwide context” (128, 138 [emphasis original]). The USA Jesuits’ long Vatican II: from the G.I. Bill to globalization.

Great Risks is a riveting account of a revolutionary epoch. As those years now pass rapidly from memory into history, Howell offers a privileged glimpse into one Jesuit’s “lived history” from within the maelstrom.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Schloesser, S.J. is a Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago

Date of Review: 
October 24, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Patrick J. Howell is Distinguished Professor of Theology at Seattle University.


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