Theology and Ministry Library Exhibits Pre-Vatican II Pamphlets and Religious Articles

by Margaret Antonio


In 1978, William J. Leonard, a Jesuit theology professor at Boston College, began collecting thousands of pamphlets and religious articles about Catholic teaching, liturgy, and lifestyle before the introduction of the Second Vatican Council’s reforms. Fr. Leonard realized that the “implementation of Vatican II reforms would result in an overhaul of the literature and material culture of Catholic religious life.” His collections began the Liturgy & Life Collection at the John J. Burns Library.

An ongoing exhibit at the Theology and Ministry Library, If Heaven Be Your Destiny! The World of American Catholicism, 1945 – 1965, highlights a microcosm of the original Burns Library collection. The exhibit is an initiative of Dean Mark Massa, S.J. of the Theology and Ministry School along with Bridget Burke, Associate University Librarian for Digital Initiatives and Public Programs, and Esther A. Griswold, Head Librarian of the Theology and Ministry Library.


“We were interested in bringing materials in the Burns’ Liturgy & Life Collection to wider attention,” said Ms. Griswold.


Dean Massa, S.J., a historian of American Catholicism, also wanted to address the issue that many young Catholics are unaware of the past. As introduced at the beginning of the exhibit, “the collection seeks to introduce younger Catholics and others to a world of religious piety and worship now lost, or at least less familiar than the one that has defined the U.S. Catholic community of the past half century.” As the title of the exhibit, If Heaven Be Your Destiny, suggests, it draws on the sense that most Catholics believed heaven was their destiny and privilege.


The exhibit displays enlarged copies of typical pamphlets that would be found in the bookracks at the entrance of a church as well as religious statues and devotional articles that would be found in a typical Catholic home. One pamphlet, entitled “Family Holy Hour: Nightly Adoration in the Home” recalls how it was once common that Catholic families would regularly pray the rosary together every night.


The curators of the exhibit inserted brief descriptions of the devotions and traditions referenced by the displayed pamphlets and religious articles. For example, one describes the meaning of Eucharistic adoration and how articles and booklets offered guidance for individuals who wished to engage in such devotions. Religious devotions, such as Eucharistic adoration and the rosary, are still present in the lives of Catholics today, but not as avidly promoted or practiced as in the pre-Vatican II print articles and the audiences whom they reached.


Other objects displayed referred to common perspectives on the contemporary changes in the practice of Catholicism. One of the major changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council was the celebration of the Liturgy. The cover of one pamphlet questions, “Has the New Liturgy Killed Personal Piety?” Nearby, other booklets offer instructions about the changes.


The exhibit not only documents changes in religious devotion, but also in the social life of contemporary Catholics. A workbook entitled, “Instructions on Dating for High School Boys” stands alongside others offering guidelines and commentaries on sex education and modesty.


Publishing companies, such as Our Sunday Visitor, The Queen’s Work, and Ligourian, sought to offer texts for Catholics to deepen their faith, develop their own devotional emphases, and arm themselves for argument with those who criticized the Church,” reads one of several commentaries in the exhibit. Churches typically displayed such print literature on a bookrack near the entrance so parishioners could choose a topic of entrance and buy the pamphlet for typically no more than 25 cents.


The objects displayed were chosen from representative categories from the original collection of pre-Vatican II articles in the Burns Library,” said Griswold. By representing a subset of the original collection, the curators hoped to stimulate interest in academic work as well. The 1945-1965 exhibit fits into the broader setting of American print culture, as comics, magazines, newspapers, and television also sought to depict American life and perspectives. Thus, the Liturgy and Life Exhibit plays an important role in preserving a piece of American culture.


Fr. Leonard’s vision to document “disappearing Catholic practices” has expanded exponentially since its inception. Today, the collection includes about 30,000 volumes and “is considered to be the most comprehensive archive in America on the pre-Vatican Catholic Church.”


The Theology and Ministry Library exhibit, If Heaven Be Your Destiny! The World of American Catholicism, 1945 – 1965, will continue until June 1, 2014. The original archives can be accessed at the Burns Library. To access the digital Liturgy & Life Collection, visit


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