Breaking Tradition: The Ultimate Fool's Errand
One of the confusing aspects of the current attack on the Traditional Latin Mass and those who love it has been much remarked on: why attack some of the most faithful Catholics in today’s Church? The Church is not exactly overwhelmed with faithful Catholics, fruitful families, and others banging down the doors to get into the Church. Various polls show that large numbers of even professed Catholics reject Catholic Church teaching on a whole host of issues from divorce and remarriage, to contraception, and even Transubstantiation. By one poll 70% of Catholics believe the bread and wine at mass are only symbols and do not actually become the True Body and Blood of Christ.
At the same time the “synodal way” movement in Germany has recently voted to reject Catholic teaching on a whole range of issues, including on women’s ordination and transgender ideology. Even 38 Catholic bishops voted for it, with only 7 opposing. With such problems in the Church, why attack the Traditional Latin Mass and those who love the Tradition of the Church? Why not simply let them alone?
One of the “synodal way” members has answered that point with extreme clarity. Among the many troubling speeches in the whole proceeding, was one that was especially fascinating and enlightening as to the members’ thinking; one declared: “We’re all equal. There is no norm. The only thing holding us back is this tradition in the Catholic Church. And I would like to break it today.”
“The only thing holding us back is this tradition in the Catholic Church. And I would like to break it…” One blushes even to read such a comment.
And yet, there is something tremendously enlightening in having heard the speaker (a German theologian) finally say it with such clarity. Many have had the experience of noticing how even the slightest hint of tradition in parish Churches seem to infuriate so many. A music director moves to include more chant. A priest daring to sing the Sanctus in Latin or saying the St. Michael the Archangel Prayer after Mass. A young priest tries to lead a Rosary before Mass or hold a Eucharistic procession afterward. Heaven help the poor man who dares to suggest saying mass ad orientem. And yet, even these mild moves are often met with a fury that is genuinely confusing to many who lack that hostility to the Church and its traditions. Why should even the hint of Tradition be so threatening?
Because tradition is perceived as “holding us back.” And it is! The German synodal way member is exactly right.
Traditional acts as a check on my personal desires, whims, and will. Tradition reminds me that I (and the priests and bishops) receive the faith, not as a child receives play dough to shape and mold it according to my own will. No, Tradition reminds me that I receive the faith as I receive a pearl of great price, to treasure, love, and defend. And then, to pass on in my turn. It is not my faith to do with as I please. I did not make it. It made me.
Tradition holds me back in the way a seat-belt does in a car accident. Tradition holds me back from running off a cliff that the rest of the world seems to be rushing for headlong. Tradition holds me back to the faith of the apostles, the saints, and the martyrs. It is the same faith for which the martyrs in Nigeria and many other nations are dying today.
The traditional liturgy, and even smaller points of tradition retained or returned to the modern liturgy (such as the use of Latin, a priest facing ad orientem, and saying the St. Michael Prayer) anger people precisely because they remind people that the faith is not theirs to change as they please, nor to cut up and hem according to the current fashions. To the apostolic faith, they are bound to submit mind, body, will, and life itself.
Hence, the attack on tradition appears as a desperate attempt to cast off restraint and follow the same misguided sense of freedom the Adam and Eve sought in Eden: the freedom to be gods, to determine what is good (and evil) for oneself. The attempt will be in vain. Cecille B. Demille, Hollywood director and producer, once commented that “[W]e cannot break the Ten Commandments, we can only break ourselves against them.” Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit ended in heartache, not only for them, but for us who followed. Modern attempts to break the Tradition of the Catholic Faith will end only in the same heartache. And if the attempt be pursued, the brokenness of our modern world now is only be a shadow of the disaster to come.
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