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In Defense of Traditionalists

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In the classic movie “To Kill a Mockingbird” legendary actor Gregory Peck, playing the heroic and virtuous defense attorney Atticus Finch, tells his young daughter Scout:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

For Catholics who rarely or never assist at the Traditional Latin Mass, I would respectfully ask you to “climb into” the skin of a traditionalist and “walk around” for awhile to see the Catholic landscape from a different perspective.

Who are Traditionalists?

First, an explanation of terminology. For the purpose of this blog post “traditionalists” specifically references those Catholic faithful who either exclusively, or primarily, assist at the Traditional Latin Mass. While my family and I attend a diocesan parish, the term could also apply to those Catholics who attend chapels of the Society of St. Pius X. While traditional Catholicism is much more than just a devotion to the Traditional liturgy, for the sake of this discussion I am limiting my focus to the Mass.

So just who are traditional Catholics? Are they the bogeyman that many have made them out to be over the years? Are all traditionalists like those obnoxious and uncharitable folks who seem to exist in the world of Facebook threads and website com boxes? It would seem that the answer is yes if we believe what many establishment Catholic bloggers are saying these days.

Instead of accepting that prevailing view, however, I would like to turn to Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos for a different perspective, one based on his experiences as both the Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy (1996-2006) and also as the president emeritus of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. The following quote comes from a 2004 interview with Cardinal Hoyos (emphasis is mine):

“These faithful people, in full communion with the Apostolic See, strive in the midst of many difficulties to keep alive the fervor of the Catholic Faith and true devotion to it, expressed by their particular attachment to the liturgical and devotional forms of that ancient Tradition, with which they are mainly identified.

“Indeed, it is my impression that those who are attached to the old Rite are involved in expressing a legitimate religious, liturgical and spiritual sentiment that is particularly rooted in the ancient Tradition and therefore, when this is lived in full communion with the Church, represents something that is truly an enrichment.

“I don’t like, indeed, those views that would like to reduce the traditionalist “phenomenon” to only the celebration of the ancient rite, as if it were an stubborn and nostalgic attachment to the past. That does not correspond to the reality that it is lived within this vast group of faithful. In reality, what we frequently find is a Christian view of the life of faith and of devotion – shared by so many catholic families that frequently are enriched by many children – that has special characteristics, and we can mention as examples: a strong sense of belonging to the Mystical Body of Christ, a desire to maintain strong links with the past – that wishes to be seen, not in contrast with the present but in a line of continuity with the Church – to preserve the principal teachings of the faith, a profound desire for spirituality and the sacred, etc…”

Cardinal Hoyos concludes:

“The love for the Lord and for the Church, finds within the particular Christian views of these faithful its highest expression through their attachment to the ancient liturgical and devotional forms, that have accompanied the Church through the centuries of her history.”

The Atticus Finch Exercise Part One

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Imagine this: You are a traditional Catholic. You attend the Traditional Mass with your family. As your family is large, let’s say six children with number seven “in the oven”, you drive a not very fuel efficient passenger van that guzzles gas like it’s 1979. You have three parishes within a reasonable driving distance, maybe thirty minutes or less from your house. However, none of them offer the Traditional Latin Mass. You are told by the pastors of these parishes that there is no desire on the part of the faithful for the “old Mass” in your area…maybe not even in your diocese. Of course, the funny thing is that there is a SSPX chapel somewhat close by for those Catholics who apparently don’t exist…the ones who desire the “old Mass”.

Now let’s pause for a moment. I have been told by some Catholics, those who have neither animosity toward, nor interest in, the Traditional Latin Mass, that the Novus Ordo is indeed the Ordinary Form of the Mass, so that explains (and actually excuses) the widespread unavailability of the Extraordinary Form.

But is this way of thinking really inline with the wishes of Holy Mother Church? The answer is a resounding no.

The Latin Mass & Life Teen

During the pontificate Pope John Paul II, the Church issued both an indult (1984) and Motu Proprio (1988) with the express desire to increase access to the traditional Mass. In fact, in the 1988 Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei, Pope John Paul II wrote:

“To all those Catholic faithful who feel attached to some previous liturgical and disciplinary forms of the Latin tradition I wish to manifest my will to facilitate their ecclesial communion by means of the necessary measures to guarantee respect for their rightful aspirations. In this matter I ask for the support of the bishops and of all those engaged in the pastoral ministry in the Church…moreover, respect must everywhere be shown for the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition, by a wide and generous application of the directives already issued some time ago by the Apostolic See for the use of the Roman Missal according to the typical edition of 1962.”

How was this request subsequently supported by the majority of United States bishops in the ensuing years?

By 2007 the number of Traditional Latin Masses offered on Sundays in the United States was still less than 250. This in a country with nearly 200 dioceses.

Now compare this with something which many more priests and bishops found appealing: the Life Teen mass. Originating at St. Timothy Catholic Church in Mesa, AZ in 1985, the Life Teen program became the standard offering for many parishes around the country. By 2005 over 100,000 American teens attended a Life Teen Mass at their parish.

Unlike traditionalists, Americas youth had no difficulties finding a Life Teen Mass near them. According to their website, there are now over 1,600 parishes worldwide incorporating either the Life Teen program or it’s junior high equivalent, Edge. Most of these 1,600 are within the United States.

The Atticus Finch Exercise Part Two

To continue with our scenario: As a lover of the traditional Mass you spend the twenty years after Ecclesia Dei waiting and watching to see what will change. The truth be told, very little changes for you.

You now have all the local parishes offering a Life Teen Mass every Sunday night featuring a full band, guitars and drums no less, playing the latest theologically unsound Contemporary Christian hit from Praise and Worship radio stations. You also have all the teens going up into the Sanctuary following Consecration (in the prerequisite jeans and graphic tees) to lock arms around each other and sway along to the Our Father.

However, you are still driving your beautifully large, beautifully Catholic, family upwards of two hours to find that Traditional Latin Mass that is your liturgical patrimony. You have been herded to the fringe and then accused by fellow Catholics of being…on the fringe. This despite an indult and a Motu Proprio that directly called for the worlds bishops to pastorally reach out to someone like yourself.

The simple truth is that, regardless of how much charitable forgiveness you are able to manifest within, you may actually succumb to a bunker mentality or “fringe” point of view at times.

The Greatest Defense of Traditionalists

With the release of his 2007 Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI immediately altered the liturgical landscape forever. In the six years since it was released Sunday Latin Masses in the United States have nearly doubled. A younger generation of priests and seminarians, far from rejecting the ancient rite, are actually seeking it out and in some cases even offering it for their first Mass of Thanksgiving following ordination.

To conclude, I would like to reference something our Pope emeritus wrote in his letter to the bishops which accompanied the release of Summorum Pontificum:

“Many people who clearly accepted the binding character of the Second Vatican Council, and were faithful to the Pope and the Bishops, nonetheless also desired to recover the form of the sacred liturgy that was dear to them. This occurred above all because in many places celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal, but the latter actually was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear. I am speaking from experience, since I too lived through that period with all its hopes and its confusion. And I have seen how arbitrary deformations of the liturgy caused deep pain to individuals totally rooted in the faith of the Church.”

May those who have no experience with the Traditional Latin Mass prayerfully reflect upon these words from the Holy Father. May those who do not personally know traditionalists resist the temptation to paint with a broad brush and create an ugly caricature that exists primarily (and disproportionately) in the virtual world of social media. And may more and more parishes begin to offer both forms of the Roman Rite so that the pastoral resolution and ecclesial healing sought by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI is finally realized.

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