Is Traditionalism a Fad?

high massIn comments that became controversial the instant they were reported, the traditionalist weblog Rorate Caeli gave us the following translation from Vatican Radio:

[Abp. Jan Graubner speaks:] When we were discussing those who are fond of the ancient liturgy and wish to return to it, it was evident that the Pope speaks with great affection, attention, and sensitivity for all in order not to hurt anyone. However, he made a quite strong statement when he said that he understands when the old generation returns to what it experienced, but that he cannot understand the younger generation wishing to return to it. “When I search more thoroughly – the Pope said – I find that it is rather a kind of fashion [in Czech: ‘móda‘]. And if it is a fashion, therefore it is a matter that does not need that much attention. It is just necessary to show some patience and kindness to people who are addicted to a certain fashion. But I consider greatly important to go deep into things, because if we do not go deep, no liturgical form, this or that one, can save us.

It is only fair to begin by pointing out that some people question the accuracy of this quote.  They view it a second-hand report of an anonymous meeting where we don’t have context. For the purposes of this article, I’m treating the quote as true.  There has been no clarification issued since then about the statement.

I also don’t want to analyze the Pope’s mind here. Many other people have done that with varying degrees of success, and all they teach us is that analyzing someone’s mind is a mostly pointless endeavor. I’m going to act as if the following quote was said by Johnny priest or bishop, for all intents and purposes nameless and faceless.

When we do that, traditionalists are given a scenario we find all too familiar. The person in question is a priest above 70 years old from the immediate generation following the Second Vatican Council. They have no experience celebrating the Latin Mass before the Council, because they weren’t even a priest then.

Since almost nobody was celebrating the traditional liturgy during this time, they also had little contact if any with flesh and blood traditionalists. Those encounters they did have often did not go well, as marginalized movements tend to bring out the less reputable characters.

When the Vatican decided to allow limited celebration of the traditional liturgy in 1984, that cleric probably agreed with the sentiments of Church officials speaking with the Pontiff’s authority when they said:

On the basis of their replies it appeared that the problem of priests and faithful holding to the so-called “Tridentine” rite was almost completely solved.

The aspirations of traditionalists were viewed as a problem to solve, not a legitimate need to accommodate. As a result of this being a problem, the restrictions placed upon celebration of the rite (episcopal permission, forbidden from celebrating in regular parishes unless an extraordinary circumstance, etc) were so draconian, the 1984 indult was essentially a dead letter.

Predictably, many (if not most) traditionalists continued to celebrate Latin Masses outside of communion with the Roman Pontiff in a truly dangerous situation. This only added fuel to the speculation that these individuals really were a problem.

This dangerous situation exploded in 1988 when two bishops and several priests were excommunicated for having said priests become bishops against the will of John Paul II, a situation that risked a genuine schism throughout the Church. Faced with pastoral reality, John Paul II expanded the indult and established a papal commission to implement this.

Yet since the individual indult was so restrictive, our cleric likely didn’t see a lot of people clamoring for it. He may have heard stories in other dioceses of traditionalist communities beginning to form within the Church.  He may have heard how some of them were experiencing growth. Yet if this prelate was not from America, Canada or France, such instances were mostly second-hand accounts. He was glad they were happening, after all they were keeping people inside the Church. Yet the situation was just a pastoral concession, not a legitimate movement in its own right.

As the years went on another individual became Pope. Those three areas previously mentioned by this time had developed small but substantial traditionalist communities, and they were becoming a source of dynamism even in spite of the onerous restrictions. They were also showing everyone else that they were Catholics just looking to celebrate and live their faith like their ancestors did. The more people knew a traditionalist in the flesh, the more they began to sympathize with their aspirations.

Due to the reforms of the previous pontiff, the seminaries were putting out a lot of young priests, priests that were not a part of the bitter conflicts immediately following the Council. As a result, many of them looked at the traditional liturgy from an objective standpoint, and found a lot to love. Even when they weren’t fans, they understood why others were.  This was the background of Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum.

This decree made it possible to celebrate the now “Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite” to any priest who wanted to celebrate it, and charged Bishops with not hindering this celebration, and even doing their best to make sure it happened.  Unlike the previous legislation, this was not done as a mere concession for these individuals to maintain their liturgical identities in the modern times. Instead, it was done because:

Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity…  What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.  It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.  

It has been six and a half years since that motu proprio. In many communities traditionalism has experienced explosive growth. This dynamism led to traditionalism, to the shock of many, becoming primarily a youth movement. Most of the parishes which make broad use of the Extraordinary Form are full of very young families packed with many children. The parishioners now sit on parish councils and make up huge contingents of the diocesan pro-life activities.

A lot of the old animosity has begun dying down, polemical insults are decreasing, and the stigma which was associated with the Extraordinary Form for 40 years is beginning to fade among the younger generation.

I would say the removal of that stigma is why traditionalism has been found so appealing to today’s youth. They can look at things objectively. Many of their faith lives have occurred apart from all of the bitter divisions of the past few decades. If you ask most traditionalists what We Resist You to the Face or Traditions, Traditionalism and Private Judgment are, they will look at you with a blank stare.

If you are matching the blank stare, that’s a good thing, and the less said about that era the better. Instead, they see in the Extraordinary Form and traditionalism what was always meant to be seen:  a beautiful liturgy which enriches not just your own soul, but the soul of the Church.

In over 1200 words people may notice I never answered the question of whether or not traditionalism was a “fad” directly.  Instead I gave a history of the previous times it was viewed as a fad that would fade away, and it only continued to grow.  I outlined how the faithful with these aspirations were once (for reasons prudent and imprudent) viewed at arm’s length, to tolerated, and then celebrated. Many in previous generations thought this would be a fad. Many still do. History tends to show otherwise.

Yet for us individual traditionalists, we cannot, must not, take bitterness over these events. The success of the traditionalist movement has been because of individual traditionalists. We plunged deep into the Extraordinary Form to enrich our faith, and we’ve done it not despite union with the Successor of Peter, but because of it

Whether or not the Holy Father said these words, there is no doubt a large amount of the faithful and bishops agree with that sentiment.  If we do not embrace the traditional liturgy (with her discipline and devotions) and have it transform every aspect of our souls, then it will become a fad, and like all fads, it will be justified in fading.

We have been given a precious gift from God through the Church. Yet we should take heed from salvation history, when many were given great gifts only to squander them. We must take the Apostle’s message to heart: if we think we are standing, take heed unless we fall. (1 Cor 10:12) Once we have taken heed, redouble our efforts at spiritual growth through traditionalism. Then repeat.

Kevin Tierney is an Associate Editor of the Learn and Live the Faith Section at Catholic Lane.  He also blogs at http://commmonsensecatholicism.blogspot.com.  You may contact him on Facebook, Google+  or follow him on Twitter @CatholicSmark.