Thursday, April 4, 2013

Why Tradition Matters

After wrecking the Roman Rite for roughly two or three decades, Msgr. Annibale Bugnini wanted to make even further changes to the spiritual lives of Catholics.  His next "reform" was to radically alter the Rosary.  His proposal was firmly rejected by Pope Paul VI, and the reasoning behind it is the point of this column today.

In the eyes of Paul VI, such a drastic change would decimate the faith of everyday Catholics, and would leave open the impression that since the rosary was changed, everything could be changed.  The Rosary is what we could call an ecclesiastical tradition in the West.  It is a very ancient prayer, existing for roughly 900 years if you count the traditional understanding, and perhaps even longer if you view the rosary as a gradual development throughout the history of the Church.  Since the mid 16th century, it has had a place of prominence (formally sanctioned by at least 7 popes) for the prayer lives of Catholics across the world, especially in the Roman Rite.

The thing about ecclesiastical traditions is to remember that they are not apostolic in origin, nor are they part of revelation.  According to the Catechism (paragraph 83), ecclesiastical traditions are that which transmits the "Great Tradition" throughout time and space.  In the case of the Rosary, the following truths of the Catholic faith were not only contained in the Rosary.  They were the way by which millions of faithful meditated on these truths daily:

1.)  The Virgin Birth
2.)  The Immaculate Conception
3.)  The Incarnation
4.)   The Divinity of Christ
5.)  The Passion of Our Lord
6.)  His Resurrection
7.)  His Ascension
8.)  The Forming of the Church at Pentecost
9.)  The Assumption

These are just the dogmas of the Church which are covered and reinforced daily in the recitation of the Rosary.  Seven (maybe 8) of those truths are fundamental to Christianity, and the rosary has been one of the primary transmissions of these doctrines throughout the centuries through the millions of recitations and meditations associated with it.  So yes, while these can be theoretically changed, one better have a very good reason for doing so.

The same could be said with the Churches liturgy.  Since the beginning of the New Testament, the liturgy was used as one of the main ways the faithful were taught the faith.  (One can see this in The Didache in the first century.)  Through billions of masses offered throughout the past 2,000 years, one could say the Church has gotten pretty good (speaking in the context of millenia of course) at using the liturgy to school the faithful.  While some things should be changed, again, we must ask ourselves what is the reason for doing so.

I think this is one of the big things that "separates" traditionalists from others in the Church today.  We do not deny that some things need changing or are in need of reform.  We simply state that when it is a contest between changing an ancient and venerable tradition, and changing our faulty understanding, we choose our faulty understanding 99 times out of 100.  We trust that traditions built up over centuries for a very good reason, and that the minds of thousands of individuals spread across multiple eras and generations are far more likely to see all angles than our singular fallible minds in today's age.

If one wishes a concrete example of this approach, look no further than the Extraordinary Form, and how those who participate in this Mass perceive it.  If traditionalists are honest with themselves, the liturgical landscape around the time of St. Pius X was pretty awful.  Sure, there were no clown masses, but very few had an understanding of what was going on at Mass.  Many times also priests weren't saying the Masses reverently, and other times the Mass had become such a grand show, people were forgetting the point of the Mass:  it was the Sacrifice of Calvary.

While those like Dom Prosper Gueranger had written The Liturgical Year, the full fruits of this wonderful collection had not yet managed to spread throughout the entire Church.  It was during the Pontificate of St. Pius X that the liturgical reform moved to center stage within the Church.  To our modern eyes, it doesn't really look like a reform.  Yet the reform was certainly more authentic than the "banal, on the spot fabrication" (in the words of then Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI) that passed off for a Mass in the majority of Catholics parishes after the Council.  (1)

The reforms of St. Pius X attempted to get people to understand those rich traditions and the truths they conveyed as best as possible before introducing any innovations.  As time went on hand missals were printed so people would understand the Latin.  Priests were encouraged to give homilies in the vernacular after the Gospel, explaining the readings of the day and the liturgical prayers used.  Popes issued encyclicals giving broad outlines as to how we should approach the liturgy.  New feasts were added to help give greater understanding to certain doctrines.  The faithful were given encouragement to chant many of the responses during the liturgy. 

Nowadays, almost everyone who attends the Latin Mass has a pretty deep understanding of what is going on.  Their missals are the most used books they own.  Traditionalist liturgical scholarship not only impacts the Extraordinary Form, but the Ordinary Form as well.  The massive growth over the last five years of the Latin Mass (from pariah status to being mainstream and in many cases what the cool catholics do) is proof of how this approach to reform works.

The most important part is when we did this, barely anything was changed in the ecclesiastical tradition.  Instead, we changed ourselves.

1.)  Hey trads, remember when it was blasphemy to state this?  Now it's conventional wisdom.  Proof the Church is reforming in the right direction!

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