Post Traditionis Custodes: Musings on a Setback, Not a Defeat

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Now that the dust has settled from Traditonis Custodes (somewhat), it might be a good time to recall Eliot’s Christianity and Culture, where, he perceptively remarked, “Victories are never permanent, and neither are defeats.” Though an unreconstructed Anglican, he possessed a sensus Catholicus, which shone through in sentences like that. It is an insight we should take to heart in these post-Traditionis Custodes days. 

Eliot’s insights are buttressed by St. Augustine’s repudiation of fourth-century Orosius’ Seven Books of History, which argued that Christ’s final victory had arrived upon the earth with the Emperor Theodosius’ proclamation of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Augustine scolds sharply in City of God

Not only from the time of Christ but from that of Abel, the Church has gone forth on pilgrimage, amid both the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God, and so it will be till the end of time…. As far as the prospects for the future are concerned, they remain as uncertain as always, for in the very great multiplicity of human affairs, no people has been granted such security as would free it from the dread of invasions hostile to this life.  

It almost seems as though Eliot read St. Augustine’s Letter to Firmus

The life of earthly societies appears not as an orderly progression towards a determinate end, but as a simple process by which the two cities run out their earthly existence with a mixture of successes and failures, but no guarantee of success or salvation in this world. 

Though Traditionis Custodes was a blow, leaving us quite numbed, St. Augustine’s warning should steady us. The temporary pain of gratuitous injustice ought not obscure our memory of past triumphs, or future ones. And future ones will come.   

Lest anyone accuse me of optimism, let the record show that I see Modernism continuing to metastasize. Enough bishops will still salute the Spirit-of-Vatican-II credo. Others, not wanting to squander the booty of the past half century, will intone the sweet music of reaching for the “sensible middle” (read: avoiding any threat of future advancement). Most of the rest, even those with orthodox persona, will continue to freeze in the face of the sprawling Modernist apparatus.

These otherwise good bishops will maintain the stagnant status quo of doctrineless Catholic schools/CCD programs, epicene seminary structures and faculties, deracinated Catholic colleges/universities (name even one orthodox Catholic bishop who has stopped any Catholic college/university in his jurisdiction from its relentless exit from Catholic teaching and identity), and most damaging, the psychologized preaching and burlesque liturgies. No optimism here. 

For all this, victories will come. They always do for works honed by God Himself. It might help us to recall Pope Clement XIV’s Dominus ac Redemptor (1773), the papal brief in which he suppressed the Society of Jesus. The action of this venal pope sent tremors throughout the Catholic world. When the Society was restored in 1814 by Pope Pius VII, it flourished as never before. The suffering and patience endured during those forty-one years of suppression blossomed into still greater graces for that once extraordinary Order.

But let us now turn our attention to a past victory that visited us even in the teeth of seeming doom when the Spirit-of-Vatican II desperately attempted to strangle Vatican II. It came within an inch of success. Until 1989. Pure Divine handiwork unfolded. From unmitigated calamities for the Church, not least the tragedy of l’affaire Lefebvre, came the Johan Pauline papal motu proprio Ecclesia Dei Adflicta. And God turned darkness into light. 

With this generous impulse of the Sovereign Pontiff allowing the Traditional Mass, a new corner was turned. This momentous, albeit imperfect and exiguous, document was followed eighteen years later by the bonanza of Summorum Pontificum. Traditional Masses sprouted on every continent, and with the help of the internet, countless thousands came to discover a Mass whose beauty dazed them. Even more amazing were the congregations, three-quarter of whom were under the age of forty, too young to have even remembered that venerable liturgical form. Before our eyes a new Youth Movement was aborning. As Pentecost reversed Babel, today’s Catholic youth of the Ancient Mass were reversing yesterday’s Woodstock generation. Mirabilia Dei!

Yet there is more. Everywhere you turned, there appeared new religious orders, building on the decay of the conventional religious orders who had married the zeitgeist. Each one was devoted to the promulgation of the Ancient Mass in keeping with the mind of the Roman pontiff. None of this youthful enthusiasm was marred by either caustic reaction to the Modernist corruption or an unseemly lack of charity to its supporters. This renaissance was not restricted only to religious Orders. Take, for example, the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, which sprouted a new seminary led by rock-solid visionary Fr. Matthew Kauth. 

Calm, bright, and virile buoyancy was the only thing these young men could be accused of—and sanctity, a burning craving for sanctity that had not been seen since the Old Days. Where most bishops were wringing their hands in despair over vocation black winter, the rectors of these Orders and Diocesan seminaries pleaded with candidates to hold off their applications: too few classrooms for the deluge of young men begging for entrance. To this day, the tide has not abated. As an old pastor told his seminarian, “Once the horses have left the stable, closing the doors will not stop the stampede.” Not to appear indecorous, but you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

No motu proprio will stop the ordinary Catholic marveling at the sight of these New Seminarians, each one looking like he stepped out of West Point. Instead of the uniforms of the U.S. Army, they are wearing the military uniform of the Holy Priesthood—the Roman Cassock. Some may quip, so what? Or worse. As secular theological thinking replaced traditional theological thinking, a deep loathing set in for the Roman Cassock among priests. They saw it as an impediment to the New Gospel of a Re-Imagined Church; an embarrassing throwback to a time of a “ritualistic” priesthood that had seen its day. 

Simply put, the Roman cassock tethered them to a classical thinking that suffocated them like a noose. The cassock represented unswerving commitment to an eternal vocation, devotion to sacrifice, virtue, innocence, and, most crucially, the cultic work of saving souls through the sacraments and Holy Mass. That kind of thinking was anathema to the Theological Elite who had wildly embraced the “spirit of the world.” 

The cassock bespoke a different universe. A love of heavenly things. It was an ode to detachment, to love of God, to the triumph of truth over fashion. It was permanence, first principles, a respite from the City of Man, and a powerful invitation to Divine Grace. With this as context, look at those young men in cassocks again. What they are saying without saying a thing is electrifying.

Though Traditionis Custodes gave us a jolt, let our hearts race to the words of St. John Paul II, words which will perennially tower over the spiteful small-mindedness of that motu proprio: 

I invite the bishops also, fraternally, to understand and to have a renewed pastoral attention for the faithful attached to the Old Rite and, on the threshold of the New Millennium, to help all Catholics to live the celebration of the Holy Mysteries with a devotion which may be the true nourishment for their spiritual life and which may be the source of peace.  

Then there was Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger), commenting on the effects of Ecclesia Dei Adflicta, praising God for the remarkable fruit of vocations and sanctity that gushed from the papal text. That address stupefied those who listened.  It won headlines in Paris’ daily Le Monde, who correctly noted that the cardinal’s words would rock the dusty modern conventions of the Catholic world. In hindsight, it was the beginning of The Beginning. Though written in 1923, Dom Anscar Vonier’s words express a Reality we must never forget:

The unceasing celebration of the Church’s Liturgy in which the eternal truths are being constantly reasserted with ever increasing solemnity is, of course, a spiritual phenomenon so vast that it defies description; but it is the normal life of the people of God…the spectacle which the angels of God love to behold, for it is truly eternal life on earth.

Catholics must not lose sight of the fact that it is still The Beginning. Even after Traditionis Custodes, an impressive number of bishops have permitted the continuance of the celebration of the Usus Antiquior, noting its extraordinary fruits.  Of course, there are still the gale winds of Traditionis Custodes, which will batter the fledgling Beginning. As in nature, they will only make The Beginning stronger and more resilient. In this time of vertiginous uncertainty, it might be well for us to recall the words of Ecclesiastes:

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under Heaven:
A time to break down, a time to build up,
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away…
He hath made everything beautiful in his time.

This is our season for patience, for waiting—waiting for God to show us clear paths forward in the light of unexpected setbacks, but not defeats. But it is a season that God has permitted. So, we end with Eliot as we began with Eliot, this time from Burnt Norton: “for us there is only the trying/the rest is not our business.”

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]

By

Fr. John A. Perricone, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. His articles have appeared in St. John’s Law Review, The Latin Mass, New Oxford Review and The Journal of Catholic Legal Studies.

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