Get With the Times

Francis
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Miniver cursed the commonplace
  And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediæval grace
  Of iron clothing. 
          (from “Miniver Cheevy,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson)

Pope Francis has called traditionalism the dead faith of the living. It’s an easy thing to criticize. You can do it by assuming that everyone who dearly loves tradition is a boor, stolid and mulish, who says that we must continue to do things this way because that’s the way we’ve always done them. Or you can assume that the traditionalist looks on the past as Robinson’s Miniver Cheevy does, turning it into a fairy tale, an escape from the grit of one’s time, all while ignoring the filth and the wickedness of the old days. The traditionalists, Francis believes, are like the one or the other.

It should be obvious that in any large group of people united by a common and powerful interest, you are going to get some who are motivated more by hatred of the opposition than by a shared love. Tertullian, perhaps, came to hate pagan Rome more than he loved Christ. Many a feminist has hated men almost as much as she has hated other women—particularly those happy women who are content to be at the heart of their homes, shaping the manners of their children. I do not attend the Latin Mass, but I suppose there are some who hate the Novus Ordo more than they love the old rite, or, more pointedly, who hate the people who push the Novus Ordo more than they love their fellows in the pews.

But that knife cuts both ways. For the pope has not bothered to call upon those faithful who love the old rite, to speak with them, to listen to them—as he is always calling for such listening when it comes to people who have no faith, or who advocate for laws counter to common decency, let alone Catholic moral values. He has spent less time describing the beauty of the Novus Ordo, or even critiquing the old rite in specific terms, than he has spent belittling that small portion of the faithful who will not go along with his disdain. 

One wonders why. Is it personal antagonism? Again, if you want to pick a fight with any group of people, you will always find some who are spoiling for it. Or does he dislike what they believe, or, more precisely, what he assumes they believe? I don’t know. Perhaps he has not given it a lot of thought.

If, however, we return to the two caricatures, we see that they hardly apply to the people attending the old rite. But they do apply—not universally, to be sure, but to a disconcerting degree—to the main current of Catholic worship that I have seen in English-speaking countries. For the typical person attending the old rite, it is not old at all but new; he has not grown up with it; it springs from nothing else in his environment; it is not a stolid thing but a seed of revolution and renewal, of recovery and revival. 

All you need to do is look at the people thronging such a Mass, the families rich with children, and by no means all doctors and lawyers, or all of one race or neighborhood. Parishioners will come from far away for such a Mass, sacrificing a great deal to do so and gaining tenfold and thirtyfold for what they give.

But suppose I go to a Novus Ordo parish, and I criticize the music as gently as I can. I point out that most of the songs written since 1970 are musically incoherent and sloppy, and I show the odd intervals, the strange ties in the tempo, that make the melody, if there is one, appropriate for a soloist but never for a congregation. I show that the lyrics make no sense as poetry. I consider the theology, and I show why this is heretical and why that is too sentimental to rise to heresy.  

I go through the hymnal, and I point out how poorly it covers the broad range of the Christian life: few hymns of penitence; none that rally the Christian soldier; none that look with honest dread, mingled with hope, as death approaches; none that commemorate any of dozens of moments in Scripture that used to inspire the Christian poet and composer. At last, I show them the beauty of “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” “There is a Land of Pure Delight,” “O Wondrous Type,” “My Spirit Longs for Thee,” “Pleasant Are Thy Courts Above,” “He Who Would Valiant Be,” and so forth.

What will I hear? It will be some version of what Pope Francis says the traditionalists say. “We’ve always sung this music, and that’s what we like,” meaning that’s what the four or five nice old ladies in the choir like, or that’s what the piano-bar music director likes, “and that’s that.” For the Novus Ordo has got gray hair by now and spends its winters in Florida, with sunglasses and a cane.

What about the notion that things were better when there was no Novus Ordo yet, the churches were full, and there were plenty of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life? What about Catholic Miniver?

Of course, the numbers are all on the traditionalist side. If you say that numbers don’t tell the whole story, I quite agree, but then I do not see what else the Catholic Church in my lifetime can point to that would counter the great numerical collapse. At best, it is a hard case to make, to say that remaining Catholics are more learned in the Faith than my parents and their fellows were, more responsibly moral in their behavior, more committed to their marriages and other sacred vows, more consistent and prayerful in attending the sacraments, and more of an influence upon the culture at large, or what is left of it.

What if some who attend the old rite paint the pre-conciliar Church in lovelier colors than is warranted? That can be excused on two grounds. First, it is pious to believe better about your forebears, not worse. But second, a truly living culture always returns to its sources, its founts, for renewal, for the simple reason that people forget things, they get into bad habits for a while, or they lose some old but good habits. Then they must search the troves of the past to recover them, not as antiquarians, but as people really interested in bringing life back into a field that has lain fallow or that has gotten choked up with briars. 

I am not speaking of the Church alone. Literary revivals, artistic revivals, musical revivals are never matters of invention ab ovo: Dante went back to Virgil; Tasso went back to Dante; the English romantics went back to Dante and Tasso, and to Spenser and Milton; T.S. Eliot, modernist though he was, went as far back in the history of literature as it is possible to go, all the way to Scripture and the Rig Veda.

Those who attend the old rite are, I have found, more like those clarion voices of renewal, returning to the springs, than they are like either what Pope Francis imagines them to be or what despisers of the old rite actually are. They are more likely to know things about the variety of rites currently practiced in the Church. They are more likely to know a wide range of prayers and chants and even hymns. 

Put a thirteen-year-old altar boy in competition with Cardinal Gregory and I’ll bet the Cardinal will run out of prayers to say before the boy does, and not because the boy has stuffed them in his head, but because he has said them often and has grown to love them.

Come on, fuddy-duddies. The 1970s are over, and good riddance. Get with the times—and with eternity.

[Photo Credit: Vatican Media]

By

Anthony Esolen is the author or translator of 28 books, most recently In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press), No Apologies: How Civilization Depends upon the Strength of Men (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, a book-length poem made up of 100 poems centered on the life of Christ. He has also begun a web magazine called Word and Song, on classic hymns, poetry, language, and film. He is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

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