I Am a Restorationist

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Hello. My name is Tony. I am a restorationist.

I wasn’t always this way. I grew up in the 1960s and the 1970s, and we all took for granted everything the priests and bishops said we had to do according to the directions of the Second Vatican Council. None of us had read the documents, but we figured that our leaders had, and we obeyed. They counted on it.

When our pastor removed the marble communion rail with its mosaic inlays of Eucharistic symbols (a basket of five loaves, two fish, a bunch of grapes, the Lamb of God), we figured he knew what he was doing, and we submitted. When he whitewashed the church walls, eliminating stenciled patterns of the fleur-de-lis, so that what had been warm and shady was now bare, with no color connection between the stained-glass windows, the mural paintings of figures from the Old Testament, and the painted ceiling above, we figured he knew what he was doing, and we obeyed. When he covered the hexagonal floor tiles, white and dark green in cruciform patterns, with a bright-red carpet, we wiped our feet and obeyed.

We obeyed a lot, then. The bishop had caught the fervor of the council, and soon the diocese was peppered with billboards reading “Project: Expansion.” It was an expansive time, we thought, a time for building new diocesan high schools, new parochial schools, new parishes. And all that expansion cost money. Every family was asked to pledge what they could afford. My family pledged—I don’t know how much, but my father and mother were devout and generous and obedient Catholics, and what they pledged, they paid. 

I don’t blame the bishop. How could he know that we were on the brink of a calamitous collapse? Our parish school, built by the family money of an Irish pastor a hundred years ago, is now the borough offices and lockup. There is but a single high school left for the diocese.

In another shift, all at once, we were going to be singing hymns. The strategy was to teach them to the school children, and then have them attend the 9:15 Mass, the third of five every Sunday, to sing them and thus teach them to their parents. I remember learning “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” which I liked a great deal. The others? Well, most of them were dull (“This Is My Body”) or sappy (“Sing to the Mountains”), but none of us knew a thing about the long tradition of Christian hymnody. 

Most of the men did not sing. We had Mass in high school on All Saints’ Day and other feasts, and then we did bring out the guitars, and pretty much everybody did sing the songs. We didn’t know anything else. Those songs would wear thin over time. As music, they were and are pretty bad, like clumsy show tunes for an off-Broadway romantic comedy. Their theology was worse and the poetry worst of all. But I obeyed.

We learned almost no prayers in those days. In elementary school, on the afternoon of every first Friday, the nuns trooped us to the church for confession, boys on one side, girls on the other. After that, we prayed the Rosary, and then came Benediction. I remember now that the priest would kneel before the altar and lead us in the Divine Praises, and I can still hear the responses of the nuns, who knew that when he said, “Christ, hear us,” the reply was, “Christ, graciously hear us.” 

I liked Benediction. I did not know, then, that in a few years that rite would be forgotten in most places and that I would meet many Catholics who had never seen it or even heard of it. But that did not scandalize me. Again, I figured that the people in charge knew what they were doing.

The one thing that did hurt people in my town, as far as I remember, was that certain beloved saints were struck from the calendar—Barbara, Lucy, Christopher, George—as being the stuff of mere fables. That was a shock. If the Church could be wrong about that, what else could she be wrong about? If the Church had to be brought up to date on her own calendar, perhaps she needed to catch up in other ways as well. 

Sexual morality was the obvious candidate for progress. I understood nothing of it when I was a schoolboy, but when we high school freshmen had a “values clarification” class instead of a real study of Scripture or the catechism, I figured the sister knew what she was doing. It was a feature of the new Church—the Church knew more and better about sex than she used to. 

Though most of us in that high school bore an old residue of moral sense, by the time I went to college in 1977, the Church in her ordinary life—in her preaching and her obvious practice—offered us no guard rails, no direction. I never thought of myself as disobedient because the Church, in her practical life, did not think of me so, either. Love pastes over a multitude of sins.

I didn’t care for modernist church architecture, but I didn’t care enough to get up a real loathing. I had grown weary of the bad songs, but again, I knew of nothing else. I thought that having altar girls was a good idea, mainly because I didn’t care one way or another about vocations to the priesthood, and I didn’t see it as part of the furious attack on the sexes as such. If women wanted to be lectors, let them. I didn’t care for the shrill voices, but who really paid close attention to Scripture anyway? The first Bible I ever bought for myself was The Jerusalem Bible, and I thought it was great, especially in its translation of the prophets. 

Hans Kung’s Does God Exist? helped keep me in the fold because of its sweep through the history of philosophy and theology, most of which I was ignorant of. I told my father that the Church had stifled the greatest theologian of his time, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. See what an obedient fellow I was! If there ever was a Ghost of Vatican II, I had my Catholic Ouija board, and I jotted down messages from the great beyond.

But slowly, so slowly, I began to learn things. Part of it came from my study of Medieval and Renaissance literature. Part came from my ending up as a professor at a Dominican-run college, so that I—whose boyhood church and school were named after him—was reading Thomas Aquinas for the first time. Part came from my having to teach Renaissance and Medieval art and architecture. A great part came from my dear wife, a Protestant, who knew the old hymns, so that I was singing, for the first time in my life—because she insists on going to Mass only where the music is real—such powerful songs as “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” and “Thine Is the Glory.”

Much came from reading. C.S. Lewis once quipped that an atheist had better be careful about what he reads, lest he be ambushed by the truth. I was ambushed by beauty, spiritual depth, and coherence. I confess—I heard Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, and I thought I had entered another world. I confess—I have learned koine Greek and can fight my way through Old Testament Hebrew, and I own Bibles in those languages as well as Latin, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Welsh, and Russian, so that the Jerusalem Bible no longer impresses me, let alone that bathwater version we hear in the lectionary every week. 

I confess—I own an old Gradual for use by francophone Canadians, and I have seen the chants that the choirs in our old fishing village used to sing. I confess—I have looked at the portions of Scripture deliberately Swiss-cheesed out of the readings for Mass. I confess—I have looked over, and I often pray from, the Treasury of Prayers printed at the back of the old Saint Joseph Missal, which everybody used to own. I confess—I have translated 100 psalms for a breviary in use by Eastern-rite Catholics in America, and I have learned to appreciate the fine old canonical hour of Prime. 

I confess—I have come to see the connections between minimalism in art and minimalism in morality, between minimalism in our appreciation of the sexes and minimalism in our sense of the fatherhood of God, and between all forms of minimalism, that is, modernism, and the scrubbing-out of vast fields of learning and beauty; between the priest who scorns what our Lord Himself says about fornication because what He says is supposedly old and time-bound and the student who scorns reading Chaucer, or even Dickens, for the same reasons.

I have read too much, I have beheld too much, I have heard and sung too much. I am a restorationist. I am like someone who knows there are riches around a corner, and I want everyone to come and see. I can’t help it anymore. The experience of beauty is alcoholic. It gladdens my heart. Pope Francis cannot, I am afraid, teach me to love the ugly or muscle-headed or incoherent, nor can he teach me to despise the beautiful and rational, and mysteries beyond reason. Let him pray for me, then, that the wine that has gone to my head may be turned back to water. Nothing else will serve.

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]

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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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