Ever Ancient, Ever New

Summorum Pontificum and the young.

Pope Benedict’s critics had hoped Summorum Pontificum would disappear without a trace. It hasn’t. His apostolic constitution authorizing wider use of the Traditional Latin Mass continues to bear fruit, some of it annoyingly visible to these critics.

Far from just a sop thrown to aging traditionalists, as some liberal bishops cast it, Summorum Pontificum has proven popular with the young. As Pope Benedict noted in its accompanying letter, the Traditional Latin Mass is old in origin but new in appeal: “young persons too have discovered this liturgical form, felt its attraction, and found in it a form of encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Sacrifice particularly suited to them.”

An illustration of this appeared on April 24 in Washington, DC, when more than 3,500 people—many of them children, teens, college students, and young families—filed into the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for a Pontifical Solemn High Mass that lasted two and a half hours. The Paulus Institute, which sponsored the event to mark the fifth anniversary of Benedict’s pontificate, said it was the first Traditional Latin Mass offered at the Shrine’s altar since 1965.

To the Catholic left, which presides over seminaries that look like ghost towns and preaches to pews that are almost empty, the sight of young Catholics flocking to this Traditional Latin Mass was more than a little discombobulating. One of its publications, US Catholic, lashed out at the Mass. Usually an enthusiastic proponent of liturgies “relevant” to the young, it found this one disheartening.

Bryan Cones, managing editor of US Catholic, couldn’t help himself, blurting out in a blog entry:

I’ve been holding back all week for fear of stirring up a hornet’s nest, but my only response to the Latin Mass celebrated last Saturday at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington has to be: Really? Seriously?

Who thought it was a good idea to dress up a bishop in a cappa magna and parade him around triumphantly in celebration of what Bishop Edward Slattery of Tulsa, Oklahoma referred to as “the fifth anniversary of the ascension of Joseph Ratzinger to the throne of Peter” while the church is in such a profound crisis of confidence in its leadership? Ascension to the throne, eh? Are we speaking of the “servant of the servants of God” here or the Emperor Augustus?

Showing utter contempt for a venerable Catholic tradition that centuries of saints and popes found spiritually edifying, Cone continued, “If we’re going to get stuck on a particular period in church history and its liturgy, does it have to be the 16th century? It was hardly a time of—how to put it?—liturgical modesty, much less the ‘noble simplicity’ that is, after all, the historical hallmark of the Roman rite. Unless His Excellency is going to wrap that cappa magna around his waist and start washing feet, as Jesus did in John’s gospel.”

Had the managing editor of US Catholic, which bills itself as being “In conversation with American Catholics,” conversed with any of the young ones at the Mass, he might have found out why it is “good idea” for the Church to maintain transcendent traditions. What he snidely dismisses as absurd pomp, they see as powerful and otherworldly symbolism, which is far more “relevant” to their search for God than anything contained in the secularized and insipid “youth” liturgies US Catholic normally touts. 

But if Cones distrusts their testimony, he could always talk to John Allen, chief reporter for the similarly-minded National Catholic Reporter. To his credit, Allen typically pursues the evidence wherever it leads, even if the evidence cuts against the liberal prejudices of his paper, as one of his recent findings about the general traditionalism of practicing young Catholics does:

[T]he ministers of the Catholic future will be increasingly “evangelical.” The broad mass of twenty- and thirty-something Catholics today may be thoroughly secularized, but there is an inner core of faithful and practicing young Catholics who are the ones most likely to pursue a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, or to be most interested in making a career in the church as a lay person. The future leaders of Catholicism in America will come from this inner core. By now there’s a considerable body of data about these “millennial Catholics,” and the consistent finding is that they’re more traditional in their attitudes and practices than the “Vatican II” generation they’re replacing. These younger Catholics are attracted to traditional spiritual practices such as Eucharistic adoration and Marian piety; they have a generally positive attitude towards authority, especially the papacy; and they’re less inclined to be critical of church teaching….

Self-consciously “relevant” Catholicism as on display at US Catholic, with its pinched and hostile attitude to valuable traditions from the past and its feeble imitation of the world, has proven irrelevant to young Catholics who have left the Church and boring and off-putting to the ones who stay. They want bread, not stones, and Pope Benedict offers them that substance.

It was assumed that Pope Benedict principally wrote Summorum Pontificum for the old. He actually wrote it more for the young. He wanted them to know what many of their CCD teachers never taught them—that “what earlier generations held as sacred remains sacred for us too.”


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