What is the greatest sin?
According to the present papacy, “rigidity” is one, if not the most serious sin of which one can be accused.
“Rigidity” – a closedness to change, a stubborn adherence to a certain set of ideas or practices, a fear of the other and ultimately, a rejection of God who says, “I make all things new.”
The trouble with the centering of this specific concept is that it doesn’t have any basis in Scripture or the greater tradition of Catholic thinking. It just doesn’t. An open heart – and absolutely open heart, trusting of God and willing to be led wherever he leads – yes.
But that’s not the same as “rigidity,” a term that is easily wielded for political purposes.
A heart hardened to God – as the Psalmists and the prophets decry – cannot be wielded in the same way as the accusation of “rigidity” in relation to visible structures.
If I want to encourage you to change, inviting you to examine your heart’s openness to God takes you to a quiet place of reflection. Accusing you of rigidity guilts you, and puts you in opposition to me, and to what I’m presenting as a good.
In short, there are times in which rigidity is a virtue – if the powers that be demand that I renounce the good – my family, my faith, God himself – it is good for me to be “rigid” and unyielding, isn’t it? If a person in authority wants me to lie for the sake of the institution, isn’t it a virtue for me to be “rigid” for the sake of the truth?
So, no, “rigidity” is not an authentically helpful framework for understanding human action, especially in the spiritual realm – but it certainly is useful rhetorically and politically.
But let’s accept “rigidity” as a framework for the moment, and let’s apply it to the present situation that, for a week now, has been interesting elements of the Catholic world. Not everyone, but enough.
Even observers unsympathetic to the Traditional Latin Mass might see, upon reading Traditiones Custodes a hint of “rigidity.” Even more than a hint. That’s obvious. Rigidity, it seems to me, is characterized in part by reaction, rather than responsiveness, and this is certainly a reactive document, to the point of flailing.
But that’s easy to see. Let’s go deeper.
Let’s talk (again) about the last sixty years.
I’d like to suggest that what we have, in 2021, is a new situation that’s quite different from the situation in, say 1965, and what that calls for a less…rigid response. In other words, times have changed, and that’s always the first step to understanding how it might be time for our responses to change as well.
I am not sure how many realize how radical the changes to the Church were in those first fifteen years after the Council. For heaven’s sake, if you were born in 1970, that means you’re fifty years old, so probably not. For those formed and catechized in the JPII-B16-Francis era, it might be well to revisit certain facts:
In most American parishes, by, say, ten years after the end of the Council – ten years – the time span from the present day back to 2011 – Catholic life in the United States had been:
- Stripped of Latin.
- Stripped of chant and most traditional hymns except for maybe Holy, Holy, Holy or Praise to the Lord. Three-chord guitar music had taken over.
- The rosary and other traditional devotions were mostly gone, not encouraged, and not taught to children. “Crazies” was how I heard a priest refer to ladies who stubbornly came early to say the rosary before Mass.
- Statues were dumped, wall paintings covered. Crucifixes replaced by empty crosses or those featuring the Risen Christ.
- Tabernacles moved out of the main church to side chapels.
- It was common for priests to ad lib Mass prayers, for secular readings to replace Scripture in Mass, for lay people to preach and it was pro forma for, in small groups, and sometimes larger ones, for everyone to be invited to gather in a circle around the altar during the Eucharistic prayer. In various places other habits developed: for the congregation to recite some or all of the Eucharistic prayer with the priest; for congregation members to spontaneously offer Prayers of the Faithful.
- Liturgy Committees were a common feature of parish life, assigned with the task of thinking of things to “do” to make Mass more “meaningful.”
- Eucharistic Adoration completely gone.
- Spontaneous prayer or prayers composed by committee seen as more authentic than prayers that emerged from tradition.
- Saints were mostly ignored except for Francis of Assisi.
I’m not presenting this as a list of Awful Things, although I have no doubt it will be taken that way. What I’m trying to do is paint a picture.
Before John Paul II became pope in 1978, this had evolved into mainstream parish life in the United States. There were exceptions and holdouts, and some places that went even further, but this was really the picture of typical – you might even say ideal – Catholic life circa, say 1975.
The past was mostly gone, and it was understood as a good thing, and at the very least as expected – we are moving forward, we are progressing, we don’t need what went before, we have the Spirit in the present moment, guiding us.
Let me put it this way:
If you had told me, even in, say 1985, that Catholic youth activities would some day be centered on…Adoration…I, and almost everyone else around then, would have said nice plot for a fantasy novel.
Oh, and what’s Adoration?
Much less having a traditional Latin Mass in any spot in a diocese except a funeral home chapel – since, you might recall, it was banned in 1970, which is where all of the tension really took root.
In the thick of it back in that era, this was your Catholic life.
Now it’s fifty years later.
And what’s happened?
There are innumerable angles from which to address this, but I’ll try to put some laser focus here.
What happened is that you now have a totally post-Vatican II generation of Catholics. I keep telling you – I’m sixty-one – and I didn’t go to the “old” Mass as a child. My first memories of Catholic life are of in a modernistic Catholic student center on a university campus (my father was a professor).
But not so with the younger crowd, who, in general, have been formed and catechized in a different framework.
- They’ve been taught about saints, learned the rosary and their youth groups, even with all the Lifeteen and charismatic influence, probably incorporates far more traditional elements – devotion to saints, the rosary, Adoration – than anyone in 1970 ever dreamed (in their nightmares) would return.
- More of their parishes have returned to more traditional aesthetics.
- Saints are all over the place again.
- The daily prayer of the Church is presented as an ideal for all, not just the clergy
- Latin and chant aren’t exploding into use, but here’s the point: it is not a big deal or unheard of for both of those to be a part of typical parish life.
Now here’s my point:
There’s going to come a moment in the life of a Catholic raised in a Church in which saints, devotions and even some traditional liturgical elements are no longer unfashionable or relics that this Catholic might just wander down a particular mental path:
I’m so devoted to St. Teresa of Avila. St. Therese! She’s so great. Dorothy Day! How did they worship God? What was their Mass like?
It’s amazing what a spiritual vibe comes from Latin and chant…where do they come from?
Amazing churches I’m seeing on my travels – why were they built this way? What’s all this about?
And just maybe, that mental path prompts them to ask the question….okay. If all of this happened in the context of the Traditional Latin Mass….how can the TLM be that bad? What’s the problem?
This is not to dismiss the substantive issues and theological elements that shifted and changed – the real core of the disagreement is not, of course about “reverence” but about something deeper.
But – here I am, just sketching a landscape.
This isn’t 1970. The questions are a little different, and for sure the assumptions and experiences of people coming to more traditional modes of worship are different. In fact, what we’re seeing is an almost natural progression. And it’s not a crazy question, either, and it’s the question echoed in Benedict’s famous quote about sacredness.
The question – the natural question – that comes out of this hybrid experience of formation of the post-Vatican II generation is…If it was good enough for St. Teresa….how can it be wrong?
To answer that question might involve digging deep into hard questions. No – it will – and will involve a willingness to question narratives and be honest about history. It will for sure require more than “Shut up and stop it.”
In short, to actually deal with the issue of the Traditional Latin Mass in this present moment, when almost everything else from the past except that – can be plopped in the Catholic Shopping Cart – will require a stance that is willing to let go of tightly held beliefs and ideologies and that might well just have to be…a…little…less…
(Editor’s note: This post originally appeared in slightly different form on the “Charlotte was Both” site and is reposted here with kind permission of the author.)
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