The past year has been, to say the least, a dramatic and tempestuous one, in which I have often wondered exactly what providential role the nearly eight-year pontificate of Benedict XVI was meant to have in the life of the Church—and what role it is meant to continue to have, through the rich teaching and inspiring example this pontificate left us, and through the enormous energies for reform it has unleashed throughout the Church. (After all, we can truthfully say that the pontificates of St. Gregory the Great, Leo XIII, St. Pius X, and other popes of massive spiritual stature have continued and will continue to send out ripples, as it were, across the ocean of time, until the return of the Lord.)
In company with Pope Benedict, we observed the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council—a Council in which he vigorously took part, a Council whose legacy he later witnessed being manipulated or forgotten as the “virtual” or “media” Council and its antinomian “spirit” took the upper hand, and finally, a Council that he rightly demanded must be read in a “hermeneutic of continuity” with everything that had come before or had been clarified since. All of this suggests that Pope Benedict was passionately concerned with rectifying something, or many things, that had gone desperately wrong in the past five decades.
One way of understanding what has happened over this half-century is to think about the delicate balance between ad intra and ad extra concerns, which are two sides of the same coin. The Church has her own life, one could say—a liturgical, sacramental, spiritual, intellectual life, defined by the confluence of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium—and this life must be tended, nurtured, guarded, deepened. But simultaneously the Church always has a calling to go outwards into the world of unbelief, to preach to it, convert it, sanctify it, confront its errors and wrestle with its problems. It seems to me that the noble intention of Blessed John XXIII, a very traditional Pope in many ways, was to bring the treasures of the Church’s inner life to bear on modernity and the modern world. To this end he convened the Roman Synod and, more fatefully, the Second Vatican Council. He wanted the Catholic Church to send forth God’s light and truth, to intensify an apostolic activity that, under Pius XII, was already flourishing.
What actually transpired in the years of the Council and immediately afterwards is well known, tragic, even apocalyptic. The Church went through a period of ad intra amnesia and lost herself in an ad extra intoxication. It was forgotten that if one’s own house, one’s own soul, is not in order, one has nothing worthwhile to share with the world; that preaching the Good News to unbelievers is effective only to the extent that there is something profoundly and transcendently good awaiting them when they arrive at church. Instead of recalling the People of God to a sane repentance and inaugurating massive repair work ad intra, however, Paul VI and countless churchmen pushed the ad extra agenda further and further, with greater and greater incoherence as the result. The promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae sealed this trajectory and stifled, for a time, the cultivation of institutional memory and identity.
In short, the history of the Church from the Council to the present is a history of unremitting ad extra efforts without the requisite interior resources. As many have pointed out, it has often seemed in the past half-century or so as if the institutional Church cared more for atheists, modernists, and every type of non-Catholic than for her own faithful children who are simply striving to believe what has always been believed and to live as Catholics have always striven to live, “in the world but not of it.” One thinks of the words of Saint Paul: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10); and again, “If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8).
The Church is the family of God, and the pastors serve in loco parentis—so why are they absent? Are they truly taking care of their children, and of their children’s primary needs? Ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, efforts for social justice, even evangelization efforts are worthless if the faithful themselves are not first being well clothed, nourished, and taught—clothed by sacraments frequently and worthily received, nourished by a sacred liturgy offered with beauty and reverence, taught sound doctrine in catechesis, preaching, and schools.
Hence, after forty years of wandering in the desert, the pontificate of Benedict XVI seemed, and truly was, a watershed moment, a breath of fresh air—a realization that it was time to attend to the state of our soul, to put our own house in order, to renew our liturgy from its deepest sources, and to learn once again what exactly is the Good News we are supposed to be sharing in the New Evangelization. This pontificate began to undo, in a systematic way, the amnesia and the intoxication. In addition to its burgeoning fruits in the daily life of the Church, Summorum Pontificum stands forever as a symbol of the effort to bring about meaningful change by recalling the faithful to a tradition, spirituality, and way of life that are not in flux, as, indeed, its symbolic date—the seventh day of the seventh month of the seventh year of the new millennium—plainly announced.
In God’s Providence, it was a short pontificate, but the teaching and legislation of those eight years will, as the new century moves on, prove to be either the mustard-seed of an authentic renewal or the prophetic condemnation of a failed one. In any case, it is our privilege, through no merits of our own, to embrace with gratitude, humility, and zeal the traditional Catholic identity, the fragrant living memory of God's gifts, that Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has done so much to protect and promote, and to let these seeds bear fruit in our own lives. There is no more any one of us can do, and yet this is enough. For God can take the few loaves and fishes we have, and multiply them endlessly.
When one thinks of the greatness of the task Pope Benedict entrusted to us—the task of authentic renewal from the very sources of faith and in continuity with tradition—and when we contemplate how much work and suffering faces us as we strive to put into practice the profound teaching on the sacred liturgy Our Lord has given us through this great pope, we might be tempted to grow weary of the fight and fall away from it, especially in a time when so many in the Church seem to be running away from the dawning light back into the stygian darkness of the seventies.
Let us take heart from the many noble men and women, clergy, religious, and laity, who have fought the good fight, from the time of the Council even to our day; but let us also take heart from the unchanging spirituality that sustains the Benedictine monastic ideal that so inspired His Holiness. As expressed by the Right Reverend Dom Paul Delatte, O.S.B.:
“Patience hath a perfect work,” and its work is to maintain in us, despite all, the order of reason and faith. Let us take our courage in both hands; let us grasp this blessed patience so tightly and so strongly that nothing in the world shall be able to separate us from it: patientiam amplectatur. This is not the time for groaning, for self-justification, for dispute. We should not have been saved if Our Lord had declined to suffer. It is the time for bending our shoulders and carrying the cross, for carrying all that God wills and so long as He wishes, without growing weary or lagging on the road. … There is no spiritual future for any but those who can thus hold their ground. When we promise ourselves to stand firm and to wait till the storm is past, then we develop great powers of resistance.