Monday, May 04, 2015

“Backwards vs. Forwards”—What Does It Mean?

When I returned to America in 2006 after living abroad for almost eight years, the transition was initially a challenging one. Although the Lord fairly soon led me to Wyoming Catholic College (which had just been founded), for a certain time it wasn’t at all clear what my next step should be. At this juncture my family and I spent a little time visiting friends in California and visiting some of the Missions along the way. At one of these missions, I picked up a holy card of Bd. Junipero Serra that carried in bold letters the great missionary’s motto: “Always forward, never look back.” This motto was strangely comforting to me at the time and helped me look forward to the future with trust in divine Providence.

Recently, Pope Francis used similar language, but in a quite different context and for a very different purpose. By now we are all no doubt acquainted with the impassioned utterance of Pope Francis at the conclusion of the Italian Mass at Ognissanti, celebrated on the 50th anniversary of the first Italian Mass in history:
Let us thank the Lord for what he has done in his Church in these 50 years of liturgical reform. It was truly a courageous gesture for the Church to draw near to the people of God so that they are able to understand well what they are doing. This is important for us, to follow the Mass in this way. It is not possible to go backwards. We must always go forward. Always forward (applause)! And those who go backward are mistaken.
This isn’t the first time the Holy Father has made this kind of remark. Fr. James V. Schall, in a recent article for Catholic World Report, writes, with subtle criticism:
On March 3rd, Pope Francis wrote a short letter to the Theological Faculty at the Catholic University of Argentina, an institution with which he is no doubt most familiar. Pope Francis is not a speculatively-orientated man. He sees theology in practical terms. Vatican II, he tells the Argentine Faculty, is a “re-reading of the Gospel from the perspective of contemporary culture.” He does not say that it is a “re-reading” of contemporary culture from the perspective of the Gospel. The Council produced an “irreversible movement of renewal which comes from the Gospel. And now we must go forward.” What, one wonders, does “forward” imply? The notion of “progress” for the sake of “progress” avoids the question of “progress to what?” or “forward to where?” To go “forward”, we must first look backward to the Gospel. Chesterton said progress can only be made by looking backwards. The future is blank, but history contains real people, real choices for good or bad.
Indeed, it is the Pope’s frequent endorsement of creativity, innovation, and spontaneity, along with “making a mess,” that might well cause any lover of tradition or proponent of the new liturgical movement to wince with embarrassment and regret. Unlike Pope Benedict, Pope Francis does not seem to have progressed in his way of thinking beyond the extremely limited vision of the movers and shakers of the Second Vatican Council period.

Groovy, man.
Let’s give this Ognissanti rhetoric some careful thought. “Backwards” and “forwards” are inherently ambiguous metaphors. If we decide to stick with polyester vestments, guitars, wide fat candles, and banners, are we not looking backwards into the 1960s/1970s? If we sing Gregorian chant, are we trapped in the Middle Ages—or are we singing a timeless music that is always and everywhere simply Catholic, as the Popes have taught? Is Latin a “dead language of the past” or is it the sacred language of eternal Rome, through which we signify the apostolic truth and constancy of what we celebrate? And so on and so forth. Those who love traditional things are interested in neither “going backwards” nor “going forwards.” We are interested in worshiping God worthily in the present, in continuity with the past, and for the future health of the Church and the conversion of the world.

Metaphysically, it is impossible to “go backwards.” The past is unchangeable. It is not really possible to “go forward,” either, since the future is in God’s hands alone. All that we have is the present, the “now,” and we must use this now wisely for the glory of God and the sanctification of our souls. The only standard for us is not a distant past or a dreamy future, but what is right, good, appropriate, beautiful, here and now. And this is something that cannot be determined by any age or chronology, any ideology or -ism; it must be determined by sound principles that we receive from the Church and from her Tradition, which is living and active, like the Word of God of which it forms a part (cf. Dei Verbum 10).

In our liturgical and sacramental worship, Christ is signified as having come in the past, as being present to us now, and as yet to come in glory. He is Lord of all time, the Alpha and the Omega.

(1) Our Eucharistic worship signifies Christ as a past reality, since He has already come into the world as the Word-made-flesh and has accomplished plentiful redemption. This may be called the principle of tradition, or the handing down of that which is already given: hoc facite in meam commemorationem.

Jesuits in China
(2) The Mass signifies Christ as a present reality, the One who irrupts into our time and space in the miracle of transubstantiation, taking the gifts we give Him here and now and changing them into Himself. This we might call the principle of inculturation, the way in which the Word made flesh enters into every time, place, people, society, culture—not, however, to be conformed to it but to conform it to Him, so that it may be healed and elevated. (This, I take it, is why Pope John Paul II said that liturgy must be not only inculturated but also counter-cultural.)

(3) The Mass signifies Christ as one who, having come, and being in our midst, is nevertheless awaited in His glorious coming to judge the living and the dead and to bring to completion the whole of history and the entire cosmos, from prime matter to the loftiest seraphim. The very fact that we receive Him as waybread, as our strength and stay under the appearances of bread and wine, tells us we are waiting and longing for an indissoluble communion, the face to face vision of God. This tension towards the future may be called the principle of transcendence, by which the liturgy reminds us that we are destined for an act of worship that is not inherited from the past or re-lived in present symbols but given immediately and eternally by the Lord Himself, when He manifests His glory to our purified gaze.

The past component makes us adhere to hallowed forms of commemoration, so that we would sooner die than have our inheritance violently taken from us, abused, reduced, or modified past recognition. The present component makes us attentive to the needs of the flock around us—including, of course, the need to be thoroughly connected to tradition and thus to be catholic. The future perfection, which shows up the relativity of our earthly endeavors, makes us absolutists about heavenly glory alone. We would not, therefore, try to argue that this or that particular liturgical tradition is indispensable for the Christian life, although it is true that some authentically-lived tradition is indispensable.

All three of these principles imply missionary outreach, although they are not ordered to outreach as their end; rather, evangelization flows from them when they are rightly believed and practiced. If we know and love tradition, it is an immense gift we will want to share. If we know and love people, we will share this gift with them in a way that draws upon their identity and also challenges it to conversion. And if we know and love God, we will do all of this for His glory.

“Brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8). This is our work right now. If we do it well, as Catholics, we will find that what we are doing is, not surprisingly, very much akin to what our ancestors and forefathers in the Faith have done, and we will not worry about progress or the future. We will neither go backwards nor forwards. “I will go unto the altar of God, to God who giveth joy to my youth.”

The way of the future, ad majorem Dei gloriam.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: