Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Different Kind of Heroic Priest

In these days prior to the Motu Proprio, many people are busy – in a fin de siècle sort of way – sizing up the past and deciding who should be given credit for courage and steadfastness during the difficult decades following the close of the Second Vatican Council. It's true: the impending Motu Proprio invites us to take another look at those who refused to abandon the traditional Roman Rite, believing it to be the Mass of the Ages, and endured all the put downs and ecclesiastical ridicule for their fidelity. Sometimes adhering to truth requires even pushing around the edges of the legal norms, or taking activist risks to push those norms to comply with what is true. Many priests and laypeople took those risks to keep the old liturgy part of the ongoing history of Catholic life.

But we should also draw attention to a different kind of courage that we don't often hear celebrated: namely, those who complied with the changes as they took place following the Council and stuck to them all these years, even when they found the environment less than perfect, or even judged the new rite as it is ill-suited to the dignity of the liturgy. I'm thinking of a priest I know who winces at the new translations; you can see it in his face as he reads. But he obeys, endures, and keeps his complaints to himself as best he can.

Or there is another priest I know who adores chant and high ritual but found himself as an associate under an aging-hippy pastor who for years worked to stamp out anything distinctively Catholic or traditional at the parish. The young priest suffered in silence and always with genuine charity until he was finally made pastor of a parish across town. That exact scenario is repeated in dozens of cases I can think of.

Another priest I know is no fan of the new rite as it is but took risks with the diocese to put an altar rail in his parish: and earned the wrath of bureaucrats at the chancery. He defended the legitimacy of the rail against all attacks, and the people backed him. The rail survives, but he has been punished through a whispering campaign that encourages others to look down on him and keep their distance.

Or another who suffers miserably at the hearing of pop music but endured it at his parish for a decade because he was not in a position to stop it. Or another who was ordered from parish to parish throughout his diocese because the Bishop suspected that he was secretly converting parishioners to orthodoxy. Still another was actually silenced by his order but believes himself called to be there, so he doesn't budge. He serves as best as he is able.

There are hundreds of stories like this, people who complied, obeyed, and stuck it out for years, promoting the faith in the best way they could but always within the norms and in the context of an unfriendly diocesan culture. Isn't this a kind of heroism too? I've heard it said among monks that poverty and chastity are the easiest part of vows; it’s the vow to obedience that is the most difficult. So it must be.

I genuinely admire the priests who have stayed on the path within the norms all these years, while knowing it was imperfect. Some of them have suffered terribly. The new Catholic liturgical culture that is emerging – with the Motu Proprio and the new translations coming from the ICEL, together with the extraordinary influence of Benedict XVI – will make their lives easier. They aren't as likely to be regarded as odd balls. It's good to remember that resistance isn't the only path to heroism. Obedience can be the most difficult path of all.

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