Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Mansion of the Past Reopened

I was looking for a book and went to the website of the Oregon Catholic Press, and the following image appeared that just about knocked me on the floor. Keep in mind that this is the Oregon Catholic Press. It seems to recall the days when the same publisher was called the Catholic Truth Society.

With the passage of one year, we are beginning to see that the most substantial effect of Benedict XVI’s Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum is not exclusively or even directly related to the liberalization of the Tridentine form of the Roman Rite. To be sure, this form is making a comeback in parishes and seminaries and cathedrals, and this is a glorious development. The pope brilliantly named the old form the "extraordinary form" and the new form the "ordinary form" and made it clear that they constitute two forms of the Roman Rite. With this change in language comes a kind of liturgical healing, one that reduces the distance that has artificially separated us from the liturgy of the past.

But the real implications here are more significant still. What Summorum has done is re-legitimate the whole of our Catholic heritage--in the broadest way with can think of that term--and free us from the deracination that had become common in the postconciliar years.

The banning of the past was not a policy. It was not a result of legislation. It was not instituted by any one group in particular. But it had become woven into the fabric of American Catholic life in subtle and deeply dangerous ways. In the tumult of the age, Catholics were not entirely sure what it is we were supposed to believe and do, but we were sure of this much: whatever we believed and did was different from what our ancestors in the faith did and believe.

The habitual sneering at the bad old days was the most predictable aspect of this period in which everything changed, and I don’t need to rehearse the details. Confession was different. Music was different. Liturgy was different. Theology was different. Morality was different. And in all these differences, it has been presumed that in all ways we are better off, more enlightened, more humane, and more advanced. Never mind that not a single piece of data seemed to back that view. Whether we looked at vocations, Mass attendance, family size, or the production of art in the postconcilar years, the presence of a new Pentecost has not been entirely obvious.

All Catholics have felt a grave form of discomfort all these years. The Mass that was displaced and then nearly suppressed was the center of Catholic life in the past. It made appearances everywhere in the art, the music, the theology, and spiritual writings. We would stumble upon an old Holy Card with a high altar and wonder whether it is really of any use today. We would find children's books in used book stores and decide not to buy them because they featured priests facing liturgical East. The writings of the saints on the Mass didn't seem as relevant to us since they seem to be talking about something we do not know or experience in our time. We would look at great musical compositions and wonder why the Sanctus is separated from the Benedictus and we would be tempted with the idea that this timeless music just isn't viable in our day.

Even pictures of the past from our own parishes made us feel squeamish. What are these unusual vestments that the priests are wearing? What is that hat on the priest and is that even allowed today? Probably not. What happen to that altar that looks so beautiful and why was it replaced with this little table? Where did those altar rails end up, and is that stained-glass on the windows? It was hard for us even to look at all of this since it seemed like a period of time shut off to us.

Those who longed for restoration were once called disloyal or reactionary. Our mental stability was openly questioned. What is it about our state of mind that refuses to accept modernity? Are we questioning the wisdom of our leadership? What is it about community and openness and participation by the people that causes us to long for bad old days gone by?

It didn't take much for a person to be called a "traditionalist," a term that was used as if it were an insult. I remember years ago objecting to the suggestion by an architect that the high altar be torn down. A priest who sympathized with my objections warned me not to be too vocal lest I be accused of harboring secret traditionalist sympathies and wanting to restore the Tridentine Rite!

Keep in mind that this was a parish in which the rule was otherwise "anything goes." It was this same parish in which I taught a CCD class from the old Baltimore Catechism because it offered the best material that I could find. But when there was a knock at the door I would gather up the books carefully and put them out of sight.

Sometimes it felt like living in the old Soviet bloc and dabbling with ideas of freedom. Of course no one said that I could not use the Baltimore Catechism, but we all intuited the cultural ethos of modern parish life. Anything was possible, anything permitted, all manner of liberality was encouraged -- unless it meant looking back to the past.

Sometimes the desire to purge took the form of a witch hunt. If a musician suggested the use of a Kyrie, everyone wondered if the next step was the forced conversions of the Middle Ages. To sing a full choral Sanctus raised serious questions about whether we were plunging ourselves into a forbidden world that had been shut to us forever. Even to receive communion on the tongue or to ask for confession behind a screen meant to risk being labeled a troublemaker.

The ostracism experienced by those who longed for older liturgy was quite intense. Many people were reduced to declaring that they had no objections to anything going on now; it is only that, for whatever psychological reason, we have an "attachment" to the 1962 rite.

"Attachment" was the word everyone used because it was not threatening and seem to hint at a kind of permissible subjectivism. We are not saying that the old form is better; it is just a personal thing, an attachment. Of course the term lacked some element of plausibility for many people who used it, considering that young people were the driving force behind the movement to liberalize the old Mass. How interesting that teenagers would so quickly develop an "attachment" for a Mass they had only experienced once or twice in the most truncated of environments, or perhaps never experienced!

But with Summorum, much of that tendency to hide and apologize for having a historical interest or desiring continuity of practice is changing. The Mass of the past is renewed again, completely licit for every Roman Rite priest. It is being taught in seminaries. It is making appearances in cathedrals and even in our parishes. The objections you would have heard five years ago are vanishing, as ever more Bishops and priests feel free now to embrace this heritage and even celebrate it.

Whether we attend the extraordinary form or not, we can look at old Holy Cards and connect with them again. Pictures from the parish archive are not sad memories but instructive blueprints for the future. The music of the past seems fresh and fabulous and challenging. The vestments of the old days enthrall those in seminaries. The liturgical books of the preconciliar years are in a boom phase.

None of this means that we must reject developments of our time. It means that these developments can be understood more fully as part of a long history of our faith, and what is new can be more readily integrated in a way that the continuity of our faith demands.

The answer is not merely to "turn back the clock" or to seek to re-establish what has come before, contrary to what is commonly said. What Summorum has achieved is to permit us to intellectually and spiritually draw from a broader range of experience as we look to the future. It has meant an end to the illusion that Catholicism was re-founded in 1969 and that we have nothing to learn from our ancestors beyond what not to believe and what not to do.

In retrospect, this sad situation could not have lasted. But it took a man of great courage to finally put an end to the barriers that had sealed off our heritage like a mansion that had been padlocked pending demolition. That mansion is now open to us, to explore, to repair, to use, to make our own and prepare for future generations.

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