Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Spirit of Summorum

In the past year, you might have noticed a big change in the Catholic world, one that might be summed up in the phrase "Everything old is new again."

Don't throw the pa-ast away
You might need it some rainy day
Dreams can come true again
When everything old is new again

Part of this can be seen in new printings of old books, newly founded Gregorian scholas to sing old music, a new influx of seminarians studying for an old priesthood, new Churches being built in the style of very old ones, and so on. I'm looking at the orders of The Parish Book of Chant, for example, and seeing it go right to the top.

Much of this energy is due to Summorum Pontificum, which liberalized the older form of Mass that was so central to Catholic life for so long -- until one day the door to the past was artificially shut to us and locked. Indeed much of the current Catholic renaissance in all areas is due to the Spirit of Summorum, which amounts to opening this door again, looking anew at what came before as a source of strength and wisdom.

Now, this might at first seem strange that this would be something new to our generation, since the very essence of the Catholic life is its long memory. And yet in modern times, we've all been subjected to the claim that the "Spirit of Vatican II" was all about repudiating the past. The phrase appeared as a justification for every manner of behavior, teaching, or liturgical innovation that violated the sense of the older faith.

It was real sleight of hand at work. It's true that every Church council and every administrative decision has not only a letter but also a spirit, and that is true in the secular as well as ecclesiastical world. But how can it be that that spirit could actually contradict the letter such that what is being defended runs completely contrary to the law itself? That's a sure sign that what we are talking about is not a true but a false spirit.

Everyone knows the more obvious specifics. Vatican II said Gregorian chant should assume primary place but instead we got pop tunes more suitable for a children's playground than Mass. We were told that nothing would change about the liturgy unless it was absolutely necessary, and instead with got liturgical revolution. With it came an upending of doctrine, morals, and the faith itself, with the inevitable draining of monasteries, convents, and seminaries.

If you were going to describe this false spirit correctly, the last word one would use is "liberal." In fact, the spirit that was foisted upon us was illiberal in the extreme. It banned liturgical forms of the past. It sought to ban music of the past. It sought to ban our holy cards, our art, our architecture, our established prayers, our lay organizations, and our very way of life as Catholics. Change was in the air, but what was it all about? The only thing we knew for sure is that the past was off limits. And this was enforced.

The "Spirit of Vatican II" then became an excuse for mandatory heterodoxy, for undermining the true intent and contradicting the letter and the purpose of the reform. This Council that sought authenticate liberalization was ironically used by people invoking its spirit as a means for closing off all history and tradition, interdicting the past. A kind of autocratic and despotic censorship of all treasured things came into effect. This ill-liberal attitude shut it off the Catholic a source of its very name life, that is, its traditions.

What then happened? Sometimes it seemed as if the faith was perilously in danger. Cardinal Newman explains why: "No one can really respect religion, and insult its forms. Granting that the forms are not immediately from God, still long use has made them divine to us; for the spirit of religion has so penetrated and quickened them, that to destroy them is, in respect to the multitude of men, to unsettle and dislodge the religious principle itself."

This came home to me in a big way when I was first signed up to teach CCD for a parish in a town to which I had newly moved. The director of religious education gave me an exam concerning my understanding of the faith. This exam was a snap for me, having learned mainly from the Catechism of the Council of Trent and the Baltimore Catechism. Imagine my astonishment when the results came back that I had gotten wrong nearly every single answer in a 100-question exam. Even guessing at answers I would have gotten more correct.

Then I suddenly figured it out. I wasn't being examined on what I knew about Catholic teaching. I was being examined to make sure that I had properly updated my views on all matters Catholic, which meant of course that if I gave a traditional answer, I would necessarily miss every question. I asked for a chance to take it again, which I did. This time, it was a snap. I answered in the way that the proponents of the "Spirit of Vatican II" people would have me to answer. The result was that I passed with honors.

My experience in this regard was not isolated. This was not a radical parish. In fact, the parish had a reputation for conservatism. It's just that the DRE latched onto the wrong materials, an easy mistake. The test was a convention and part of an ethos. To be a true Catholic in those days was to turn your back decisively on all that came before. If you believed what everyone used to believed you failed. Such was the "liberal" spirit; it was censorious toward all that we thought was true, all the forms that had been known, and often mandated that we believe and do the opposite.

What Summorum represents, then, is far larger than what first appears. Summorum not only has a letter but also a spirit and that spirit is liberation, the liberty to love what came before. This is not only about the 1962 Missal. It is about a worldview and a civilization. What was holy then is holy now. I know that plenty of problems still exist and the claims about the "Spirit of Vatican II" haven't been put to rest completely. But we seemed to have turned the corner, such that all old things seem new again.

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