HERE’S A WOMAN I KNOW who is a terrific lady. She works hard, loves her family, and practices her faith wholeheartedly. Folks who know her well would describe her as pleasant, affable, and compassionate. She’s a devoted wife, loving mother, and true disciple.
As good a person as she is, she has little love for anything in the Church that she perceives to be antiquarian, old-fashioned, or traditional. She is decidedly post-Vatican II. This woman said something to me once that really caused me to think.
What she said was this: “You can’t go back to a time you never experienced.”
The manner in which she uttered this sentence seemed almost like a dogmatic proclamation. What prompted her to make this comment was nothing that I had done or said; rather, it was a response to some particular vesture she had observed a traditional priest at her parish wearing. The woman doesn’t know me well enough to know what I might think about that, so I believe her proclamation was made in a moment of great honesty.
I remain unsettled by this declaration. While, on the surface, I agree with the basic content of what she said, I find myself disagreeing with the sentiment that surrounds it. First, does an affinity for traditional things necessarily mean a desire to go back in time? I don’t think it does. Tradition in the Church refers not to a backwards-looking, stationary position, but to the ongoing process that hands on the deposit of faith and brings it to life here and now. Tradition in the Church is not about time travel, but about continuity.
Secondly, what is the value of the “experience” she mentions? Has the history of everything that happened before 1965 been closed for review to all those born thereafter? If her statement were true, then we could not celebrate the Mass. We certainly could not have Summorum Pontificum. Nor could we baptize or anoint or absolve. The logical conclusion of her statement is a complete rejection of heritage and tradition.
So many Catholics who lived through the tumultuous times before and after the Second Vatican Council have an ingrained aversion to their earlier experience. They often idolize the era immediately following the Council as the ideal. The cause of this knee-jerk reaction cannot easily be discerned or explained, but it is easily observable. Just bust out a biretta or cassock or cope, and see how the baby boomers react.
All of this caused me to think of my own proclamation: “You cannot fairly evaluate the times you have lived through.” I wonder if this is a fair statement. My old history professor used to say, “Everything in the last 50 years is just current events.” In other words, historians wait at least half a century before evaluating events as history. Anything sooner is too soon.
Does this woman, who lived through some of the pre-conciliar period and through the reforms, have an advantage because of her experience? Or does the advantage actually fall to those who came along later and who are therefore freer to evaluate impartially? I’m not sure how I would answer that question, but I think it is a question worth asking.