YZANTINE CATHOLICS and Eastern Orthodox Christians have maintained in full and essential integrity the depth, beauty, and sacredness of the Church’s Eastern liturgical heritage; the Western Church has eradicated countless elements of her equally deep, beautiful, and sacred heritage. The latter is slowly coming back, but for a time, it looked like it was going to become extinct―and, even now, it is still an endangered species in far too many dioceses.
This is troubling because it puts educated and loyal Roman Catholics at a disadvantage in their apostolic work, not only in regard to using persuasive apologetics about the Church’s continuity with her own apostolic tradition (something we used to assert as true and would still like to be able to say), but also in regard to the very effort to live out an authentically Catholic life from day to day, week to week, year to year, which is the foundation for every fruitful apostolate.
So much of the structure of Catholic life was disturbed, distorted, or obliterated in the past five decades that it is much harder to see who we are any more, what we believe, or why we do what we do. Ask lots of Catholics out there about the teachings of the Church on faith or morals, and about what happens at Mass and even what the Mass is, and you will quickly sense the crisis―the fragmentation, balkanization, vacancy of content―the dimensions of which very few people are willing to stare in the face. That is what the mainstream looks like, and no wonder: we are only just now beginning to get beyond the period when the ranks of the clergy, from top to bottom, were stacked with soft or hard modernists who changed, as far as it lay in their power, the content of “the Faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). On top of this is the new silly season that has been unleashed by the media’s running away with papal comments taken out of context.
As goes the clergy, so goes the faithful. St. Pius X is purported to have said, “If the priest is a saint, the people will be good; if the priest is good, the people will be mediocre; if the priest is mediocre, the people will be wretches; and if the priest is bad, the people will be beasts.” As T. S. Eliot foresaw, we have around us the grotesque spectacle of high-tech barbarism: men and women with the latest gadgets but with a moral conscience equal to or lower than that of the ancient barbarians. Pope Pius XII spoke of modernity’s “monstrous masterpiece,” namely, “transforming man into a giant of the physical world at the expense of his spirit, which is reduced to that of a pygmy in the supernatural and eternal world.”
OFTEN THINK of Joseph Ratzinger’s disturbing remark: What are we to think of a Church that all of a sudden repudiated that which it had once held to be its most sacred possession? What happens when those who are striving to remain loyal to the 2,000-year doctrinal, liturgical, and disciplinary heritage of the Church are driven away, alienated, mocked, left without comfort, without a clear sign that their Church has not in fact collapsed under the weight of modernity’s errors and treacheries?
So we grit our teeth and courageously say “I will never abandon the Church of Christ,” and our Lord will reward us for that fidelity. But does it not seem strange that divine worship, in which we are supposed to see and hear and feel a foretaste of heavenly glory, should be, for so many, an onerous burden, as from Sunday to Sunday we behold abominations in the sanctuary, improvisations, innovations, that sever the “Catholicism” of today from its entire patrimony? Is divine worship really meant to be such a trial?
Should catechesis, grammar school, and seminary life have changed so drastically that individuals who want to convert to the true faith no longer know where to turn, orthodox parents no longer want to send their children to Catholic schools, and young men eager to become holy priests can find only with difficulty a diocesan seminary that is fully in line with the tradition and magisterium of the Church?
All of this bodes ill for the future of the Church, and that is why so many disgruntled Catholics are leaving for good. The uneducated ones are sucked into evangelical congregations where they can get firm and demanding (or at least highly entertaining) doctrine from Bible preachers, not a wishy-washy sermon about being nice. The more educated may fall prey to the aesthetic majesty and persuasive polemics of the Eastern Orthodox, who can quench any man’s thirst for genuine ascetical-liturgical spirituality. Often, the best that can be realistically hoped for is that earnest and educated Catholics will simply go East “half way,” so to speak, by migrating to an Eastern Catholic church like the Ukrainian, Ruthenian, or Melkite, or that they will be fortunate enough to discover a thriving Tridentine community nearby that can fulfill their need for profound worship and serious Catholic doctrine.
I was struck by the words of Benedictine monk Fr. Hugh Somerville-Knapman (here):
One thing seems sure: without a wholesale renewal of liturgical practice and spirituality the New Evangelization will remain just another expensive white-elephant of a programme. And priests will remain faced with the temptation to entertain and be creative in worship, and in so doing seriously undermine that worship. Without authentic worship the faithful, especially the young, will not be truly challenged to live with integrity, treating their own bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, and their neighbours as Christs in disguise.
As Dr. Alcuin Reid recently wrote, if you want to find Catholics who actually know who they are and what they believe with some clarity and depth―people who know why they do what they do in the worship of God or in the duties of daily life―you will generally find them in traditional enclaves. There is no future for those who reject their past.
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