Rorate Caeli

The Traditionalist: The Keeper of the Gifts

by Alessandro Gnocchi
[Italian daily] Il Foglio
November 6, 2014

[Notre-Dame de Chartres Cathedral, June 28, 2014]


Traditionalist, yes, but not distant from the world,
as some of us would like to be in times of ruin and destruction.

Talking about the Traditionalist is a little like seventy years ago when Leo Longanesi said “Let’s talk about the elephant.” (1) The intellectual bad habits of Italy straddling between fascism and anti-fascism were always the same; anyway, Italy was a little Catholic, Apostolic and Roman, greatly resembling the Church of today, which anyway, is always a little Italian. At that time, Longanesi made mockery of the quirks and hypocrisies of an intellectual class that liked showing off in exotic discourses and loved “talking about the elephant” instead of the destruction of which it was both the victim and the perpetrator. Similarly, a great show is put on in today’s Church, by those who prefer “talking about the traditionalist”, instead of acknowledging the superficial atmosphere of self-demolition, in which, as the saying goes, “they are both singing and carrying the cross.”(2)

It’s easy to say “traditionalist” with the same levity as Longanesi said: “Gentlemen, let’s talk about the elephant” - said the ineffable gentleman - “it’s the only animal of a certain importance that we can safely talk about without risk, these days.”

Yet the traditionalist, if we really want to know him, is not an animal you talk about resorting to banality. He is not the one reviled in the sermons and tischreden [little speeches at the table] of [the papal household of Casa] Santa Marta; he is not the one of the windbags in the press reviews of the mass-media; he is not the one of the sociology-lovers hanging onto the fleeting instant of doctrines which are in continuous evolution; he is not the one of the bishops who issue pitiful decrees of excommunication against the faithful who dare to attend the Mass of Ages. He is not any of these things and others more besides.

The traditionalist is not at all what he seems. He is in ‘mysterious and inalienable intimacy’ with the thing he no longer possesses, he is a haven for the bond between heaven and earth in times of an oblivion dictated by worldly desires that infiltrated into the temple: it is his very own poverty and his very own solitude that create a place for soul and flesh to encounter greatness and wretchedness, salvation or perdition. The rock on which he can save himself or be shipwrecked is the evangelical life in the world - without being of the world.

The temptation that wins him with great ease in order to retreat elsewhere, in order to preserve an earthly purity that does not exist, is a warning alarm. In this way, certain traditionalists choose to live in a world of black and white where even colour itself is almost out of fashion. They end up cultivating a garden that others, that is, the moderns, cannot even look at; and, even if they did, they could not enjoy the treasures grown there. The contempt for a Sister Cristina who imitates the singer Madonna, means very little or nothing at all if one does not understand where and how a phenomenon like that came into existence. Living in the world means running the risk of contagion but being aware that the antidote lies in not belonging to it. One is either a contemporary of his own times even if battling against them, or one becomes a caretaker of a museum in which the past ceases to live and be tradition, given that the heart is no longer there.

The fate of the traditionalist hangs in the balance like one of the churches Proust protected from the secular rapaciousness of the State. In an article from “Le Figaro” of August 16, 1904, entitled, “The Death of the Cathedrals” he wrote:

“Well, it is better to destroy a church than to desecrate it. As long as the Mass is celebrated there, mutilated as it may be, it still preserves its life. The day it is desecrated it’s dead, and even if it is protected as a historical monument of scandalous celebrations, it’s nothing other than a museum, […] When the Sacrifice of Christ’s Flesh and Blood, the Sacrifice of the Mass, is no longer celebrated in churches, there will be no more life in them.”

Then again, we need to recognize that the alarm-bell to retreat elsewhere is much more tempting as it is now the Church Herself which is being desecrated by the betrayals of Her children and Her pastors. The upholder of tradition today is experiencing the drama of the first verses of Psalm 11, “Salvum me fac, Domine, quoniam deficit sanctus, quoniam diminute sunt veritates a filiis hominum” [Save me, O Lord, for there is now no saint: truths are decayed from among the children of men], which are measured with the time when there are no more saints; sincerity has failed among the sons of men and the one who should be guarding the chastity of the true, speaks with “labia dolosa”.

This is the origin of the great temptation: putting the psalmist’s question to God, responding, however, with one’s own words. The quandary that marks the Traditionalist as such, the awareness of being the thing he has lost, is also that he must decide whether to still love the Church turned into an unreliable stepmother or lose himself in zealous and bitter lamentation of that time when She was mother and teacher. This sans-papiers de l’Église [undocumented person in the Church] cannot subtract himself from the choice imposed by the times in which he lives, that is, keeping the treasure safe for himself or bringing it back again to the naves, under the arches, and in front of the altar from where he had been thrown out. If he has charity, he will share the seed he was able to save with his brothers. If he does not have it, he will keep it for himself, irremediably ending up shaping the treasure into his own image and likeness, thus rendering it sterile.

The one who upbraids him for changing bread into stone, for making his heart hard, intellectualist and legalist, has little practice and confuses him guiltily with his caricature. The visionary (3) who hurls precepts as if they were stones at his followers has nothing at all to do with the keeping of tradition since it has quite different origins.

Catholic Progressives are evidence of this. Free and uninhibited as they already were in the 1980s, when they were about to divorce they experienced their most dramatic moment when “they had to tell Father”. Their tough and inflexible “father” was [Servite Priest] David Maria Turoldo, the prophet of the new age and of a new Church, who, by supporting divorce (4) had found the key to preach his religion to the world. Morality and mercy without truth always become moralism and violence.

Nothing could be further from this than Father Bournisien (reduced today to an old traditionalist thing) - the priest who brings the sacraments to Madame Bovary on her deathbed.

“The priest” narrates Flaubert “rose up to get the crucifix. She then stretched out her thirsty neck, and pressing her lips to the body of the Man-God, with the little strength that remained in her, deposited the greatest kiss of love that she had ever given. Then the priest recited the Miserere and the Indulgentiam, immersed the thumb of his right hand in the oil and began the anointing. First on the eyes, that had craved all earthly riches; then on the nostrils avid for lukewarm breezes and amorous fragrances; then on the mouth that had been open to falsehood and had had uttered groans of pride and cries of lust; then on the hands that had known the delight of sweet touches, and finally on the soles of the feet, that had once run so quickly to satisfy desires but now would never walk again. The priest dried his fingers, threw the piece of oil-soaked cotton-wool into the fire, and went back to sit near the dying woman to tell her that now she had to join her sufferings with those of Jesus and surrender herself to His Divine Mercy.”

This sequence of signs, so heavenly and tangible, “ad oculos, ad aures, ad nares, ad os comperssis labiis, ad manus, ad pedes,” would be efficacious even if man did not have his heart in them, since they spring from the Heart of God. And it is tragic that they are imputed as evidence of hard-heartedness against the one who tries to keep the signs alive, almost as if compliance to worldly replacements could be more worthy in the eyes of the Lord. There is nothing on earth that is worth more than the form and matter of a Sacrament that sanctifies and gives joy to the life and death of men:

“Now Emma was no longer so pale and had an expression of serenity on her face, almost as if the Sacrament had healed her.”
Albert Fourié, The Death of Emma Bovary (1883) - Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen
Proust, the literary father of devout-atheists, was enchanted by the lightness of these lines. And it was perhaps the liturgical splendor that made him keep a Rosary (brought to him from the Holy Land) as one of his most treasured keepsakes, so much so that he asked his housekeeper on different occasions if she would put it in his hands at the point of death.

Yet, even if he is the keeper of such splendour and greatness, the Traditionalist may fall into what is ‘too human’, and perhaps the “human” only, which does not consist in exhibiting a doctrine and pastoral in which his heart is no more, but in keeping it all for himself, almost as if he were the vanguard of a reverse revolution, and not, instead, a soldier under the banners opposing the revolution.

Such temptation is the fruit of applying political categories to the Mystical Body of Christ: the only place in the world where they are not effective and destined to fail. The evidence of the Second Vatican Council, consigned by Modernism to a politicized vision, led certain Traditionalists to fall for the great revolutionary deception, ending in two false opposites. On the one side, they hold that a Council cannot fall into error and consequently, from the instant that some documents from Vatican II give rise to difficulties, the Pope who promulgated them and his successors who have accepted them, have lost, even if not “formally”, supreme authority: they are Popes only “materially.” On the other, they hold that a Council cannot fall into error, consequently Vatican II did not fall into error, thus not only is it a true Council but it is the measure for judging the entire previous Magisterium. If, for the first, Vatican II has to be thrown out entirely in any case, for the second all of it has to be accepted in any case. However, the latter is the same former position that has simply been inverted.

Both sides have lost sight of the crystalline “Magnopere curandum est ut id teneatur quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est,” distilled by St. Vincent of Lerin in his Commonitorium: “We take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” The Traditionalist fails when he removes the preservation and the transmission of the faith from the exercise of charity and makes it hostage to his own intelligence, his own ego. Consequently, excessive refinement in theological rigidity, by dint of rendering acute thought-processes, ends up becoming obtuse and incapable of speaking to fellow men. Either he veers towards neo-conservatism or he veers towards Sedevacantism; the outcome is an aphasic traditionalism (even to the limits of autism), which gratifies its own purity, and perhaps even more, the impurity of others. On the pastoral level, the result is clerical degeneration: the abuse of power and condemnations incapable of offering forgiveness. On the doctrinal level the result is the sin of pride: condemnations incapable of offering the truth.

Yet it would be too simple, too political, to apply the theory of opposite extremism to the traditional world in the attempt to preserve a pure and good center. The hypertrophy of rigidity is a terrible virus which is easy to spread wherever there is interest in reason and doctrine and, at its incubation stage, is content with little. All it needs is for the Catholic’s cerebral ventricle to pulse a little more strongly and little more quickly than the charitable one. Then the Traditionalist, who rightly and catholicly experiences horror at the sight of the field-hospital, where every evil is treated with corazón, risks forgetting that men are souls inside bodies. He loses sight of the sense of St. Pius X’s: “the true friends of the people are neither the revolutionaries nor the innovators, but traditionalists.

Moreover, it is not in solemn liturgical walking, nor refined vestments and precious ornaments that the Traditionalist finds obstacles in making friends of the people. Whoever laughs or is scandalized at the devotion of so much splendor, is unaware that those liturgies, vestments and ornaments can become the salvation of an Emma Bovary or the little old lady perennially on her knees reciting the rosary; that they can accompany a king at his coronation or a priest in front of an execution squad of Spanish and Mexican revolutionaries. Great works of aid and mutual assistance arose from the heart of the Church when the Most Blessed Sacrament under magnificent baldachins was passing among kneeling crowds. The Traditionalist is a friend of the people precisely because he becomes one with the solemn liturgical walk and those refined vestments and precious ornaments. He offers them to God and thus asks nothing in exchange from men.

In this way he can take care of bodies without forgetting that they enclose souls. Like St Teresa of the Child Jesus - happy soul in the form of an ailing body. One day, during the illness that accompanied her to her death, little Teresa received the gift of a rose from one of her sisters. Instead of putting it in a vase, she plucked the petals off and placed them on the Crucifix with devotion and love, as if to assuage the wounds of Christ. “In the month of September” she said “once again little Teresa is plucking off the petals of a spring rose”. And then “En éffeuillant pour Toi la rose printanière, je voudrais essuyer tes pleurs!” By plucking the petals off a springtime rose for You, I wish to dry Your tears.” And since the petals were falling on the floor and risked being lost, now moribund, she hastily urged her sisters not to waste so much beauty: “Little sisters, pick them all up, they will be useful in giving delight to others, don’t lose any of them…”. That was in September 1897. In September 1910, one of those petals cured old Ferdinand Aubry of tongue cancer.

The Traditionalist has petals like these in his hands. If he does not want to be lost, he must constantly remember that they are not his. It is only in this way that he will find a place, even a small one, in one of those sacred scenes from the stained glass windows, on the verge of being desecrated by the French government, that so fascinated Proust.

Images so Catholic, that all of them need to be embraced:

“Not only the queen and prince (…) All of you, from the stained-glass windows of Chartres, Tours, Bourges, Sens, Auxerre, Troyes, Clermont Ferrand, Toulouse: barrel-makers, leather-makers, apothecaries, pilgrims, farmers, weapon-makers, cloth-makers, stone-cutters, butchers, shoe-makers, money-changers - or you - great silent democracy, obstinate faithful listening to the Office, still present yet more beautiful than in the days of your life, in the glory of heaven and in the blood of the precious stained-glass; you will no longer hear the Mass you secured for yourselves by donating your purest golden coins (5) for the edification of the Church.”

The pure coin with which the traditionalist may be guaranteed a place among these brothers and sisters is radiant with doctrine and liturgy, yet it must burn with charity.


(1) Leo Longanesi (1905 -1957), writer, journalist, essayist, satirist – “Parliamo dell'elefante- frammenti di un diario” (Let’s talk about the elephant, fragments of a diary) 1947. The ironic meaning of course is that the only "important", "large" subject that could be discussed freely and in public during the Mussolini years was a large beast, or similar matters.

(2) An Italian saying with reference to those who blithely do everything and anything in religious processions.

(3) The Italian word is “stregone,” which means wizard or sorcerer

(4) The debate on the introduction of Divorce Law in Italy. The strong "progressive Catholic" support was essential for the perpetuation of the liberal Divorce Law, which ended in a 59%-41% victory for Divorce in the 1974 referendum, another embarrassing loss for the increasingly ignored Paul VI; the same would happen with the disastrous 1978 Abortion Law in the last year of his sorry and demoralized pontificate, introduced during the fourth Christian-Democrat (DC) administration of the ultimate "Establishment Vatican II Catholic", Giulio Andreotti (theoretically, but only very theoretically, against the adoption of the law). / Despite his great efforts, John Paul II would not be able to reverse these disasters, but his influence and that of Benedict XVI would increase sufficiently with time to block embryonic research and IVF in the 2005 referendums boycotted by the Church. The Wojtyla-Ratzinger partial reversals of the Montini losses in favor of family and life are all in the past now, evidently, as it is clear from the current parliamentary debate on civil "unions" for same-sex "couples", which began in earnest only after the Ratzinger resignation.

(5) Scudo, as écu, the medieval golden coin. In the original Proust text, the word is deniers (as denarium), which can also mean coins, but usually understood, when used for religious purposes, as tithes.

[Translation: Contributor Francesca Romana]