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Focusing on Springtime:
Tradition is the mainstream linking past and future blossoms

A guest article by Peter Miller

Disparaging labels are a desperate attempt by some small self-centered groups (who, in recent decades, thought they were the virtuous center of the Church, when in fact they constituted a very aggressive faction not as large as they thought) to deny Traditional-minded Catholics their full presence in the Catholic life. By defending in fullness and in its most profound and visible aspects the everlasting truths of the Catholic faith, life, and practice, Traditional Catholics are and have been in fact the avant-garde of the Church. And they will continue to hold the fort.

Many of you may not know who Peter Miller is, but may have often visited his now inactive website, Seattle Catholic - one of the very first Catholic news sources and aggregators on the web, focused on Traditional matters. We are very pleased to have him as a guest, and this is his first contribution to our blog - hopefully, the first of several, as he discusses these points of contention.

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Focusing on Springtime
Peter Miller

There the King comes, and his avant-garde with flowers in their hands
Corpus Christi of the St.-Eugène/Ste.-Cécile community, Paris (by G.Bridault)

Although verbal skirmishes among Catholics are nothing new, the modern ubiquity of internet communications seems to have accelerated these battles to a fever pitch. Recently, combatting the “rad trads” has become a popular front in this ongoing war of words, serving to provide (to me at least) a certain degree of short-term nostalgia. It was a mere dozen years (and almost as many children) ago that similar debates distributed on actual newsprint helped facilitate my willingness to honestly consider for the first time what I had previously dismissed as “traditionalist” sophistries. The results would lead to my abandoning previous prejudices toward these Catholics, and starting a website with a primary objective of helping present and defend those same ideas I had previously discounted. Such lofty goals led to my typing numerous rambling, awkwardly-worded columns (consider yourself forewarned) for which the most obvious wages have been years of anonymous electronically-delivered scorn that seem destined to continue in perpetuity.

The labels may have changed, but the substance of the attacks remains the same. I used to be an “integrist” and “schismatic” but have since graduated to the ranks of “rad trad” and “Pelagian”. At one time I would have eagerly jumped into the fray to offer a defense and take some swings of my own, but these days it’s hard to muster the energy toward such a campaign for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the current ecclesial landscape is much different today than it was twelve years ago, with many of the more contentious points of debate cast in a new context by what has transpired in the Church. But more importantly, it’s become harder for me to see these debates as holding significant importance for the future of the Church, as they are likely to cause more harm than benefit.

A dozen years ago, many of those devoted to the Latin Mass lived a very different life than they do today. In those days, it was typical to find oneself pleading with an unsympathetic prelate for permission to attend a Latin Mass – an indult-based accommodation for which we had no recognized juridical right, with access granted or withheld according to each bishop’s whim. At best, we were tolerated as a novel anachronism with an irrational nostalgia for something happily relegated to the dustbin of history. More often however, we were considered by clerics and apologists alike to be a sinister fifth column infecting the Church. While such relative inconvenience pales in comparison to the real sacrifices and suffering previous Catholics endured during these past decades as they tried to preserve our heritage, the concerns being presented and the ones who presented them were no less derided.

That seems to be less the case today, as it is more common to see questions and concerns which had been previously met with scoffs and shaking heads, voiced by more and more Catholics from various backgrounds. A decade ago, I wouldn’t have believed I’d be reading a Catholic New York Times columnist warning against the pitfalls of “papolatry” 1; or a national political correspondent raising an eyebrow in Slate at the pace of recent canonizations 2; or The Washington Post running a column which challenges the official internal narrative of a glorious post-conciliar era 3. In years past, one would need to look diligently for Catholic writers willing to put their names next to such words. Today, hearing those same claims is a common enough occurrence as to pass by with little controversy.

So what is it that is different today than a dozen years ago? What has changed? Although I won’t pretend to offer a thorough analysis of all the factors that may have contributed to this shift, I believe there were several key events that played a role – all related to the papacy of Benedict XVI.


One main factor had less to do with who would succeed Pope John Paul II, but that the historically long pontificate had come to an end. For many Catholics, John Paul II was the only pope they really knew, or could remember being conscious of as their pope. He became “THE” Pope rather than “a” or “the current” pope, and his personality, approach and priorities would become personally identified with the papacy. By extension, anyone questioning one of the Pope’s actions was seen as an anti-Catholic attacker of the Holy Father and his office. Having two other popes over the past decade has highlighted the difference in personalities, mission and focus individual popes have – and helped draw more of a distinction between the office of the papacy and the man who occupies it.

Although the end of John Paul II’s papacy was sure to bring notable changes, the selection of Cardinal Ratzinger to succeed him was of particular intrigue. Here was someone whose views were well known before he stepped out onto the balcony. He had voiced numerous concerns with the post-conciliar liturgical reforms, held a relatively tempered view of Vatican II and had direct experience in dealings with the SSPX. He not only knew well the concerns of those who were pushed aside by the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, but he shared a number of them himself.

As Catholics follow the lead of the Holy Father, his interest in liturgical matters had a ripple effect throughout the Church, where what had previously been relegated to the status of a niche hobby became a major focus of study and emphasis. Just as many followed John Paul II’s lead on ecumenical efforts and are taking to heart Pope Francis’ focus on simplicity, Catholics made an effort to follow Benedict XVI’s liturgical direction, which challenged those who had combined a strict adherence to Catholic doctrine with a laissez faire approach to Catholic worship.

While it certainly wasn’t the liturgical policy change most directly affecting the Latin Mass, the implementation of new translations for the 1970 Missal would occur on Pope Benedict XVI’s watch and produce some intriguing results. The change of “for all” to “for many” in the consecration formula addressed perhaps the most glaring example of deviation from the Church’s liturgical heritage, and an easy target for critics. The implementation of the various changes would also lead to the amusing spectacle of aging priests and liturgists mounting an effort to fight the new translations, citing the potential for serious disruption of Catholics in pews having the Mass with which they were familiar significantly changed. Oh, the irony.

Although there were the usual pockets of resistance to the effort, a vast majority of Mass-going Catholics accepted and embraced the changes, many receiving for the first time an education in certain liturgical principles and customs. The experience of hearing Catholic radio hosts and even USCCB representatives echo Michael Davies by invoking the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi to promote the changes was nothing short of surreal. Mass-goers who had assumed liturgical practices to be primarily the result of Roman dictates were introduced to the ways in which the liturgy ought to communicate timeless principles, and the importance of proper worship. Although this may not seem like a significant event, such an education effort on the importance of liturgical matters can’t help but plant numerous seeds for future.

Of course, the primary event which changed how Catholics view the Latin Mass was the issuance of Summorum Pontificum. While offering another analysis of this motu proprio and its particulars would be superfluous, it’s worth noting two key aspects. First, it didn’t merely issue new decrees, but elucidated key underlying principles and settled several hotly-debated canonical issues – particularly with regard to whether the 1962 Roman Missal had ever been abrogated and the rights of Catholics to use prior sacramental forms. It also included in its accompanying letter to bishops an inspirational passage which particularly resonates for those seeking to preserve the traditions of our forefathers:

“What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.” 4

Although the wording of Summorum Pontificum was a welcome change from its predecessors on such matters, the effect has been even more profound. The Latin Mass was freed from the stigma of being subject to an “indult” or something whose legitimacy in the current Church was in question. Following the lead of Pope Benedict XVI, and armed with the confidence conveyed by Summorum Pontificum, a new group of Catholics would seek out the “experience” of the Latin Mass. Despite the horror stories of bitter rhetoric and funny clothes, they attended these Masses and found something extraordinary – a beautiful, reverent liturgy attended by normal Catholics. It didn’t take long to discover that the “rad trad” stereotypes and internet caricatures failed to hold up in the real world. Parishioners weren’t huddled in dark corners whispering conspiracy theories or plotting against the Novus Ordo. The people there were nothing out of the ordinary, concerned with the same things most Catholics are – following God’s will, raising families, discerning vocations and trying to get to heaven. Not all visitors would continue coming, but many would make it a regular part of their lives.

A dozen years ago, a bishop could claim with a straight face that the Latin Mass was for elderly Catholics, nostalgic for the olden days and having trouble making the transition. That was never an accurate assessment of reality, but these days the claim is even more absurd. Latin Mass communities are teeming with young families and children to such an extent that it’s become a cliché. The average age and family size of these parishes are sources of hope for the future – and it’s the future of the Church where the earthly results of our efforts will come to fruition. We’re often accused by critics of being “stuck in the past” or trying to “turn back the clock” – which may be true in a certain sense, but primarily used to shine a spotlight on the impossibilities associated with stopping or reversing the passage of time. However, implicit in such criticism may be some beneficial advice – at least as far as tone and message are concerned. What is more accurately sought is a future in which we reclaim those riches that have been preserved throughout the history of the Church and carry them forward into the future. In particular, we seek to reach a point where the most recent traditions and policies aren’t given such significant emphasis over the treasures that have come before. The key catalyst in this process may end up being time itself.

An old diocesan priest once told me that Vatican II and the 1970 Missal won’t be reasonably evaluated until the current leadership has retired, since those who see the conciliar reforms as their principal accomplishment and life’s work will reflexively and vigorously defend them against any perceived challenge. They were convinced that God put them on the earth at a specific moment in history to implement a renewal and improvement of the Church via the Second Vatican Council (or whatever their interpretation of its “spirit” would come to be). Like the proverbial hammer wielder seeing a world full of nails, to these men, all problems could be remedied with an increasing dose of Aggiornamento. From this perspective, it’s hard for such individuals to critically consider the merits of recent pastoral policies, or to objectively evaluate their results.

Although not explicitly stated as such, Vatican II was for years effectively treated as the lens through which to view the entirety of the Church. The Church was what Vatican II said it was – or what someone’s interpretation of Vatican II’s “spirit” said it was. The future Pope Benedict XVI recognized this tendency in his 1988 address to the bishops of Chile. The then Cardinal Ratzinger lamented that…

“There are many accounts of it which give the impression that, from Vatican II onward, everything has been changed, and that what preceded it has no value or, at best, has value only in the light of Vatican II. The Second Vatican Council has not been treated as a part of the entire living Tradition of the Church, but as an end of Tradition, a new start from zero. The truth is that this particular Council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council; and yet many treat it as though it had made itself into a sort of superdogma which takes away the importance of all the rest.” 5

Fortunately, this unbalanced perspective is also waning, as Vatican II is less frequency treated as the primary source of Catholic doctrine. A decade ago, it was much more common to hear explanations of Catholic teaching start with “as Vatican II taught…” and “according to Vatican II…” The Second Vatican Council was treated as “THE” council rather than “a” council. These days, it is much more common to hear more balanced citations with references to earlier councils, encyclicals, and papal pronouncements. In particular, the promotion and study of the Fathers of the Church has been undergoing a recent revival – an effort which is timely in any era.

As this prior generation of priests and liturgists enter retirement years, younger Catholics are coming through parishes and seminaries who will leave their own mark upon the Church. They are re-discovering liturgical beauty and reclaiming their heritage and birthright. They aren’t convinced of the timelessness of liturgical practices and music that were produced in the 60’s and 70’s. They don’t share their predecessors’ hysterical scorn of the “bad old days” of “pre-conciliarism”. The aging liberal priests and pastoral personnel have seen their revolutionary hubris backfire as their clarion call for Catholics to turn away from the past has provided little reason for their own experiments to be immune from the same fate.

There remain, however, not a few bishops who continue to see the 1962 Missal and its adherents as threats. This was evident in the “problems” Pope Benedict XVI identified with the implementation of Summorum Pontificum, particularly with the French and German episcopacies. Rather than announce outright opposition to the motu proprio, the more effective tactic is to subtlety re-translate, re-interpret and adjust its provisions, ostensibly to adapt the directives to their particular region’s “pastoral needs.” If such leaders were willing to resist Summorum during Benedict XVI’s pontificate, how much more emboldened would they be under Pope Francis, who has shown liturgical matters (and traditional devotional forms) to not be of the same priority as they were his predecessor? As was seen under John Paul II, individual papal directives are only as effective as the Supreme Legislator chooses to make them, and there are plenty of documents containing encouraging words which were effectively ignored (e.g., Dominicae Cenae, Ecclesia Dei). Whether Summorum Pontificum ends up in that same filing cabinet will depend on whether the prelates who opposed it in the first place succeed in putting it through an ongoing series of dental extractions, and what type of opposition they encounter.

The first serious test of the enduring power of Summorum Pontificum and how much has actually changed in its wake will be seen as the troubling situation with the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate (FFI) continues to unfold. Although there is a lot of misinformation being spread on this matter by certain journalists and self-appointed institute spokesmen (so much so that the FFI needed to issue a statement that “the only official spokesman of our Institute, especially in this very delicate situation, remains our Procurator General…” 6) their official website (www.immacolata.com) provides the underlying facts of the situation. While the FFI has adopted the proper response of obedience in this matter (despite needing to defend their founder against calumnies) and the intervention may not end up technically contradicting the letter of Summorum Pontificum, the current remedy is clearly contrary to its intent. The fact that the contested complaints of such a small minority of friars 7 could lead to such a Vatican intervention, and that the proper remedial measure was determined to be a suspension of permission to offer the Traditional Latin Mass (“Vetus Ordo”) points to an outdated mentality that still holds the 1962 Missal to be a sort of radioactive material which needs to be kept under tight controls and prevented from getting out of hand. Would less than one percent of the Jesuits complaining to Rome about problems in their order receive such a response? Can anyone seriously imagine Pope Benedict XVI signing such a decree, particularly as he was working on reconciliation with the SSPX? Hopefully, this is all a serious misunderstanding that will be resolved in a just and reasonable manner rather than a step backward to a time where Latin Mass appreciation was considered a mark of suspicion.

Regardless of the outcome, the FFI situation should serve as a wake-up call for those tempted to breathe a sigh of relief after the issuance of Summorum Pontificum that the days of being treated like second class citizens for remaining attached to the Vetus Ordo were safely behind us. Summorum didn’t come out of nowhere; it was the result of decades of dedication, prayer and sacrifice by Catholics who were abused and humiliated for their failure to “get with the times.” It isn’t a foregone conclusion that times have completely changed and the pendulum will automatically start swinging back again. Summorum was an important milestone, but is not the end of the story. Years of intense opposition to the Latin Mass didn’t disappear overnight and those who have worked to prevent its propagation are showing no signs of giving up their efforts – and nor should we. The removal of most restrictive regulations surrounding the Latin Mass was a step in the right direction, but it was still only one step.

Throughout her history, the Church has undergone various ebbs and flows, times of contraction and expansion, trial and glory, winters and springtimes. These springtime periods have principally been products of grace, but didn’t happen without the cooperation of individual Catholics. Some did so in extraordinary ways for which we honor them as saints and heroes, while the majority would offer less remarkable but no less important contributions. They were the fathers sacrificing to support their children while instilling in them lifelong virtues, the mothers nurturing and educating their young to pass on a love of truth and beauty, the priests administrating sacraments to a population starving for grace, the sons and daughters of the Church striving on a daily basis to deny themselves and live according to God’s will. They number in the millions and although their names and stories are mostly unknown, they were the building blocks of Christendom. They sowed the field from which sprung St. Gregory the Great, St. Dominic, St. Pius V, St. Ignatius Loyola and other giants of the Faith whom we honor for their heroic roles in greatest eras of the Church.

Although Catholics are skilled at forming circular firing squads, at a certain point we’re going to have to wake up to the fact that we’re ultimately all on the same side, and the Church is facing much more serious threats than “extremists” and “rad trads”. Now, as much as any time before, the world needs the Catholic Church, and needs it at full strength, proclaiming truth and beauty and holiness and faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The world needs the Church, and the Church needs saints and heroes and ordinary Catholics to work together toward its next glorious age.

What are we doing to help bring about this next springtime? In another fifty years, when Catholics look back upon this time in history, how will it look – and what will each of our roles be? Will we continue to hold onto our bitterness and grudges, or will this be the time when we reclaim the zeal of our own saints, missionaries and martyrs – our older brothers and sisters still with us in this extended family of the Church? Will we spend our time throwing stones at one another or re-focus on what is truly important – to grow and live in the knowledge that our Holy Catholic Faith is something worth sacrificing for, worth fighting for, worth living for, and worth dying for. For it is when this conviction is once again held by the preponderance of Catholics that the next springtime will arrive.
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1. Ross Douthat, "Conservative Catholics and the New Pope", The New York Times, July 31, 2013.
2. Michael Brendan Dougherty, "Who Am I to Judge?", Slate, July 30, 2013.
3. Kenneth J. Wolfe, "Vatican II at 50", The Washington Post, October 11, 2012.
5. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Address to the Bishops of Chile", July 13, 1988.
6. Franciscans of the Immaculate, “OFFICIAL NOTE of 03 Aug 2013: A RESPONSE TO VATICAN INSIDER”, August 3, 2013.