Rorate Caeli

A Letter to a Seminarian thinking of leaving the Seminary -- from his Parish Priest

 A Letter to A Seminarian thinking of leaving the Seminary, from his Parish Priest

by Fr. Richard G. Cipolla

Note: The following is an article in epistolary form. 

Henri Cartier-BressonSeminarians outside Burgos, Spain1953

Dear James:

I received your letter, and I must admit that it saddened me.  I shall be sure to pray for you when I celebrate Mass.  I am happy that you have not made a definite decision about whether to leave seminary.  When you made the decision to enter Seminary from our parish I was—as you remember—deeply happy.  I read your letter several times carefully.  Some of your perceived problems are a normal part of adjusting to seminary life.  But one part of your letter struck me deeply, and I quote it back to you:   

I cannot be myself here in the seminary.  I am always pretending to be someone else.  I feel like I am playing a game with the rector and the other priests here, putting on a façade in order to please them, or so I do not get into ‘trouble’.  This exhausts me especially spiritually but also physically.  I came to seminary, as you know, because for me I cannot conceive of anything else I want to do except being a priest for the rest of my life.  And also as you know, at the very center of that desire is my love for the Traditional Mass.  It was in your parish I discovered this treasure and it was serving that Mass for two years that deepened my understanding of the priesthood and what the Mass is all about.  It is that love that I cannot show here.  I have to suppress my love for the Traditional Mass and never let it show, for the faculty would see that in a negative way and that would affect my future in the diocese and may even prevent me from being ordained.  The other guys here who have the same love for the Traditional Mass have the common attitude to go with the current flow, keep your heard down, smile, never let them know what you are thinking until you are ordained.  Then it is safe to come out of the liturgical closet so to speak.  Even writing that last sentence dismays me that I should say such a thing.  So I ask myself:  Do I want to spend three more years not being honest about who I am and what drives me?  Will not this have a bad effect on me personally and if I am ordained will not this way of living, this self-denial in a deep sense, will this not continue and make my priesthood a sham? 

James, this attitude of faking who one is to “get through” seminary is a recent phenomenon, recent in the sense of after the Second Vatican Council.  Or I should say recent as after the invention of the Novus Ordo Mass and especially after Summorum Pontificum, the magna carta of the Liturgy.   I use that term “invention” certainly not in the relatively archaic sense, such as in the phrase “the Invention of the Holy Cross” which is the older title of the feast of the “Finding of the Holy Cross’ by St. Helena.  The verb “invenio” means “to find”, to “come upon” something that is already there.  The English verb “to invent” means the opposite:  to bring forth something entirely new.   I will not bore you with the history of meanings of words like revolution whose meaning bears little link with its original meaning.  We live in an age in which clear meanings of words is not part of the fabric of the world in which we live.   You should go to Arezzo to see the frescoes painted by Piero della Francesca that depict in a most amazing way the miracle of the finding of the True Cross. Only art that is based in faith can depict the truth of the Tradition.  It is Catholic art and music that have been one of the most powerful ways that the Tradition has been handed down.  So many young people attend the live concerts of works like the Monteverdi Vespers and the Mozart Requiem in New York because of the high aesthetic and spiritual quality of this music. But those who are “in charge” of the Church have not a clue about the power of this music to open up secular hearts to the beauty of the Catholic faith.  Instead we have pseudo-Protestant sentimental songs—not hymns—sung at most parishes at Mass. ‘Twas was not always so.

Those who are in charge of your seminary and those who teach you there, for the most part, are positivists.  They believe or claim to believe—and this is a novelty in Catholic thought—that whatever happens in the history of the Catholic Church is the work of the Holy Spirit.  For them to admit that the liturgical experiment after the Second Vatican Council has failed would be to shake their way of thinking about the Church and its relationship to faith.   When you combine the voluntary blindness of the positivist with an understanding of the papacy that borders on what I call pope-olotry –quite a long way from the sparse definition of infallibility defined at Vatican I— and combined with the attendant wrong headed “pastoralism” that confuses Jesus’ Gospel mandate with soothing people and making them happy, you have in a nutshell the current situation.  The current episcopacy and seminary professors will not acknowledge that the Roman Rite was destroyed and the Novus Ordo that replaced it by fiat—a power that Paul VI did not have( cf. Benedict XVI)—is something other than the Traditional Roman Rite of Mass.  If they were more courageous they would read Bugnini’s amazingly frank description of how the Novus Ordo Mass came into being, what he calls the “reform” of the Roman Rite.  If they were really interested they would also read liturgical scholars like Jungmann whose hatred of the Roman Rite was based on his own vision of what the Eucharist should be rather than what it is.

 The Roman Rite is not a document that can be amended based on the results of “scholarship”, the conclusions of which change with every generation.  The Roman Rite is a living organism and is of Divine origin.  Not for nothing do the Orthodox call their rite of Mass “The Divine Liturgy”.  The Liturgy is something there and given. It is for each of us to enter into what we have been given by the Church from the Apostolic Age through the centuries.  The original purpose of the Liturgical Movement was to educate Catholics in their understanding of and appreciation for the Mass as a part of the given-ness of what it means to be Catholic.  That changed when those heading that movement decided that they would redo the liturgy in their own image.

A friend of mine complains about the term “organic development” of the Roman Rite because this has no concrete meaning.  I tend to agree with him at one level.  The term is used to contrast the development of the Mass through the centuries with the manufactured (literally) Novus Ordo.  Never in the history of the Church before the time after the Second Vatican Council has the Roman Rite been amended by a committee of liturgists in a particular time in the Church, an age marked by a false optimism and sentimentality.  So when Benedict XVI talked about “organic development” of the Roman Rite in contrast with the contrived reforms after Vatican II, he was searching for a phrase that would give a “picture” of development over the centuries that was largely hidden and came from many sources.  The analogy to biological development is not a good one and cannot be pressed.  For me it is the hiddenness of the development—despite scholarly work in liturgical texts of the past—that the word “organic” is trying to convey.  Whether something entered into the Rite in the fourth century, the eighth century, or the thirteenth century is not relevant to the integrity of the Rite itself.  Pope Pius XII himself famously warned against archaeologism in liturgical matters in his Encyclical Mediator Dei. The irony is that it was he who allowed Bugnini et al. to begin their dis-formation of the Roman Rite based on archaeologism and scholarly prejudice and contempt for the Roman Rite under the umbrella of pastoralism.

I am sorry I have gone on with all of this, but part of the problem is that your generation knows nothing about what happened.  In a way that is good, for when you first encountered the Traditional Roman Mass, you did so without carrying the baggage of the 60’s, 70s, and 80s, that my generation and the one below me carries.  You saw the Mass for what it is:  the beauty of the worship of God in the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Christ to his Father in which Holy Silence—the only possible answer to the Ineffable—lies at its very heart.   Your discovery of the Mass is the same as that of so many of young priests today. It is true of the servers in my parish. It is true of the many young couples with kids who come to the Solemn Mass.  They have discovered the pearl of great price, and it fills them with joy and hope. 

So what should you do?  I hope you will persevere in seminary.  What you are going through is a form of suffering, and I would say it is suffering for the Church.  But there has to come a time in the near future when young men in seminary and young priests in parishes will have to speak up and challenge the establishment that is holding the rickety Novus Ordo structure up.  Objective data such as the precipitous decline in regular Mass attendance after the Second Vatican Council to the present time seems to have no effect on the positivists.  The lack of vocations to the priesthood and religious life (except in Traditional orders) seems not to bother them too much.  But the gentle and polite assertion on the part of a good number of seminarians that they have the right as Catholics to have the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite on a regular basis in the seminary will have  a real effect for the better.  And just as importantly, the young priests who have found the pearl of great price must gently and politely inform their pastors that they have the right to celebrate Mass ad orientem, as the rubrics of the Novus Ordo clearly envision.  There is nothing in the GIRM nor in the rubrics of the Novus Ordo that demand celebration of the Mass facing the people.  Mass facing the people is an innovation that has undermined the very understanding of what the Mass truly is. This challenge must be made, in charity, yes, but also with manly firmness. 

In the end, all I can tell you is this.  I am the most unlikely man to be a priest, for so many reasons.  And yet I am. And for this I am most grateful to God.  And this gives me a happiness in my heart and soul that, despite the state of the Church today, lies at the very heart of my priesthood.  The priesthood is the greatest calling for a man.  Marriage and family are wonderful and “normal” and are the foundation of the reality of the Church.  But the deepest imitation of Christ is to be a priest who offers the Sacrifice and himself every day on the altar for his people.  That is my prayer for you.  But if you should decide otherwise, my love for you will not diminish in any way.

Oremus pro invicem.

Your pastor and spiritual friend in Christ.