Rorate Caeli

Cassocks, Tradition, and the Dying of the New Church of Vatican II

The blog, Messa in Latino, quite recently published two pieces about Facebook postings by one of the clergy of the Bergamo diocese, Monsignor Alberto Cararra.  They are both significant in offering hope that even in Italy the light of Tradition may be dawning.

The first piece is about the ordination of three young men to the priesthood in the Cathedral of Sant’Alessandro Martyr this past August.  The author points out that as late as the early ‘90s the diocese was ordaining over twenty priests a year.  So that only three were ordained this past year was a real disappointment. One of the new young priests, don Michele Zanoni, had a photo taken of himself with the cathedral in the background.  He was dressed in “veste talare con la fascia”, in a cassock and sash, the traditional dress for a priest until after the Second Vatican Council.

The well-known and well-connected Monsignor Cararra, a Canon of the Cathedral, posted the photo on his Facebook page with a commentary. After speaking about the beauty of the photo, he goes on to say the following(my translation):

But one thing caught my eyes.  The new priest was not only wearing a cassock, but also a sash. The uniform of a priest in the diocese of Bergamo may include a cassock,( but ..there are also priests who do not wear a cassock.)  A small thing to point out, but still strange. In that it seems to fall in line with an excessive show of clerical solemnity that goes beyond what is required.  I don’t want to make this a problem, but I can’t be enthusiastic about this. Because in the end one could think as follows:  priests who are not serious wear lay clothes, priests who are somewhat serious wear clericals, priests who are really serious wear a cassock, and priests who are super-serious wear a sash.  …On the day of his First Mass I would have rather have had an affirmation of fraternity than ardor for distinction.

The photograph of Msgr. Cararra shows him in lay clothes, which we hope is not a sign that he is not serious about his priesthood.   

A small point, but in Monsignor’s own words, still strange.  In a militantly secular society, the dress of a priest is ever more important, and it is a fact that where I live in the United States the young priests wear a cassock more often than not, even outside of the parish.  They understand the significance of the priest’s standing out in the contemporary crowd marked by the loss of faith of any kind except in themselves. The cassock, when worn with manliness and humility, is a sign of that contradiction that lies at the heart of the Catholic faith , the Cross of the God-man, Jesus Christ.

The second piece publishes a second Facebook post by the very same Monsignor Cararra.  This one announces the death of his friend, Claudio Salvetti.  As we can see from this second posting, Monsignor Cararra cannot resist offering commentary that extends quite beyond the topic at hand.

Claudio Salvetti has died, a great friend, a layman, generous and open, a great man. I have a lump in my throat that is indescribable. I immediately linked Claudio’s death with that of Don Sergio, Don Sergio Colombo, the not forgotten pastor of Redone.  The two of them not by chance. had a deep friendship between them. These are deaths that stand out, significant. Going beyond this perhaps a bit too much, I have the impression that also what is dying is a certain Church, impassioned for the new, for the world, for culture, which the more it is evangelical the more it is human, the more it is itself, the more it opens itself up.There is coming forth a Church of aggressive laity who use their faith as a barrier against all openness, certain young new priests who think they are being more Church by closing themselves off in their cassocks, their lace and their Latin. The Claudios that are still here are dying. New Claudios are appearing nowhere on the horizon. Perhaps I am just being pessimistic.  Perhaps.

These two postings demand commentary.  They are obviously linked by the Monsignor’s understanding of the Church and the priesthood, which seems is the typical view of the great majority of the priests in positions of some power—even if that power is only a title—in Italy.  We can I think extrapolate this attitude to most of the bishops of Italy, whose number per capita far exceeds that of the United States.  

First of all, his objection to the fascia is really his objection to the cassock.  He long ago decided to become a post-Vatican II priest that demanded he turn his back on such things as the Traditional dress of the priest that he was taught was a barrier to truly functioning as a priest, at least as a caring, open, loving priest.  He may have had bad experiences with priests who wore a cassock out of a pride that severely diminished their ability to be true pastors.  But he chose to follow the path of denial of the Tradition of the special dress of the priest in the name of New Church.  He was not able, as were many clergy, of distinguishing between those who used Tradition to distort their priesthood and those who embraced it in order to be an obvious leaven in the loaf despite real difficulties.  This cleric of the Papal Household long ago denied the God-given continuity of the Catholic Church through time, which may have been and is even now difficult to clearly see and understand, in favor of New Church that broke the continuity with the Catholic Tradition.

But it is interesting that, given the parlous situation over-all in the Church in Italy that denies the rupture with Tradition after Vatican II, he does see, much to his horror, the beginning of a return to Tradition that manifests itself in outward forms like that newly ordained priest in a cassock and sash. And he is right to see this.

 But I must at this point offer a severe caveat concerning outward signs of Tradition among young priests as guaranteeing their real understanding of and devotion to Catholic Tradition.  As someone who has been and is still totally  committed to the Tradition of the Church and has worked for the affirmation of Tradition in the Liturgy  for most of his priesthood, I also must point out the real problem of young clergy who are fond of “smells and bells” and lace and pre-55 Holy Week but who lack the education and spiritual grounding and the willingness to embrace self-sacrifice to do what has to be done to be witnesses to Tradition in a secular world whose secularism has permeated the Church. Love of beauty without a sacrificial commitment to truth and to personal goodness does not the Traditional Catholic priest make.  It makes a High Church Anglican. 

With respect to Monsignor Cararra’s second Facebook post, it is heartening that he sees that the Church founded on the sand of the Spirit of Vatican II is indeed dying. Those who believe in New Church have never understood that openness to the world does not mean changing doctrine to suit the world.  It means openness to the world to fulfill the Christ-given mission to convert the world to faith in the love of God in Jesus Christ and to preach salvation for sins through the Cross of Jesus Christ and the hope, the only hope, of eternal life in His Cross and Resurrection.  That is what New Church has forgotten and perhaps even denied.  That is why our churches are empty, not only in Italy, but in much of the Western world.

May our young priests have the courage and strength to return to Sacred Tradition.  And may those of us who have labored for this return for so many years teach them the difference between lovely traditions and Tradition, and that difference is the Cross.

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla