Rorate Caeli

"A Response to Bp. Barron's Criticism of Traditionalism": You can't Evangelize the Revolutionized World With a New Mass Locked in the 1960s Revolution -- A Letter by Fr. Cipolla

Dear Bishop Barron:

I have written many Letters to the Editor in my lifetime to the New York Times and to the Wall Street Journal—bona fide credentials of my moderate and centrist persona—and now I feel compelled to write this letter to you to respond to your recent article called “The Evangelical Path of Word on Fire”. I am a Catholic priest, soon to be an octogenarian. It would seem more prudent at this time in my life to lay aside those things that threaten the peace and equanimity that one should strive for at this stage of my life. But alas, my Southern Italian genetic makeup does not make it easy to live a laid- back life at this time when I should give oneself over to contemplation and remembrance of things past.

I have followed your career in the Church for some years now, with a good deal of admiration for your stand against what you call liberal Catholicism.  St. John Henry Newman, that great opponent of liberalism in religion, would approve of your battle against “beige Catholicism”.  Your many instructional DVDs show clearly that you understand the important role of Beauty in the Catholic faith.  You are obviously of man of real faith who loves the Church.

Your brief article refers to two types of Catholics that manifest themselves at this time and that you consider to be aberrant, for very different reasons, from your understanding of Catholicism , which you speak about as Evangelical Catholicism. The first is “liberal Catholicism”, which has predominated since the years after the Second Vatican Council.  You describe this type of Catholicism as “culturally accommodating…unsure of itself..a Church that had allowed its distinctive colors to be muted and its sharp edges to be dulled.”  You agree that, in the words of Cardinal George, that liberal Catholicism is “a spent project”.

You go on to criticize what Cardinal George called “Conservative Catholicism” that “takes refuge in earlier cultural forms of faith expression and absolutizes them for all times and all places”.  But the main part of your article deals with a movement that has arisen in the past several years.

“In recent years, a fiercely traditionalist movement has emerged within American Catholicism, finding a home particularly in the social media space.  It has come about partly, as a reaction to the same beige Catholicism that I have criticized, but its ferocity is due to the scandals that have shaken that Church the past thirty years, especially the McCarrick situation. In their anger and frustration, some of it justified, these arch-traditionalists Catholics have become nostalgic for the Church of the pre-conciliar period and antipathetic toward the Second Vatican Council itself, Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and particularly our present Holy Father.”

You conclude that the attitude of these radical Traditionalists are leading to their “stepping outside the confines of the Church”. You characterize this type of Catholicism as “self-devouring”, the manifestation of which is their constant anger at anyone who dares to challenge them.

I think that you see yourself as a Via Media between Conservative and Liberal Catholics.  But I must caution you about espousing any Via Media, as Cardinal Newman himself would caution you from his own experience with this way of thinking.  The problem is not your espousal of a vigorous Evangelical Catholicism. The problem is that you are a child not merely of the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, but also and more importantly you are a product of the Novus Ordo world.  Your understanding of the Liturgy, “the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed,” is based on a form of the Mass that is both a radical break with the Tradition and also a product of the 1960s, a form that has relevance now only to the two generations that followed the Council.  Surely one of the reasons for the precipitous decline in regular Mass attendance—in some diocese less that 15% — is that for those young men and women growing up now the Novus Ordo Mass has no relevance to what they are seeking spiritually.  They are seeking the Bread and Wine of heaven, not the product of a blender that looks and tastes like baby food. 

   You are too young to have had any experience of the Church before the Second Vatican Council.  You were six years old when the Council ended.  You were a small child when the constant liturgical changes were shaking the Church, and you were only 11 when the Novus Ordo Missal of St. Paul VI was promulgated and the Traditional Roman Mass of at least 1500 years was suppressed.  What little you  heard about the Traditional Mass was highly filtered by those who welcomed the suppression of the Traditional Mass and the imposition of a liturgical form never seen before in the Catholic Church. I remember quite well CCD teachers who thought it their duty to suppress all reference to the Traditional Mass and to a belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and to deny that the Mass is a true and real Sacrifice.  

Yours is the generation for which the Traditional Liturgy was “canceled”. Cancel culture, so au courant right now, was anticipated years ago in the immediate post-Conciliar age with regard to the liturgical life of the Church.  But “cancellation” cannot work in a Church that is connected to eternity and the Eternal God.  My own discovery of the Traditional Roman Mass was a shattering spiritual experience in my life as a priest that bore much good fruit in my ministry and that filled me with a joy that nothing can take away.  The many seminarians and young priests who are attracted by the Traditional Mass are fortunate in that they are of a generation for whom the Traditional Mass was un-cancelled by authority.  These men, and many women, both religious and lay, have found a pearl of great price and that makes them very happy, spiritually happy, indeed.

I deplore the negativity of so many who call themselves Traditional Catholics. Your understanding of Traditional Catholics at least in part from those whose rantings you often see on social media who seem to be living in an alternative universe and are angry at the Church and angry about everything that makes up this post-modern world in which we live.  But I would suggest that these malcontents are not Traditional Catholics at all but what I call Radicals.  They confuse adherence to the Traditional Roman Mass with a blanket condemnation of the present parlous condition of our society and, sadly, a condemnation of all who lead the Catholic Church today.  You are right in saying that these Catholics—who yet are not to be condemned but prayed for within the charity of our Lord—are often not interested in Evangelization, which is a fundamental imperative for the Church given to her by our Lord. 

 But you must see—and here again your sitz im leben puts you at a real disadvantage—that much of their angst is due to the turmoil within the Church and society of the past fifty years.  You did not experience, as did I, the collapse of religious education in the post-Conciliar period, the collapse of the Religious Orders, and the near collapse of the priesthood.  The bringing to light—that light fought against by those chosen by Christ to lead his Church—of the gross and systemic sexual corruption of the clergy confirmed for many Catholics that something had gone terribly wrong in the years after the Second Vatican Council.  In this way the distrust of the hierarchy and clergy by so many Catholics is manifest in a special way by those you call arch-traditionalist Catholics.  

Yes, Evangelization is the central issue.  But as Pope Benedict XVI knew, you cannot evangelize the world with a Novus Ordo Mass whose roots and rationale are locked in the 1960s.  That is why he issued the Motu Proprio that un-cancelled the Traditional Roman Mass. It is indeed ironic that you who understand so well the role of beauty in the Christian faith, you who understand that one of the names of God is Beauty, refuse to acknowledge that the very heart of the Church’s liturgical life has been emptied out by the disastrous reforms after the Council that had little to do with Sacrosanctum Concilium and everything to do with those with itching ears and a puffed up sense of their own intelligence and afflicted with the mid-century hatred of the past combined with a grossly sentimental understanding of the Christian faith --–they had never heard that Newman called sentimentality the acid of religion—-nearly destroyed the organic whole of the Liturgy of the Catholic Church.

Now when you read that last paragraph you will be tempted to write me off as another RadTrad.  But I am not.  I am a happy man who loves the Catholic Church and her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  I rejoice that so many young seminarians and priest are discovering for themselves the beauty and depth of the Traditional Roman Mass.  I rejoice that so many Catholic families have discovered what worship of God means as they experience it in the Traditional Roman Mass.  And these people are truly evangelical.  They do not take the attitude that “we have found what we like and what suits us and the rest of the Church can go to hell”.  Not at all. They are joyous and welcoming, and they are evangelical in the truest sense.  If you met them you would like them, and you would see that they want the same thing as you do:  to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ throughout a world that so needs to hear this Good News. 

In today’s New York Times there is an Op-Ed called “Influencers are the New Televangelists.”.  It is written by a woman who describes what she and many others, especially women, have plugged into on the internet: a “gospel (that is) an accessible combination of self-care, activism and tongue in cheek Christianity (“Jesus loves me this I know, for he gave me Lexapro.”)  The author describes her realization, strengthened by what she has been going through in the pandemic, how the pandemic “has opened inside me a profound yearning for reverence, humility and awe.” She ends her piece with these words: “Contrary to what you might have seen on Instagram, our purpose is not to optimize our one wild and precious life. It’s time to search for meaning beyond the electric church that keeps us addicted to our phones and alienated from our closest kin.”  And she asks: “May we actually need to go to something like church?”

I would say to her that going to a typical Catholic parish Mass on Sunday is most probably not where you find reverence, humility and awe.  There you will most probably see a man standing at  table in funny clothes claiming to be speaking to God while facing the people to whom he is not speaking.  You would find a layman or a laywoman  doing readings that    often mean very little to those listening.  You would encounter music that is woefully mediocre and sentimental that could not possibly inspire reverence and awe.  You would listen to a sermon that consists of an opening joke to get the people convinced that what else will be said is not serious, followed by a summary of the day’s gospel, and a conclusion that is summarized in “have a good day”. You would see people in the pews who are dressed not for an experience of awe and reverence but rather to go to an informal lunch after Mass.  You would see little that could not be streamed and therefore has little to do with the terrible fact of reality.  

Bishop Barron, I think you ought to write less and talk less and get out more and meet people. And by meeting people I do not mean leading conferences and giving important talks.  I mean listening to not only your fans but to all sorts and conditions of men and women, and I would hope that you would venture even to sit “in choir” in a parish in your diocese that offers the Traditional Roman Mass and to see what you see and hear what you hear. But you must put aside your mid-century prejudices that you mistake for a new manifestation of Truth.  

The big advantage of the Traditional Roman Mass is that you can relax. You don’t have to be on stage. You don’t have to deliver a brilliant sermon.  You don’t have make the Mass relevant to the congregation.  You just have to be willing to “play in the fields of the Lord."

Oremus pro invicem.

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla