Rorate Caeli

Tradition and Traitors: How to tell the difference


Brethren, I make known unto you the Gospel which I preached to you, which also you have received and wherein you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast after what manner I preached unto you, unless you have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all, which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures; and that He was seen by Cephas, and after that by the eleven. Then was He seen by more than five hundred brethren at once; of whom many remain until this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. (I Corinthians, 1-4.)

The opening line of the recent Motu Proprio from Pope Francis begins with two Latin words:  Traditionis Custodes.  This refers to the bishops of the Church, including the Bishop of Rome with his special role in the Church.  What these words mean in English is “guardians of the Tradition.”  The bishops are the guardians of Catholic Tradition.  We all know what a guardian is, someone who takes careful care of something or someone given to him to make sure that what he has been entrusted with is not damaged but rather is nourished and preserved in an authentic way.  But many Catholics do not fully understand what the Tradition of the Catholic faith is.  One cannot be a guardian of something that one does not understand.  

The heart of the Tradition is the Gospel.  When we think of a Gospel, we think of the first four books of the New Testament that we call the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  But we must remember that St. Paul wrote his letters before the first Gospel was written down.  Paul’s letters are to missionary churches whose primary purpose was to explain the Gospel as he knew it. The Gospel here means the life, teaching, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and what this means.  The Gospel or Good News is that in the person of Jesus Christ, God has given us the forgiveness of sins and the hope of everlasting life.  And there is the kernel of the Tradition.

We should notice in the first sentence of the passage above from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians that the earliest part of the Tradition was oral. “The Gospel which I preached to you”.  St. Peter’s sermons after Pentecost in the book of Acts are another example of how the earliest part of the Tradition was oral, and it was that early oral Tradition that became the basis for the written Tradition, beginning with the four Gospels and then including the later epistles of the New Testament.  This written part of Tradition continues with the letters and writings of the Early Church Fathers, then the writings of the whole Patristic period, the Ecumenical Councils, the writings of the great theologians through the Middle Ages and beyond, through the Renaissance, the Baroque era, the period of the great revolutions, through the great World Wars, down to the year 2021.

But it is so important to understand that included in the very heart of the Tradition is the Mass, for the worship of the Church lies at the very heart of the growth of the Tradition guided by the Holy Spirit.  The Tradition cannot never be reduced to writings or documents that are part of the development of doctrine.  For what is true in heaven is true on earth:  central to the act of faith is not a written creed. It is the worship of the God who loved us so much that he sent his Son to die for us on the cross for our sins and who rose again on the third day to make life everlasting life possible for us.

Just as doctrine developed through the life of the Church in an organic way under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so did the Mass develop in an organic way. By organic we mean a process that was not organized by experts but rather by a process that is analogous to the development of a plant or flower, some of it obvious, much of it hidden. Local prayers, various uses of ceremonial, adding things here, taking away things there, but always understanding that the awe-full and awesome Sacrifice of the Cross lies at the heart of the Mass. The whole rite always centered around the readings from Scripture and the Roman Canon, that prayer that is the Prayer of Consecration that has come down to us from the time of Gregory the Great in the sixth century, parts of which date back before then.  The beauty of the Traditional Mass comes forth from its organic development. Just as a committee or a group of experts cannot produce a rose, so the beauty of the Traditional Mass could have only come forth from the hiddenness of the work of the Holy Spirit using the “stuff “ of people and history and faith to produce the Traditional Roman Mass. 

Our English word “tradition” comes from the Latin verb trado. The first meaning of this verb, to hand down, is what our understanding of Catholic Tradition is based on: the handing down of what was given to us from Christ and the Apostles, intact and unchanged. But there is another meaning of the Latin verb that we must always remember. It is this: “to hand over” in the sense of “to betray”.  It is this meaning that our English word “traitor” comes from.  In the first four centuries of the Church, there were terrible persecutions of Christians by the Roman government.  The Roman government quite rightly saw that Christianity was a threat to the emperor worship that upheld the Roman empire. During the persecutions there were those Christians who under the terrible threat of death agreed to burn a grain of incense before the image of the emperor, likening him to a god.  But there were also those also who handed over the sacred vessels and books used in the liturgy.  And it is this meaning of the Latin verb, in the form of the noun traditores, that is the origin of our word “traitor”, the one who does not hand down what is true and good and beautiful intact to those who have entrusted him to do so, but rather the one who hands over the Tradition to those who despise it and who try to destroy it, 

May God continue to give the Church, the bishops, priests, religious,  and especially the great majority of Catholics who are lay men and women, the strength of the Holy Spirit to resist the spirit of the world in its demand that we hand over the Saving Truth of Jesus Christ to those who, wherever they are found, despise that Truth and who want to obliterate that Truth in the name of a secular understanding of human progress.

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla