Rorate Caeli

The Living Center of Catholic Tradition: Sermon for Pentecost XVI


He said:  Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fall into a pit, and will not immediately draw him up on the Sabbath?  And they could give Him no answer to these things.  (Luke 14:5)

In my fantasy, what is needed at precisely this point in the scene in today’s gospel is for Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof to bring down the house with his rendition of Tradition.  Tradishuun! Tradishuun!  How many bad  but endearing productions have we seen of this endearing musical in high school performances where a blond blue eyed lacrosse player takes the part of a peasant Russian Jew and belts out “Tradition”?  But there is a conflict between Tevye and his children: and the basis of the conflict is Tradition with a capital T.  

And that is the conflict in today’s gospel between Jesus and the Pharisees. That Jesus chooses to eat with the Pharisees, he goes to their houses and invites himself to dinner to me is a striking  example of his authenticity, because it is so unreligious, so unpietistical to do so. 

The clash here, which is a foretaste of the ultimate clash that leads to the Cross, is between the understanding of Tradition, again, with a capital T.  We all know that this clash has nothing to do with Christmas trees and turkey on Thanksgiving and something borrowed, something blue—all traditions—not to be scoffed at, but in the end, just traditions.  The Pharisees have a corner on the Tradition of Judaism, or so they think.  For they identify the Tradition with the Law, especially the complex everyday application of the Law. And Jesus comes into this situation, not as an outsider, but as a Jew who has invited himself to this dinner, and by his very person and presence challenges the Pharisees’ understanding of Tradition.

First of all he insists that Tradition must be understood in the light of reason.  Of course, the Pharisees do not know that Jesus is the enfleshment of the Logos, the Reason of the universe.  It is not that Jesus does not understand the importance of the complexity of the following of the Law. It is not that he does not see the importance of the carrying out of the Law in everyday life.  But he sees, as only God can see, that the carrying out of the Law without reason is a fruitless religious exercise that has little to do with faith in God.  To jump two thousand years, we can quote Pope Benedict  to the effect that faith without reason is fanaticism and reason without faith is rationalism.  Both deadly dead ends.  

But like all of the gospels, this gospel must speak to us today. The living Word of God proclaimed here just a few minutes ago  speaks to us today in where we live.  And speak it does, for the struggle within the world and within the Church is precisely on the question of Tradition.  We can dispose of the world quite readily with the observation that the secular world has no interest in Tradition, for Tradition is something that can have no place at all in a self-centered ahistorical view of reality.  But the struggle about Tradition is the basic problem in the Church today and has been ever since the Protestant Reformation.  Luther’s nailing of his theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg was a traditional thing to do, traditional with a small T.  But his statement: “Here I stand, I can do no other”,  even within the state of the Church that needed serious reform, is a repudiation of the Catholic Tradition in an absolute way.  The elevation of the I over the We, the ripping apart of the I from the We of faith:  this is the denial of the Catholic understanding of the Christian faith based on the gospels and the epistles of St Paul. 

The historical fact of the dissolution of Protestantism into many, many sects, each claiming some authenticity, is clear evidence of the deep wrongness of Luther’s version of Christianity.  But of greater concern is the struggle within the Catholic Church about Tradition. And it is this struggle that, when the history books are written, will be seen, I believe, as equal to the struggles in the patristic Church about the nature and person of Jesus Christ.  The gang of Catholic theologians who held a press conference about the Pope Paul VI’s  encyclical Humane Vitae condemning artificial means of contraception even before the encyclical was officially published, are a prime example of the anti-Traditionalist forces within the Catholic Church.  But they pale in comparison with those who in the days following the Second Vatican Council treated the Sacred Liturgy as something to be manipulated and brought up to date quite apart from any Catholic understanding of Tradition, with a capital T.  If you want to attack the Catholic Church at her heart, attack her worship, attack what Vatican II said is the heart of the matter.  And the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council  declares that the Mass is the heart of the matter, and it does so remembering, remembering in the deepest sense of that word, in the Marian sense, St Paul’s words about the Eucharist: “ I hand down to you what was handed down to me.”  The Latin word: traditio:  handing down.  The Greek word  paradosis:  handing down.   From Christ to the apostles, the apostles, the witnesses of the resurrected Christ,, those who encountered him in the Upper Room, those who recognized Him in the breaking of the Bread,  those who saw him ascend into heaven.  They are those who handed down the fundamentals of Catholic Tradition , at first orally, but then written down in the Gospels that form the bedrock of Catholic Tradition together with the epistles of St. Paul and the rest of the New Testament. 

 And yet, there is something more fundamental to say about the Tradition of the Catholic Church. For the Tradition is not something that  can be reduced to words, even the words of Holy Scripture.  For the Tradition of the Catholic Church is defined by the living person of Jesus Christ. He is the very heart of the Tradition. The Tradition is in-formed by the Logos of God, in the power of the Holy Spirit. It can never be reduced to mere words.  The Tradition is the living person of Jesus Christ who informs and lives in His Church. He lives not as an idea but he lives as the God -man in every tabernacle of every Catholic Church in this world, he lives in this parish church as really as he lives in heaven seated at the right hand of the Father.  And because he, in the most fundamental way, is the heart, the bedrock of Tradition, and because he is alive in the deepest sense, the Tradition of the Church cannot ever be identified with some fossilized, stagnant religiosity that has more in common with the Pharisees than with the Catholic faith. 

The Catholic faith cannot be pigeonholed into labels like conservative or liberal; it cannot be held to the specious reasoning of the world; it cannot be caged in some sort of religious cubby.  For the Tradition of the Church is like a mighty lion, and is encountered, yes, in the Scriptures and in the authentic preaching of the Church and in the teaching of the magisterium.  But this Tradition is encountered, is felt, tasted, embodied above all in the very Mass we are celebrating.  For it is here that we encounter and are challenged by and are struck by and are forced to encounter face to face the Tradition of the Catholic Church in all of its reality in this time and space that breaks into  eternity itself.  Hoc enim est corpus meum. And this not in mere words, but in the silence of God, and which silence is the final resting place of that faith in Jesus Christ who as God and man is the center of the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla