Yesterday we celebrated St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, and today is the feast day of her son. Monica’s rebellious teenager gave his mother the slip and ran off to Milan and Rome to become a most gifted orator, but for all his worldly success he could not escape his addiction to lust. “Lord,” he prayed, “make me chaste, but not yet.” During his 15 years of bondage to both the flesh and also to a sexy “new age” sect (the Manicheans), his mother prayed and wept for his deliverance. A kind bishop assured her that “it cannot be that the son of such tears should perish.” In the end, Augustine surrendered to grace, as he describes in his Confessions, history’s first literary autobiography. Augustine went on develop the theology of Christianity’s most central mysteries, such as the Holy Trinity, the natures of Christ, free will, nature and grace, and the just war theory. He wrote his last work, The City of God, as the imperial cities were collapsing around him. Alaric the Goth destroyed Rome in 410, and the last twenty years of Augustine’s life witnessed the accelerated decline of Roman civilization. Only the “City of God” can survive the rise and fall of cultures, and indeed the Catholic Church remains, weary and war torn but intact, a sacrament of the Holy City awaiting us in the next world.
Tradition and Traditionalism
I relate a bit of history this morning because “those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.” Children in our postmodern era, in fact, are not taught history but rather a disdain for everything that happened before the 21st Century. Catholic schools used to teach history, and in particular the lives of the saints, but now few of us know much about people like Augustine and Monica and their times. Those who do know the lives of the saints cannot become holy, for their stories are our stories, and their lives are given for our instruction and edification. We call sacred history “tradition,” from the Latin word tradere, “to transmit" or "hand on.” Originally the word referred to how the runners in a relay race hand on a baton from one runner to the next, as the Olympic runners still hand on the torch. The human race is a relay race, handing on knowledge and skills from one generation to the next. The smartphones we use, the cars we drive, the languages we speak, are gifts handed on from those before us. A healthy love for tradition, however, can become ossified as “traditionalism,” encasing the gifts of the past in amber, rejecting change or adaptation. Various papal decrees rejected traditionalism, with its definitive condemnation in the First Vatican Council’s decree Dei Filius of 1870.
The Church’s Tradition is essential, but so is legitimate theological development, guided by the Holy Spirit. St. Augustine developed the doctrine of the Holy Trinity by applying human reason to Biblical teachings, articulating anew the ancient belief. St. Thomas Aquinas developed the doctrine of transubstantiation by applying Aristotelian metaphysics to Christ’s teaching in John 6. “Traditionalists” rejected the teachings of both Augustine and Aquinas in their own time, but the Church ultimately recognized their teachings as authentic developments in Christian doctrine.
We try to avoid both “traditionalism,” which rejects change and development, and “progressivism,” which rejects tradition and history. Traditionalism dismisses anything after 1970, and progressivism dismisses anything before 1970. Traditionalists tend to be mean-spirited and progressives tend to be arrogant. Traditionalists emphasize truth but lack compassion, while progressives emphasize compassion but lack truth. But, as St. Edith Stein said, “Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. And, do not accept anything as love which lacks truth.” Catholicism is a Living Tradition, building on the gifts of previous generation.
The Church is not a museum or historical society, but neither is it a new world order or progressivist club. The word for “Church” in Greek is Ek-Klesia, from which we get the Latin word ecclesia, and in Spanish iglesia, Italian chiesa, etc. “Ek-Klesia means a people “called out” of the world. God has made us different than those who have no faith, and in particular, we don’t fall into the worldly categories of “right” and “left.” We are neither a traditionalist club nor a progressivist club. God gives us the best of both right and left, and the Church has always been a synthesis of all that is good in this world while rejecting the bad. The Catholic impulse is fundamentally “both-and” rather than “either-or.”
Old Mass, New Mass
Let’s consider now the situation in our own time, when the Vatican seems to be rejecting the traditional Latin form of the Mass. The vast majority of the Church’s saints worshipped God in this form of the Roman Rite, which developed around the time of St. Augustine in the 5th Century and lasted more or less unchanged until 1970. Pope Benedict declared that form of the Mass good and beautiful, but Pope Francis declares the opposite. We have to trust that the Holy Spirit will eventually straighten things out, but for now we have the “liturgy wars,” not unlike the doctrinal wars in the time of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
Turning Toward the Lord
In the discipline of divine worship, what is essential for Catholics, in whatever form that worship takes, is the worshipper’s focus on God rather than on ourselves. Our parish offers Mass in both the new and the old forms, but in all of our Masses, priest and people face the same direction, ad orientem, “to the east,” striving to focus minds and hearts on God. Very few Catholic parishes do this, but both the new and the old missal instruct the priest to turn toward the altar, with the people, during the Eucharistic Prayer. The most important element of worship is focus: to whom are we pointing? God or ourselves? Are we celebrating the mercies of God or are we celebrating ourselves? In both forms of the Mass, it is essential that the priest and people not face each other when we pray to God, but all face the Lord together. The liturgy wars will continue until the Second Coming, because the world, the flesh, and the devil continually try to deform right worship of God. But here at Star of the Sea, under my leadership and the leadership of Archbishop Cordileone, we will continue to offer Mass in both forms, towards the altar of God, with minds and hearts fixed on the Christ who offers himself on that holy table.