Years ago I wrote a post about my searching for the true Church. I was heading towards the Catholic Church and I knew it. And I did enter the Church later that year. I “came home” as so many converts from Protestantism say. That was a little over six years ago. I do not regret my decision. In fact, I am so glad I became Catholic, and then that my wife and kids entered the Church.
But all is not well in the Church today. It never has been, I realize that, but it seems far, far worse now than in recent centuries. Personally this is a struggle. I know it is for many Catholics as well. My the struggle is not about whether I feel I made the right decision. I am convinced I did, by the grace of God. I applaud (and pray for) any becoming-Catholic person standing on the threshold today, perhaps in RCIA, who is hanging in there and not being deterred by the actions of evil men. For me, however, the struggle has to do more with how I raise my kids, how I and my family become more Catholic, how we move closer to God, and if we end up in Heaven.
I now look back on that post and I realize it was written two months before Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis. Since that time a lot has happened. A lot of water has flowed down the Tiber, a river I “crossed” later that same year. And then this year a couple of faithful Austrian Catholics threw pagan idols into that same Italian river, idols that they removed, no less, from a Catholic church, idols used in honor of demons and that had been worshiped by both pagans and Catholics together in a ceremony in the Vatican gardens at the feet of the Pope who gave his approval, on video, for the whole world to see. I don’t really know what’s going on, but this seems crazy–truly crazy, like antichrist crazy. (Pray, pray, pray for the Pope)
Sometimes I feel like one of the disciples on the Sea of Galilee in the midst of the storm and wondering why Jesus is asleep.
Thus far I have not talked to my kids about these, and many other, dark things in the Church. I only say a few things about them to my wife. In light of it all she has asked if I want to remain Catholic. Honestly, more than ever. This is one of the most exciting times to be Catholic. There is a war for the faith that is evident, palpable, and existential. It’s hard to be lukewarm in times like these, and that’s good.
Over that last couple of years my eyes have slowly opened. I have learned about Fatima and related prophecies, I have witnessed (from afar of course) scandals both theological and moral perpetrated by many close to the Holy Father, I have heard the Pope say a number of highly questionable statements, and the list goes on and on. But there’s so much more. Back in the 1980’s Saint John Paul II (the great?) let a buddhist idol be placed on a Catholic altar in Assisi during an “ecumenical” prayer meeting with leaders of other religions. Earlier the Mass given to us by God was changed by men in the 1970’s into something less than excellent, and with it churches were destroyed with altar rails thrown into alleys, altars crushed and replaced by tables, and the glorious music of the Church replaced with crap, utter crap. And there’s so, so much more to complain about. The list is nearly endless. It’s been going on for decades at least. And it’s clear all this could only come about by the hand of Satan, the willful folly of prideful churchmen, and the eager acceptance of a laity awash in the worldly currents of a modernist, consumerist, distracted, self centered society. (Some have blamed the so-called boomers, and there’s some truth to that, but they are not all to blame.)
This has been an interesting couple of years of eye-opening discoveries for me.
In the meantime I have also discovered something of traditional Catholicism. I have gone to several Extraordinary Form masses. I have a TLM missal (1962), and a couple of much older French versions as well. I have ready many articles and some books on the topic, and been studying it a bit. I have also dug a bit into traditional Catholic practices. Over and over I am struck by what has been abandoned and lost, and by what an enormous amount of knowledge I don’t have. A vastly beautiful religion has been largely gutted with barely a shell left. We are left with an anemic Mass and recourse to whatever we can summon from within ourselves of faith and piety. Modern Catholicism is nearly identical with modern Evangelical Protestantism — a faith of feelings and personal truth. I gather most Catholics today are also mostly ignorant of what has been lost. And most don’t seem to care.
But I must confess that for how much I would love the simplicity of merely raising the flag of Catholic traditionalism, I think the answer is more than that. More than traditionalism, it’s orthodoxy. I believe that ideas have consequences, and that beliefs come before action. Or, perhaps better, actions arise from belief. Traditionalism is fine, but we must be very cautious not to be caught up in the aesthetics, even for all their beauty. We must first go back to the fundamental truths, to orthodox truths. Our actions, whether they look traditional, or a mix of traditional and new, or sometime else, will follow. We must find a way back to the profound truth of Tradition without falling into the ideology of traditionalism. Perhaps it will look like the traditional Church of past generations. I would love that. There is so much that was lost or forgotten that is worth bringing back. But we must make sure we aren’t just larping in the garb of a non-modernist cultural past. Whatever we end up with must first and foremost be based upon, be run through like leaven in dough, with the Truth of Christ and His one, holy catholic, and apostolic Church.
And this brings me to the struggle I have today, and one of the reasons I long for the Church of the past. For all its faults (because every age has it faults), the Church of Tradition, of the past, was at its best a kind of totalizing culture. Catholics were trained in all aspects of the faith. Kids were taught the catechism, traditional prayers, Latin, and so much more. Catholic schools were actually Catholic. Religious vocations were a real option. Boys were altar servers and learned the Mass, and even wondered if they might become priests someday. (I believe that boys who learn the Mass become better fathers. Perhaps not necessarily, but I think it’s a good theory.) But I don’t want to romanticize the past. I actually know very little of the past, and certainly almost none of Catholic cultural past. But I can’t help but long for it.
As a new Catholic (it’s only been six years) and as a parent I need a Catholic culture. My family needs a truly Catholic, truly orthodox, saturated, rich, and encouraging culture so that our faith can grow and we can become more conformed to Christ. I want to know how to be Catholic. The examples available to me are not great. Social media doesn’t cut it. Cradle Catholics have no idea what it’s like for a Protestant to enter the Church. They have no idea what it’s like to know nothing of Catholic prayers, practices, and the million little things that Catholics take for granted. It’s like there’s a complete lack of understanding that there anything called “culture” in the minds of most Catholics. RICA courses often range between the pathetic and the heretical (the one I attended was some of both). And, on top of that, the modern Catholic culture is so anemic compared to what it could and should be that in many ways it’s nearly an embarrassment, or should be, to those few Catholics who still go to Mass and don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s the heresy of formlessness, as one author so eloquently put it. So many Catholics who seem all too happy in the midst such great losses, are utterly nonplussed by converts who stare aghast at the crumbled ruins. They sometimes blame the converts themselves for an imagined and caricatured fervency held-over from the ex-Protestant’s former faith. Rather, the truth is more mundane and spiritually dark than that. A great, bland blindness has settled on the Church like radiation fallout over the past few decades. Nearly everything is affected and infected. The reasons for this are legion. But I’m ranting. (And I’m saying nothing new.)
By way of encouragement, I want to say to my fellow faithful and open-eyed Catholics, and to those still considering entering (or re-entering) the Church, hold fast. Hold fast to Christ. Hold fast to His Church, which is His bride. Regardless of what you see around you, and especially regardless of what some scandalous bishop or heretical priest might do or say, hold fast. Hold fast regardless of the meagerness of the cultural feast presented to you. Remember this key truth, culture arises from cult (cultus), that is from worship. If we have a bad or anemic culture it’s because we have a bad or anemic cult. We see this is at play in our larger cultures (American culture is based on what and how Americans worship – money, distraction, sex, power, ideologies, things, themselves, etc) and we see the process at play in the Church subculture. The Novus Ordo Mass, though valid, is an objectively lesser Mass than the Traditional Latin Mass, and thus it produces a lesser culture. It says the Real Presence might not be all that real. It says it’s about us more than about Christ. It says it’s not that important to bring and do our best when worshiping out Lord and King. It claims symbolism more than Truth. If you wonder why it seems we live in a “power of myth” kind of church, begin by examining the Mass.
A faithful Catholic can cut through all that and still worship Christ in Truth, and still be moved and called to holiness, and still be deeply blessed. I certainly have. But when compared to the TLM, the Novus Ordo not only is a sad shadow of the TLM, it often works against itself, presenting strange and unnecessary challenges for priests, music ministers, and laity alike.
Okay, so a lot can be blamed on the past, and certainly on the Novus Ordo Mass and the “spirit” of Vatican II, but that’s the past (though, of course, still present). Let’s not be too emotionally burdened by the past. We must push forward for a better cult. Let’s us be like the Poles who shouted, “We want God!” Let us be like the Israelites who, upon hearing the forgotten and then rediscovered words of the Torah read to them by Nehemiah, wept for what was lost of both knowledge and culture. Then let us weep no more, but rather work towards the culture we need, based on right cult that is based on orthodox truth and that, sadly, must be demanded. Dive into you parish. Put your hand to the plough. Help with the logistics, with the maintenance, with what you can. Support your overworked priest. Don’t be the person who just points out what’s wrong and waits until someone else fixes it. But then claim your voice. Earn the respect in all authentic humility, and then own that respect and speak up, out loud.
We might have to be like the boy who said the emperor has no clothes. We just might need to point at the crap we see and call it crap, out loud. We just might need to tell our priests and bishops that communion in the hand dilutes the faith, and laity in the sanctuary is confusing, and bad music degrades the Mass, and that it’s not working anymore (and never did). We must, as servants of our Lord, demand a better cult. It just might be one of the most loving and humble things we can do.
And pray every day for the pope, your bishop, and your priests.