Not long ago I had the opportunity to read an email that had been sent by a parishioner to his priest and also to members of that parish’s pastoral council. The parishioner’s name, the name of the priest, and the name of the parish was removed for reasons of confidentiality. I believe there is something important in this letter and I feel the need to pass it on. In particular, I believe the sentiments expressed are common to many Catholics, and not merely older Catholics, the so called “boomer” Catholics who lived through the changes after Vatican II. Here is the letter:
Dear Fr. [REDACTED],
I have made the decision to leave [REDACTED] Parish. Please accept my resignation from the Pastoral Council, the Lectors, and Sunday Hospitality. Additionally, please stop my Sunday envelopes.
I am sixty-six years old. I was an altar boy during the sixties. I remember the pre-Vatican2 church. It has been over fifty years that the institutional Church , as we know it, has functioned in the light of the Second Vatican Council. Yet, since coming to [REDACTED] and belonging to [REDACTED], I am slowly watching the institutional Church in our Parish retreating backward as demonstrated in the frequent Latin Masses, the men’s Schola, the effort to re-locate the tabernacle back to the center of the sanctuary (at an exorbitant cost, I might add), and … now you speak of reinstalling the communion rail. I don’t see myself participating in any of it. I happen to appreciate the Church for what it is. I considered doing research to dissuade you from the path you are on but then I realized the voices you are listening to are louder than mine. In my opinion what you are doing is not in the spirit of Vatican 2 and that grieves me.
Thank you for the rich homilies; they offer the Parish more that you may think.
There are many Catholics, especially those older Catholics who lived through the changes of the post-Vatican II era, and who are still active Catholics (of course, so many left the Church too), who look back fondly on that era and still believe to this day that those radical changes were the best thing to ever happen to the Church. As they see it, the spirit of Vatican II is wonderful, and they love that the barriers came down, the stuffy altar was replaced by the communion table, the priest finally turned to face the people who could now see what he was doing, and they even love its music, fondly humming its insufferable tunes. Many of these Catholics are looked down on and summarily dismissed as “boomers” (a term used pejoratively) by members of the so-called traditionalist movement. And many traditionalists are waiting for that generation to die off so the Church can become more traditional again. I think many older parishioners, like this man above, probably feel that sentiment aimed at them and that their voices are ignored.
I believe this parishioner’s frank frustration, blunt verbiage, and his sudden resignation is exactly the kind of reaction that many tradition-leaning priests fear. There are very few parishes in the world today that are not fundamentally “spirit of Vatican II churches,” that is, they have been built on the modernist traditions of the past 50 years. It is what they know, it is their life as it were. This means that any priest who tries to bring changes to his parish in light of Catholic tradition is likely to have at least some parishioners reacting as this man did. Or perhaps the frustrated parishioners don’t leave the parish; perhaps they even don’t let the priest know how they feel. They may instead just work to undermine his efforts in any number of ways. I imagine this email cut to the heart of the priest and was grieved over. I do not know the outcome of what happened next. I hope reconciliation can happen. I doubt it will. But I do appreciate his forthrightness.
I am not a radtrad as some traditionalist call themselves positively and are called by others pejoratively. And I have never been someone who loves tradition either merely for aesthetic or nostalgic reasons. I’m not into tradition as some men love 1957 Chevys. I came to a love for tradition because my life’s journey took me through the world of Christian classical homeschooling, which begins with the nature of man and his purpose in relation to God. I began to critique my presuppositions in light of my experience of living in a post-modern world, growing up Baptist/evangelical, and being curious about history, philosophy, and the arts. Within the Protestant milieu I experienced the anemic stance towards holiness, the personally fashioned image of Jesus, and profoundly false anthropology of modern American Protestantism. I experienced worship redefined as pop-music and sentimentalism. Then I came into the Church (God be praised!) and I saw this same modern Protestant and American culture was thoroughly infused syncrenistically throughout the local parishes I visited. The leaven of the modernist world had worked its way into so much of the Church.
I also noticed both a mix of blindness to the syncretism and a thorough love of it. Parishioners were not chafing under the weight of modernism corrupting the Church, they were loving it. Or, at least, that’s how it looked to me.
I felt like the bank teller who has learned to identify counterfeit bills by becoming highly familiar with the real thing, but in this case I knew the counterfeit all too well and was only coming to learn of the real thing. The thing is, I was just so happy to be in the true Church that I let a lot slide for a while — and I still do, and I’m still happy. I love being Catholic, not merely for the joy I find, but because Catholicism is true. Also, I am no expert. And who am I anyway? Still, I feel that God has given me the eyes I have, formed on the journey I’ve travelled, to see some things that others might not; perhaps especially so-called cradle Catholics. I believe that the long tradition of the Church, especially that old “stuffy” Latin Mass, lived out in love and relying on the Holy Spirit, is an antidote needed for the world today – not just the for the Church, but for the world.
Thus I am bothered by the letter above. I see it run through with problems, false assumptions, ignorance, and immaturity. I want to be dismissive.
And yet, and yet…
I (and we) must have compassion for those who love the New Mass and its music and its culture. For that’s what it is, a culture. Culture arises from cultus. How we worship, including the nuts and bolts of our liturgies, form us. What direction the priest faces works within us at such a deep level and in such a precognitive way that the simple fact of orientation teaches us about God and man, saying one thing or another thing. How we receive the Blessed Sacrament, whether on the tongue or in the hand, whether standing or kneeling, teaches (instilling within us) us at a deeply subconscious level knowledge (true or false) of Christ and our relationship to Him, saying one thing or another thing. At the end of Mass, when we are told to go out into the world, we take with us our cultus which has formed deep within us, formed even minutes before, so deeply that much of it is subconscious and intuitive, and works on our minds to such a degree, that what seems right to us seems so as though from the foundations of the earth. But this is not the same thing as being right. And that Catholic cultus has to contend with the world’s cultus, which smothers us nearly every minute.
The power of formation is not primarily at the conscious level. Much like the bank teller intuitively knowing a good bill from a false one, the well formed Catholic recognizes truth and error, depth and shallowness, beauty and mediocrity, faith and sentimentality, in an almost precognitive manner. Overwhelming evidence declares that Catholics can be poorly formed. Our sensibilities can lead us to wrong understandings, poor interpretations, and misguided evaluations. And our conclusions will feel absolutely right. We almost can’t help it; no one knowingly believes falsehoods, we can only believe what we believe is true. Therefore, we must have compassion and empathy for others. We must seek humility. Our true battle is not over liturgy, or tradition, or theology. Our true battle is again Satan and his devils, against the sin within us, and against the temptations of the world. We are in a profound spiritual, physical, and metaphysical battle for our faith, the Church, and our souls. That battle, of course, plays out much of the time within the physical realm, including the realm of liturgy, culture, and even politics, but we must seek eyes that see and ears that hear, we must seek soft hearts and and sensitive souls, so that we may know where the real battle lies, otherwise we will miss it — perhaps even joining an enemy who tricks and begiles us.
If you watch documentaries about the 1960s, such as Ken Burns film The Vietnam War, especially the parts that focus on the homefront in the US, or the PBS documentary Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, you can’t help but feel for the youth caught up in the spirit(s) of the age. There was little chance of any young Catholic at that time, living in the midst of that culture, who would not have also interpreted the post-Vatican II changes, especially those done under the spirit of Vatican II mantra, as utterly comprehensible and necessary. Many of these young Catholics supported refocusing the Church towards the burning issues of the day and, more importantly, defining the approach to those issues in the same terms used by the campus radicals, the feminists, the neo-socialists, and especially those of the anti-war and civil rights movements.
It wasn’t just a matter of getting rid of what was old, it was believing what we call traditional Catholicism as being fundamentally incompatible with the modern age and, thus, being a barrier to spiritual growth, a meaningful relationship with Christ, evangelization, and even authentic Catholicism (nevermind the saints, great and small, who knew nothing else but traditional Catholicism because it was just Catholicism). Traditional priestly garb and religious habits began to look more and more like anachronistic costumes, almost laughable; Latin like a language mummified.
However, with time and statistics we have come to see that a great deal has been lost, not least are numbers of faithful catholics in the pews and vocations to the priesthood and religious life. But also so much depth and richness has been lost. It was, in effect, the Church declaring that the Real Presence was still dogma but not really true, and that faith was merely a matter of personal preference after all. Our priests, by not having the Traditional Latin Mass available to them, perhaps have suffered the most. Something went terribly amis during the frantic hubbub of the radical sixties. The “good” bishops and popes have been trying to fix it ever since – tinkering here, adjusting there. Of course, I don’t have the answer, and who am I anyway?
The “boomers” and the rest of the Novus Ordo crowd — I also frequently attend the Novus Ordo and just missed being called a boomer by only one year, and not all boomers are pro-Novus Ordo culture — are not the enemy. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They have been taught and formed by the Church and their culture, just as we all have. Their formation, good or bad, falls largely upon the shoulders of the bishops who had that responsibility and who eagerly welcomed the spirit of the age into the Church, calling it the spirit of Vatican II. Regardless, our job is to love God and each other. We are to seek unity in love, with humility, and with total faith in God. But the older crowd are not the only ones who love the Novus Ordo more than the TLM. Many younger folks do so as well. People love things for different reasons. And they don’t love other things for different reasons; sometimes merely out of ignorance, sometimes because of their formation, and sometimes for good reasons. But this is a larger topic.
I feel for the man who wrote the letter above. I believe he wrote from his heart. I believe his grievances came from real grieving. I also wonder, without wanting to psychoanalyse him, if his grieving doesn’t come from having had a kind of “mountain top” experience in his youth, being caught up in the spirit of the age and feeling like he had received a “new pentecost,” which has stayed with him and sustained him for many years, and now he feels it’s being taken away.
I’m sure he is not alone.
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