Friday, July 16, 2021

Sacrament of Unity

In the aftermath of today's Motu Proprio Traditiones Custodes, by which Pope Francis has further regulated liturgical celebrations according to the Roman Rite as it existed prior to the reforms of Pope Saint Paul VI, we will likely see lots of liturgists and canonists contending with one another about the exact extent and meaning of these new restrictions. On one side, we will likely see an increasingly angry, resentful, and rebellious attitude toward the Church's official liturgy and the established post-conciliar regime of which the novus ordo is one part. On the other side, we will likely see a continued unwillingness to face up to the multitude of social, political, and cultural factors which are reflected in both the apparent appeal of the ancient liturgy among some (especially the young) and the larger contemporary context of ecclesial exhaustion and decline.

There has always been a problematic aspect to the persistent popularity of the ancient rite, just as there has always been a problematic aspect to what Pope Francis calls "the eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses" in the celebration of the official rite. Pope Francis is to be lauded for his desire to restore unity "throughout the Church of the Roman Rite." It is clear that the pastoral concessions allowed by his predecessors to those who wish "to celebrate with devotion according to the earlier forms of the liturgy" - originally "motivated by the desire to foster the healing of the [Lefebvre] schism" with the "intention of restoring the unity of the Church" - have been "exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division."

It is an interesting, but ultimately unresolvable, historical speculation whether a more modest liturgical reform (along the lines of what Vatican II actually prescribed rather than what Paul VI actually did), a reform more charitably implemented and with better catechesis, could have avoided these decades of self-inflicted gaps, divergences, and disagreements that have in fact injured the Church, blocked her path, and exposed her to division. That is a question that can never be answered and so, for that reason, is increasingly irrelevant to our present predicament. Whatever the intrinsic merits of the competing liturgical forms, the social, political, and cultural context has completely changed since the 1960s. This means that the celebration of the historical and traditional liturgical rites, however aesthetically pleasing to those participating, cannot retrieve the lost social, political, and cultural context that many so-called "traditionalists" aspire to restore. Whatever the future may hold for the Church in the traditionally Christian countries where it is now so conspicuously in decline, the only viable course heading forward is within the framework of the Church's post-conciliar regime, which inevitably includes the Church's post-conciliar liturgy. 

Of course, that does not preclude a continued critique of "the eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses" in the celebration of the official rite and increased efforts to promote its celebration, "with decorum and fidelity to the liturgical books," as Pope Francis has once again asked. That too would go a  long way toward pacifying not all but many of those who feel their spiritual and aesthetic aspirations are unmet and to restoring the unity of the Roman Rite within what Pope Francis calls "the dynamic of Tradition."

As is well known, many alternative communities which celebrate the traditional liturgy are increasingly composed of younger people, who obviously have no memory of the social, political, and cultural context that supported the traditional liturgy. While some polemicists for the traditional rite may advance some sort of neo-integralist agenda, for many ordinary worshippers such congregations constitute supportive communities for young families eager to pass on their faith to their children - an environment less easily replicated in mainstream parishes with their increasingly aging congregations, many of whose children and grandchildren no longer attend Mass. If, as the Pope seems to have determined, allowing alternative communities organized around the celebration of the traditional Roman Rite is not a satisfactory solution to answer this need, then it behooves the Church - particularly parishes and diocesan structures - to recognize this situation and start responding to it in some other way. Without that, the present reform could conceivably only increase alienation and division.

It was certainly not the intention behind previous indults to encourage political polarization in the Church. That, however, has happened - and by no means exclusively in connection with the traditional liturgy. But, to the extent that alternative liturgical communities have fallen prey to politically divisive elements, that has distorted the context for which the previous indults were primarily intended. This, more than any other factor, would seem to explain this present reform.

Finally, let this be a reminder to all - on all sides of this debate - that the liturgy is not a matter of personal preference but "celebrations of the Church, which is the sacrament of unity." A lot of conflict could have been avoided these past 50+ years if those on all sides of this debate had maintained this principle as the priority.

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