Most have at least heard of the Italian composer Giochino Rossini (1792-1868), or of his opera The Barber of Seville. Probably everyone would recognize his theme William Tell Overture. Rossini seems to have been something of an epicure, not given to hard work if he could avoid it. He was certainly among those people for whom payment in advance removes all incentive to performance. The story goes that an impresario who had been foolish enough to pay ahead of time for a new opera finally had no other option than to shut the composer up in his villa on meager rations. Within 24 hours the overture to Otello was delivered from the window, signed by a chastened composer, “senza macheroni”!
I’m only thinking of this because there comes a time in many of Rossini’s operas when the characters stop what they are doing, look around in amazement, and pronounce themselves absolutely flabbergasted by some new discovery or twist in the plot. Traditional Catholics know exactly how this is. In these absurd times, when girls can be altar boys and prelates can be potty-mouthed, when free speech is banned from college campuses, it feels like we are all stuck in a never-ending state of stupefaction: Rossinian moments.
I’m sure each of us could produce endless examples, but allow me just one. The other day I was looking at a rack of CD’s in the back of a nearby parish church. One of these is an introduction to the Theology of the Body, extolled on the cover as the “revolutionary theological work of Pope John Paul II.” You got that right: the word “revolutionary” is actually used as a term of praise by a Catholic firm that otherwise takes pride in its orthodoxy. What’s going on here? The idea of a theology being “revolutionary” should make any Catholic head for the hills. After all, it wasn’t long ago that certain prelates were praised “for the purity of their doctrine.” Today that would stand as nothing less than an indictment, an indication of “rigidity” if not mental illness.
The Catholic Church is the safe Inn to which our Lord the Good Samaritan has carried wounded humanity. But it continues in a state of accelerating decomposition. To Traditionalists at least it’s obvious that this crisis is not limited to liturgy or even governance, but is a deeper one of purpose and identity. Unfortunately the faithful members of the Church, too, are further divided into tribes: mainstream Novus Ordo, Reformers of the Reform, traditionalists who hold to the 1962 Roman Missal and those who hold to the 1920 Roman Missal with or without the changes in the 1950’s. Can’t we just pray together? Hell’s bells, we can no longer even say the rosary together. Some Catholics will insist on publicly reciting the Luminous Mysteries because they are new, while others resist for basically the same reason.
Switching realms, it sometimes looks as if Christians have lost every battle in the sphere of public life and morality. Oh, if we only had one more Republican Congressman, one more conservative Supreme Court Justice, we will be able to turn things around! I’m sorry, but what ails us as a country simply isn’t curable by politics. The political scientist Harold Lasswell has defined politics as being about “who gets what, when, how.” While this is not an Aristotlelian definition, I think it is true.
The point I am making is that you are not alone in feeling you are riding a roller coaster in Bizzaro World. Things have been wrong for so long that we are forgetting what is normal. It is not normal for laymen to parse the spontaneous utterances of a Pope to divine their implications, much as Roman augurs read the flights of birds. It is not normal that the liturgy is among Catholics not an expression of unity but a constant cause of strife and division.
Dioceses that had been lost to the Muslim conquests or had otherwise ceased to be functional have long been characterized as being in partibus infidelium, "in the realm of the unbelievers." We are all living in partibus infidelium now. We can’t escape the fact that any contemporary defender of the mos maiorum (“the way of the ancestors”) is by definition a heretic regarding the naturalistic dogmas of the day.
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Some Thoughts of Consolation
Liberals to the right of us, Socialists to the left of us, Modernists all around us: into the valley of post-Christian apocalypse we ride. With madness feeding on craziness how do we speak to one another of sanity? How do we maintain harmony of soul? Regain the stability of order that provides ballast through the tribulations of life?
What did the saints, who lived in roughly similar times, do? Boethius for example, was a late Roman statesman and philosopher who was unjustly imprisoned and later executed by King Theodoric the Great. He didn’t spend his time in prison lamenting his lot but wrote the The Consolation of Philosophy, where he tells us: “Your anchors are holding firm and they permit you both comfort in the present, and hope in the future.”
Thomas More, imprisoned in the Tower, wrote a Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, wherein he serenely suggests “The ordinary arts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest.” St Paul, far from fretting during his imprisonment in Rome, wrote the Books of Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, and Philippians to encourage and hearten nascent groups of Christians.
I am in a country," wrote St. Francis Xavier from Japan to his brethren in Europe, “where I am in want of all the conveniences of life. But nevertheless, I feel so much interior consolation, that there is danger of my losing my sight through weeping with joy."
Let’s remind ourselves that God, from all eternity, has chosen precisely this moment in history for each one of us to be alive. There is nothing arbitrary in this. Now it’s our turn to respond to the demands of our time as the saints taught us to do: by remaining stubborn rosary counters and rigid restorationists, and doing so not only with hope but with high spirits.
“You must not abandon the ship in a storm because you cannot control the winds....What you cannot turn to good, you must at least make as little bad as you can." - St. Thomas More
This puts me in mind of the Western Rebellion that Michael Davies wrote about some years ago. Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, completed the first Book of Common Prayer at the end of 1548. The Act of Uniformity of 1549 mandated its use, while the Chantries Act among other things denounced “vain opinions of purgatory and masses.” The response was a massive armed uprising that began in Cornwall and spread to the rest of the West. The Cornishmen took up arms to “keep the old and ancient religion as their forefathers before them had done…” In their list of demands, the leaders of the rebellion stated: “We will have our old service of Matins, Mass, Evensong and Procession in Latin, not in English, as it was done before.” They wished their priest to revert to “his old popish attire and sayeth Mass and all such services as in times past accustomed.” The rebellion was eventually crushed by a brutality I pray we will never witness in our own country.
“Tradition does not mean a dead town; it does not mean that the living are dead but that the dead are alive. It means that it still matters what Penn did two hundred years ago or what Franklin did a hundred years ago; I never could feel in New York that it mattered what anybody did an hour ago.” G.K. Chesterton
People sometimes wonder why the prodigious St Anthony of Padua, Doctor of the Church and Hammer of Heretics, is now most commonly invoked to find lost objects. Well, as an addled friend of mine sometimes says, “it’s not brain science.” Anyone who has misplaced a purse or lost an heirloom is aware that losing something of value is not a trivial matter. Our Lord in Luke 15 tells us that when the shepherd finds his lost sheep he joyfully puts it on his shoulders, then he calls his neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” Later we hear of the woman who had ten silver coins. She immediately searches for the one that had been lost: “And when she finds it, she likewise calls her friends together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ The Prodigal’s father embraces his newly returned son and declares, “Let’s have a feast and celebrate.”
So I suggest we have reason to rejoice now, for a great treasure that was for all practical purposes lost has been found. This treasure is simply the Gregorian Roman liturgy, the most ancient of all rites, which had been handed down virtually without molestation until the present time. This most sublime cultural treasure of the West, the channel of grace to generations, was nearly obliterated by a Church hierarchy which ruthlessly brought all its might and authority to bear against it. Make no mistake: it was a close thing for a while, a true near death experience. However a small group of clergy and laity (whom we now identify as traditionalists), refused to allow the Traditional Latin Mass it to die. Because of them, our Roman Missal, Pontifical, Breviary and all the venerable Roman liturgical books did not become extinct, and with the help of God will not only survive but outlast whatever it is that passes for Western liturgy these days. It would have seemed inconceivable only a short time ago, but now there are over thirty institutes of various types dedicated to the traditional liturgy. There are a small number of personal parishes that use only the traditional liturgy, and increasing numbers of priests being trained to celebrate it. This is not meant to imply that we should be complacent when told: “You got your old Mass now, so shaddup.” No, that’s not enough. It will not be “enough” until the traditional Roman liturgy is installed in every Latin Rite Church in the world along with the rest of the liturgical books, functioning within a society that acknowledges the sovereignty of Christ as King.
Here is something else to be happy about: as Father Time marches on, Vatican Council II is rapidly fading in the rear view mirror along with love beads and psychedelic rock. With its roots in the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1960’s it has become totally outdated, simply not responsive to the problems of the Church today. The documents retain a sort of paradigmatic presence, an incantatory value both to progressives and neo-Catholics who invoke them for essentially the same purpose: a harbinger for a springtime that never comes or a talisman to conjure a blissful future that is always out of reach. Well, no matter how thin you slice it, it’s still baloney.
There is a useful Americanism known as “Plan B.” When you think about it, doesn’t that describe salvation history? God’s original Plan was for mankind to live sinless and without disease of body or soul in the Garden of Eden. But the Fall destroyed that original state of being. It necessitated the implementation of an alternate program, “Plan B,” which is redemption through the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This changed everything, even the meaning of virtue and vice. For example Adam did not have to work, was never intended to weary body and soul for the sake of subsistence. But now a person who avoids work is not a virtuous pre-lapsarian Adam, but simply a bum. Similarly, to call someone a “hard worker” is considered high praise, turning the effects of a curse into a blessing.
Going further, human beings were likewise never meant to sin. So aren’t we all creating our own Plan B whenever we seek mercy through Confession, whenever we respond generously to the needs of others who suffer the effects of the Fall? Endless repetition of the mantra of “mercy” should not harden us to Our Lord’s commission to show benevolence to all living creatures. Of course this is not mercy on the cheap without repentance and rehabilitation. I’m speaking of mercy that arises from the awareness that life itself is hard: hard for all of us in varying degrees. The people we encounter while walking on the street, with whom we interact at the grocery store: we don’t know what burdens these children of God might be bearing. Why not treat everyone with the respect due to their inevitable sufferings, their inherent human dignity? Why pile burdens, even minor ones, upon one another when life on earth itself is quite efficient in doing so? What this means is that at all times we should try to follow the most difficult advice of the Cure of Ars: “Never do anything you cannot offer to God.”
Mature Christians know that no happiness here below is lasting or perfect, that ashes settle on all earthly pleasures. But if this is where we stop, we would be wise only as the virtuous pagans were wise; we would dwell in the dreary world of the Stoics who met both fortune and misfortune with equal equanimity rather than in the surprising, multi-colored world of Christianity. The happy fact is that no matter how evil the times, it is possible for the Catholic to live a life of virtue. And because of this there is real felicity to be had even in this fallen world of ours. Aristotle tells us that the attainment of eudaimonia (a state of blessed happiness) is inextricably aligned with “virtuous activity in accordance with reason.”
There are corollary advantages to this. Though none of us can avoid the pain of sense or of loss, it is much more bearable if the pain of regret is not added to the mix, if our humble reception and bestowal of mercy softens the hard edges of this vale of tears.
So let’s get it through our heads that the Te Deum, the Church’s greatest hymn of praise, is appropriate for every age. Though we all must suffer, it doesn’t follow that we have to be miserable. We certainly don’t need to banish the motive of personal happiness from any one of our actions. I cannot go too far in antipathy to the insidious spiritual disease of Jansenism, which too often affects the righteous. Christians are allowed, encouraged, and even enjoined to be happy. Though happiness does not consist entirely in pleasure, neither does it exclude pleasure. Of course this isn’t the superficial, vanishing “good times,” the mere satiation of the appetites that the world uses to usurp the reality of pleasure. It is a rational good, based solidly in the recognition of the truth of God as revealed in His creation.
In fact, the obstinate refusal to be happy is an act of the will, and actually a lack of gratitude to God for everything He has given us.
As a graduate student at the University of Illinois I used to ride the bus to campus. I often sat next to a semi-retired professor of classics. Once I asked him where he had done his graduate studies. He pulled up a sleeve and showed me the tattoo on his arm: “Auschwitz” he said. Then without further elaboration he proceeded to the subject on his mind: would I write a review of a book he and his wife had just written? I agreed before knowing the subject. To my surprise it was not a despairing meditation on suffering or the wickedness of man, but a serene philosophical meditation on the subject of “Happiness.”
You Wascically Wabbit!
With the certainty that we will often judge poorly and make mistakes, in the acknowledgement that we have little power except in the limited sphere of our own lives, the best most of us can do in these perplexing times is cooperate with the graces of our state in life, participate as best we can in the Church’s Liturgical Year, and live righteously and happily.
So march onward in the vigorous pursuit of Plan B, you funeral-faced, creed-reciting Catholics! Never give up, never settle, and also if your state in life permits, and so far as God provides --breed like rabbits—--and understand we can’t go “too far” in the service of Tradition. In fact, I look forward to the time when there is no such thing in the Church as the “Traditionalist Movement.” We are not a faction. We just try to do what Catholics have always done, to believe and worship in ways that would have been considered unremarkable at any almost other time.
Patient reader, whether you buy into the Benedict Option, become a hermit in the woods, move to a traditionalist stronghold in Idaho, choose life in the big city or the suburbs—whatever is best for you—you will still be living in partibus infidelium . Those Rossinian moments will just keep on coming. You are going to continue to wake up every morning to a culture increasingly irrational and decadent, to the sleazy self-serving behavior of our political and social leaders, to a Church hierarchy that lurches between crackpot social theories and Teilhardian poppycock. But do not be disheartened by verbal snakes on a plane! We are going to win this war.
This is what I believe: the traditional liturgy will be universally restored as the primary liturgical form and norm of our faith; the misbegotten Roman Missal of 1970 will become a historical aberration, a curiosity available only in research libraries. Pontiffs will pass down what they have received, prudently govern the Church, and won’t dare disrupt our piety. Our prelates will be holy and modest but have iron in their spines. Now I wouldn’t be surprised if you interject at this point “Do you really know what you’re talking about? Maybe you should just keep quiet.” How can I be so sure? Because I am convinced that this is what Christ our King wants. To adapt an old phrase: “If the King ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” From the Preface of the Mass on the Feast of the Sovereignty of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Supreme King: He will grant us: “an eternal and universal kingdom, a kingdom of truth and life; a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.”
In conclusion, I can leave you with no better advice than that given after every sermon by Msgr Vincent Giammarino, who was pastor of St Michael’s Church in Atlantic City in the 1950s:
“My dear good people: Do what you have to do, When you’re supposed to do it, The best way you can do it, For the Love of God. Amen.”