Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Forty Acres and an Indult?

(Una Voce America, Spring, 2004)

When I finally reached the point of expecting absolutely nothing from contemporary life, I began to believe that I had at last made substantial progress towards becoming a mature, contented, modern man. There are, of course, certain peculiar benefits that accompany such a state of Zen Hopelessness. One of them is the strangely comforting sense of stability that emerges from the feeling of knowing "whatís what" about the world, dismal though that knowledge might be. Another, quite different by-product of the embrace of existential numbness is giddy propulsion to seventh heaven on those completely unforeseen occasions when any grounds whatsoever for rejoicing seem to be given. Sorting out whether or not to succumb to the temptation to abandon the comfortably foreseeable lessons of a bleak environment for happy indulgence in an unanticipated but potentially flawed joy is not, however, a simple task. And this is doubly true when it involves the question of taking flight from the predictable gloom of a flat and dreary ecclesiastical landscape for a long-term fling in an unexpected liturgical paradise.

Many of us actually live in such Edens, given the regular opportunity that we have to attend Mass in the Traditional Roman Rite. I myself am among those so blessed. The vision of my oasis surprised me when it first emerged on the arid Church horizon of 1989, and its failure to dry up continues to astonish me today. My gratification is all the greater in that the Traditional Mass became available without my having had to exile myself from my home in Manhattan, or even to leave it at the crack of dawn every Sunday morning for some Homeric commute to a chapel in the wildwood. In short, in matters liturgical I have been enjoying not only a rare seventh heaven experience, but one that has lasted for fifteen years. To stretch an analogy from the 1860ís Reconstruction Era, I at times feel like a traditionalist Catholic equivalent of a man freed from decades of slavery and guaranteed his forty acres and a mule. My forty acres is New York City; my mule is the Indult that has enabled me to make my homestead productive spiritually. Should the producer of a documentary called Gone With the Church wander my way, I could recount to him the gripping tale of the miraculous intervention of the Roman carpetbaggers who liberated me from slavery to the local meanies with the clauses of Ecclesia Dei, thus holding out the hope for a secure possession of everything that I could possibly desire.

Nevertheless, seated cheerfully in my apartment and on my church pew, I began to wonder this past year if my giddiness had not been hoisted on its own petard. Maybe I was being a bit too harsh with myself, but I seemed to have learned to combine naÔve enjoyment of my oasis with a cynical acceptance of the continued suffering of my brethren still wandering in that big, bad, outside liturgical desert, about which I knew "whatís what". My calls for prudence, I thought, while perhaps sensible, must have rung hollow in the ears of believers who realized that they came from a contented man who did not have to pay any price for them. Besides, I thought, those who lived "on the outside looking in" could easily have burst my exuberant bubble merely by pointing out the weaknesses of the "carpetbagging" responsible for the creation and maintenance of my own oasis, and the continuing threat of deadly raids organized by my neighborhood Ku Klux Klan to punish uppity Tridentine collaborators like myself.

And then again, I had to admit, I really didnít even know "what was what" out there any longer anyway. Precisely because of my academic historical work and the availability of the traditionalist niche that I happily inhabited, I had become generally oblivious to the specifics of the deteriorating existence of "the others" in that mysterious black hole called Ex-Christendom. Just as my contact with contemporary television was limited to those moments on annual flights to Europe when boredom reduced me to watching any drivel to while away the time, my association with the outside, contemporary ecclesiastical universe was restricted to occasional observations of the Church situation on the Old Continent, and the marriages and deaths of relatives in the New World.

Although during the last few years, no relations have married, in the last several months very many of them have been dying. Attending their funerals has been, dare I say, a mortifying experience, but one that at least enlightened me about the reality of the situation in our spiritually and sociologically meaningless "normal" parishes . I am sure that everyone reading these pages knows what I mean, liturgically, so I will not dwell on it, but I cannot resist a few comments regarding the banality of it all. Who could possibly want to live at all if oneís final fanfare were so miserably atonal? Schmaltzy cocktail piano music played from the sanctuaries evoked memories of a visit to a third class bar around my corner the night the main pianist took sick and people in the audience began singing theme songs from situation comedies of the Ď50ís and Ď60ís to fill the gap. Clearly, the contrived whisper used by the priest at one travesty was somehow "in", though reminiscent not of the celebrant reciting the Old Canon, but of the ghoulish taunting utterances of the devil in The Passion. An elderly couple, the extraordinary ministers on the same occasion, swung their arms this way and that in what was supposed to be an approved liturgical fashion, though it recalled to me a geriatric gymnastic display, perhaps a preparation for the parachute jumping and mountain climbing that insurance companies tell all of us we will be enjoying in our peppy Ďnineties.

Still, what really most made an impression upon me on these excursions into the dying or already dead outside world was the progress of the mentality dominating the second stage of our four decade ecclesiastical revolution. The first act of that nightmare was a Reign of Terror, under which believers were outrightly persecuted by the proponents and manipulators of change. With time and greater understanding of pluralist methodology, came wisdom in revolutionary oppression. Hence, the expansion of the concept of the Catholic Salad Bar, religious Pluralismís pathetic answer to the spiritual appetite of the age, to include some traditionalist offerings in aisles stocked with truncated dogmas, ambiguous moral choices, and outright heresies. Space was thus allowed, as the late Dr. Marra said, "for everything, even the Truth".

Investors in the Liturgical Corner of the Salad Bar accepted the need for room for the Traditional Mass, though not generally because of any conviction regarding its innate, substantive value. Some were disturbed by a liturgy that had spin totally out of hierarchical control, and convinced that encouragement of a more historical form of worship would be valuable in reestablishing internal authority and equilibrium. A number of others were eager to assure access "to everything liturgical, even that which is Traditional", in order to demonstrate that our Millennial Paradise had the ability to choreograph all beliefs and practices in one harmonious dance.

People whom I met on my voyage to Ex-Christendom had perfectly adjusted to the demands of the expanded cafeteria in a way that I found startling. In the first stage of the ecclesiastical revolution, the reaction of my relatives to my efforts to escape from modernity was akin to that of normal men and women when faced with the ranting of a dangerous lunatic. Now, in contrast, all was sweetness and light. Yes, most of them had no idea what the Traditional Roman Rite or the Novus Ordo signified. But, after all, so what if I attended the former? Did I not have a right to do so? And think the Catholic thoughts that corresponded with it? Could I not dress my salad with solid oil and vinegar if both were offered on the condiment line? So long, that is to say, as I left them the opportunity to choose Paul Newmanís Own? And the different Faith that had accommodated it? It was with this choice echoing in my ears that I ran back, panting, to my once carefree niche, a sadder but wiser man, certain that my earlier worries were indeed justified, and with eyes sharpened for signs of any fragility that could bring my paradise crumbling down.

Now all of us are aware that the most obvious of the limitations of Roman "carpetbagging", one that parallels the experience of its nineteenth century predecessor, has been its woeful incompleteness. Despite a decade and a half of legal grounds for change, many dioceses just refuse to be reconstructed, and outside intervention has never been strong and thorough enough to overcome their ingrained hostility to Ecclesia Dei. Roused hopes of the traditionalist downtrodden have regularly been crushed, and often arrogantly so. Humble petitions continue to be met with stepmotherly disdain and blatantly lame and lying excuses. All too many Una Voce members personally bear the wounds of this reality, and frequently relate to me the course of their fruitless confrontations with the appropriate authorities in painfully vivid e-mails.

Moreover, it is not as though the proponents of the Reign of Terror which has persecuted Roman Catholics in the name of the Goddess of Change since the 1960ís have completely lost their hold even in those dioceses where the Traditional Mass is permitted. Their continued antagonism has made certain that our lives remain difficult. Those of us who have weekly masses find it next to impossible to obtain daily ones. Holy Week services, marriages, funerals, and especially Confirmations, are, in most places, hopeless dreams. Repercussions threaten cranky Traditionalists. Parishes so malcontent and potentially schismatic as actually to request what Ecclesia Dei offers can find obstacles placed in the path of the smooth functioning of ordinary pastoral activities, with offending clerics cast out from polite society to deal with the noonday devils on their own. A laity already exhausted from the tortures of their daily business labors can be reduced to absolute prostration by the evening hours required for petitioning and letter writing Ku Klux Chanceries.

But to top it all, pour comble de malheur, peril threatens now through seduction by the false promise of the augmented Salad Bar. Accommodation to its spirit would disfigure us beyond repair, convincing us, as it desperately wants to do, that our freedom to enjoy the Traditional Rite must be accompanied by a violation of the whole concept of the Church as an historical community with a common message and a common understanding of the theology underlying justifiable ceremonial differences. It would put us in the same boat as Viennese aristocrats in white tails and top hats who are permitted to organize an Opera Ball, merely to be driven mad by the realization that its Hapbsurg glories could be recaptured only at the price of permitting ambiguous clowns and tramps and revelers dressed in drag to enter and whirl about alongside them.

In fact, a number of stockholders in the Liturgical Corner were willing to invest in a space for the splendors of the past only under the presumption that this would prove to be their ultimate undoing; in the hope that toleration of traditionalistsí whimsy would isolate them in tightly-knit conventicles where they could be watched more closely, and multiply endlessly in peculiar sectarian factionalism. Liturgical Traditionalism might thereby be exposed as a particularly quirky position in an Alice and Wonderland of thousands of varied lifestyles and value options, a dynamite-looking dud easy to implode and bring down damage on its own combustible hideaway alone. The less of a threat to the Establishment that it was treated, the more certainly that it, too, would swiftly be Gone With the Church.

The seductive character of the sirene song of the Salad Bar is more than understandable. Customers have been lured to dine on the deadly banquettes of the Liturgical Corner with great success ever since Opening Day. These have included honest, conservative-minded people unaware of just how much their health is impaired by breathing its polluted atmosphere. All of us who have endured decades of Ecclesiastical World Wars might be more than ready to succumb to its charms in exchange for even a limited taste of the old, lost Tradition, and a maintenance of just a trace of unjustifiable Zen giddiness. We ought to tie ourselves down and stuff up our ears so that we do not leap to embrace the Salad Barís wares.

But what does all this mean for my Forty Acres and an Indult? With the ever present dangers threatening from the outside world more clearly in my mind, am I not to allow myself a momentís peace to enjoy something in which I actually do have an opportunity to take delight? Many of the opponents of the Indult Mass have suggested as much, but I personally do not share their view. Indulgence in some liturgical happiness in our admittedly flawed oases continues to be more than justifiable. Nothing whatsoever could ever make me regret the interference in my life of the Roman "carpetbaggers" and the blessing that was and is Ecclesia Dei. Limited though they were, they have made my life richer. Much more importantly, however, they have given me the chance to offer a few people who are not capable of worrying about the rest of mankindónamely, my own children--something of a normal Catholic childhood and catechesis. They have provided necessary standard operating procedures and proving grounds for the training of the confessors of the future. Therefore, in exchange for my cooperation and interview, I would insist that Gone With the Church not portray my benefactors badly. I would demand that its producers avoid caricaturing those of us who have gained something from Ecclesia Dei either as an ignorant, inferior, obscurantist breed, useful on screen only for the post-conciliar version of a racist belly laugh, or as wretched crumb-gatherers, indulging slavishly in a trifling concession. Even crumbs have a certain value for starving men, and the cause of my children, my fellow parishioner parents, and the confessors seeking some guidelines as to how to begin a counterrevolution in their own liturgically-ravaged dioceses is far from a petty one. Let us, as I have argued in these pages before, give credit where credit is due, and encouragement to benevolence whatever its provenance and extent.

What I am arguing against here is becoming dizzy with what really is but a restricted success, completely satisfied with what are, indeed, crumbs and not a banquet, and the mistaking of a refugee camp for Shangri-la. Despite everything, our oases partake much more of a Sinai than a paradise of Milk and Honey, and pharaohís armies are still in our hot pursuit to boot. We must realize that however grateful we should be for what we have been given (after having fought vigorously for years to get it!), that even this will not be secure until the bleak ecclesiastical landscape around us turns brighter in all regards. Every rocking of the ecclesiastical boat, with the positive attention of making its passengers realize that it is sinking; every suggestion for moving from Traditionalism in One Diocese to its worldwide victory; every scheme for reconciliation of the Society of St. Pius X with Rome or the erection of an Apostolic Administration, should be confronted and tested by us with a spirit that is both hopeful and prudent at one and the same time. Let us indeed use this Lenten and Easter Season to express our satisfaction with what has been accomplished so far. But let us also exploit it to prepare ourselves for a renewed militancy, and a courage and humor sufficient to last us until we finally reach the Promised Land.


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