Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Nowhere to Run

(Una Voce Newsletter, Winter, 2001)

St. John Chrysostom has a wonderful passage in his conclusion to the Homilies on Romans (32), in which he describes the astonishment and delight with which friends and fellow believers will greet one another in Rome on the day of the Resurrection. This meditation of the Patriarch of Constantinople came to my mind as I began to prepare a brief description of the meeting of the International Federation of Una Voce on October 13th and 14th, 2001 at the Domus Pacis in Rome, since something of the same spirit of wonder in the face of renewed life seemed to me to characterize that gathering. Why should this have been so? Because of the contrast of atmosphere between this year’s session and the one that preceded it. Quite frankly, the cloud of Protocol 1411 hung heavily over the 1999 meeting, bringing with it the fear of death for the fraternities and institutes preparing priests to say the Traditional Mass. And yet, two years later, Una Voce delegates found themselves back together again in the Eternal City, far from dead and even entertaining guarded hopes for the future.

Four factors, aside from the normal joy accompanying reunion with people of like mind, worked in tandem to give substance to this feeling of resurrection. The first was the sense of continuity and growth instilled in the delegates by the presence of our President Emeritus, Dr. Eric de Saventhem (a man who never abandoned the struggle for the 1962 missal, even in its moments of greatest vulnerability), alongside representatives from new national Una Voce chapters, such as that of Finland. Very encouraging reports on the progress of the Fraternity of St. Peter and the Institute of Christ the King provided a second encouragement to a federation which believes that it is defending not only a living, perennial tradition, but also precisely the liveliest elements in the contemporary Church. A third aid to a vision of revival was the splendid Sunday Solemn High Mass celebrated by a priest from Gricigliano at the Church of Gesù e Maria on the Via del Corso, and accompanied by the music of the Una Voce Rome choir and organist. Finally, a feeling of renewed calling to an ever more necessary mission in the midst of a continuing ecclesiastical crisis was stirred by Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler’s address at the Open Forum at the Domus Pacis on Sunday afternoon. Conscious of the justice of our cause and the solidity of Christ’s promise to uphold his Church, he emphasized his personal conviction that the Third Millennium would indeed see the definitive victory of the Catholic message.

Nevertheless, my resurrection analogy can only be taken so far. St. John Chrysostom was speaking of the real thing; I am merely evoking a feeling at a conference of a federation that is forced to confront daily and generally highly unpleasant earthly realities. And the reality, for Una Voce, is clearly still one involving patient, persistent, and often thankless battle. A sense of realism, consonant with a Christian hope that refuses to be cheapened by the banal “optimism” of the modern spirit, was also, therefore, omnipresent in Cardinal Stickler’s words. He insisted upon unflinching recognition of the depth of the current ecclesiastical disaster, not simply in the realm of the liturgy, but in other spheres as well. His Eminence lamented the tragic dechristianization of that very Europe which had brought the Faith to the rest of the globe, but which was itself now in need of evangelization.

This realism was matched, both in public and private statements, by the concerns of the delegates regarding the possible continued effects of Protocol 1411, the problematic character of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, and the fallout from the so-called reform of the reform upon our efforts to maintain the 1962 missal. The more subdued tone with which discussion proceeded, in comparison to the 1999 conference, seemed to underline a realization, as the Una Voce America report states, that we are frozen in a situation requiring some dramatic authoritative action to thaw. Unfortunately, such measures do not appear to be imminent, especially given the failure of negotiations aimed at reconciling the Society of St. Pius X.

In other words, to summarize my central point, the Roman meeting reflected our happiness to be alive, but, barring unexpected events, our recognition that we have a long road yet to haul. At the risk of belaboring and exaggerating the argument, I might add the darkly humorous comments of an elderly Italian friend with whom I dined one day. “I was born in one world conflict”, he said, “lived through another, experienced the evils of both the Communists and the Nazis, and suffered through the Second Vatican Council. All that was missing was a Moslem Holy War, and now I’m facing that. You are only fifty years old. Good luck!” Hangman’s humor, indeed.

But grim reality in no way kills Christian hope, which knows that God can accomplish what is beyond human ability alone to achieve. And, in fact, Cardinal Stickler’s hope-filled address had the ultimate aim of urging all of us on to faith-filled action. He stressed that we must do everything in our power to make clear to people the nature and extent of the devastation that the Church is experiencing, and avoid anxiety over the question of personal success or failure in this common enterprise. The new Latin Mass Magazine, he explained, was an excellent example of how this work could be done justly, respectfully, and effectively. Enumerating the articles in the last issue one by one, he had especially kind words for the home schooling movement as a force for keeping the Faith alive under difficult circumstances.

Mention of the Latin Mass Magazine and the home schooling movement brings us back to the American front of the international traditionalist battle. I should like to conclude this article by noting that our own national struggles appear to be designed to respond to the call for renewed action while also insisting upon the maximum development of a virtue which I, personally, do not possess to any memorable degree: the virtue of patience. Not that traditionalists the world over do not find their practice of this virtue tested. We, as Catholics, are members of a Church in which authority lies unquestionably with the hierarchy. Nothing permanent and good in the Roman Catholic Church can ever be accomplished without the support of the bishops and the pope, and obtaining this, as innumerable historical examples indicate, can often take a great deal of time, during which an impressive number of ulcers can develop, Most countries have suffered more in this regard than we in the United States have done. Rather, American traditionalist patience is particularly tested due to the perplexing and wearisome attacks that we have to endure from the conservative and neo-conservative Catholic camp.

I must confess that I have been sheltered from such outbursts for a long time, because I have been somewhat buried in my own historical studies. Nevertheless, while in Rome, I finally read a compilation of some of these attacks, completing this with an examination of certain conservative web sites upon my return to New York. Annoyed incredulity are the only words I can summon to describe my reaction to the vast bulk of the complaints against us that I found therein. Our sin against the Holy Ghost seems to be our failure, enthusiastically, to accept as a given the superiority of absolutely everything emerging from Rome. The numerous historical struggles of both laity and clergy to move Roman authorities to correct horrendous mistakes for which the latter themselves have often been responsible apparently offer no model for their loyal Catholic descendents to follow. Presumably, the conservatives would permit us to join the Church in praising the efforts of dead heroes, but to do nothing, while alive, other than to glorify as the height of human and divine wisdom what these very saints found horrifying when confronted with similar problems in the past. What makes this particularly offensive is the fact that “loyalty through acquiescence to abuse” is promoted at a time when the Church is priding herself on a new openness to reason, history, and lay action--and demonstrating it by condemning much of her own tradition.

One wonders when the statute of limitations on criticism runs out. Will the conservatives allow us to fight against the current disaster ten, twenty, fifty, or one hundred years from now, when the ecclesiastical climate alters? Will we then be able to view the decisions of Vatican II and their practical implementation with the theological and historical rigor which everyone allows a scholar like Hubert Jedin to have done with the much more openly dogmatic Council of Trent? Or is this the one era in two thousand years over which historians of the papacy such as a Ludwig von Pastor could have shed no tears whatsoever? Frankly, despite my own annoyed incredulity, I think that patient silence is the proper response to most of these attacks. It does not seem to me that any reasoned argument would dent the armor that withstands the testimony of endless pages of Church History. Nor do I think that the cause of the 1962 missal is helped by the wasting of effort to demonstrate that we are the “good traditionalists”, different from those others with whom we do, indeed, very often disagree.

We will always be considered beyond the pale for failing to treat our own flawed age as uniquely irreproachable, while every other period is run through the mill. Una Voce’s renewed life since 1999 ought best to be used by following Cardinal Stickler’s advice: to continue, unceasingly, to present the evidence of a disaster which no false optimism can profitably hide; to beg our ecclesiastical authorities to do something about it, especially in light of our special mission, by seeking permission for the Traditional Mass; and to exercise true Christian charity in all our undertakings, while declining invitations to illustrate this charity by abandoning entirely our plea to the hierarchy to protect the flock it was sent to guide. The disaster affecting the Church is not the product of a traditionalist imagination gone mad. It is real. We have no other choice than that of patient persistence in bringing this reality before unwilling eyes. And in a dechristianized world, we have nowhere to run if we refuse to do so and continue to wish to live.

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