On the Rocks
(Una Voce Newsletter, Summer, 2003)
Since 1979, the year I began working at my university, my summer months have regularly been spent in Europe. They have involved stays of at least several weeks each in France, Germany, and Britain, after rather lengthier periods in Italy with the Dietrich von Hildebrand Institute. This routine has proven to be a valuable experience for any number of reasons. One of them has been the repeated opportunity it has given me to get a sense of new developments in a variety of sister western nations. Another has been the chance to retain the impressions thus gained by departing before a too great familiarity with local conditions begins to dull appreciation of any novelties, and judgment of their long term significance. Two such judgments concerning matters of central importance to the mission of Una Voce have impressed themselves firmly on my mind after mulling over the sense of what I have seen during this summer’s wanderings.
The first of these is the ever more inescapable realization that we are living through a change of epoch perhaps as great as that from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, one which is bringing to an end the world formed by the Reformation and the Enlightenment, and dragging down the remnants of Catholic civilization with it. Such a change has, of course, been in preparation for some centuries already. Still, its approach has accelerated considerably over the course of the years since 1914, and that acceleration was stimulated still further by the collapse of the Soviet Bloc from the 1980’s onwards. Today, literally everything in Europe, from the composition of given nations’ populations to their most basic everyday habits and assumptions is in total question. This startling reality causes even what seem at first glance to be the most newsworthy decisions of leading men of our day to diminish in importance. Many of them, upon further consideration, can be seen to reflect the preoccupations of an already lifeless and disappearing culture. Rather than truly shaping history, they remind one of the petty intrigues engaged in by irrelevant courtiers at the palace of a Roman Emperor whose realm has already passed into the hands of the barbarians. Change sits confidently at the steering wheel of the Old Continent. Both a superhuman foresight would be required to predict the final direction that it will take, as well as the faith of St. Augustine’s City of God to believe that it will all work out in the end according to the designs of Divine Providence.
The Roman Catholic Church was instrumental in bridging the enormous gap separating the ancients from the medievals, and thus saved what was best in the Greco-Roman past to be merged together with the hidden benefits that would one day be discovered in barbaric German culture. That same Church, in Europe as in the United States, is, in contrast, a cipher in our own age of epoch change. Everywhere that I have been, the “official” Church shows herself to be spiritually, intellectually, aesthetically, politically, and even economically carried away by events rather than mastering them. And yet, everywhere I have traveled, the panegyrics proclaiming the immense success of Church reform would appear to indicate her unparalleled efficacy. Here, too, images from collapsing Antiquity come to mind, in particular the propaganda pouring forth from fifth century Ravenna, adulating the glories of the holders of the imperial title at the exact moment when the antics of the Roman authorities had come to mean about as much as the pronouncements of the hosts of television talk shows.
But that brings me to my second point. In an age of epoch change, that which is truly essential and seriously capable of carrying the greatness of the pasts into an uncertain future stands out with greater clarity to all those with honestly open hearts and eyes. To paraphrase a comment of Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, substantive things repeatedly reveal their contempt for servile adulation of the “signs of the times”, and questions regarding whether they are ahead of their times of behind them. Meaningfulness regularly proves itself to be an attribute of whatever sublimely transcends that which is merely “timely”.
None of the hymns, prayer services, liturgies, and socio-political programs of the modern Church possess any formative significance and staying power, precisely because they are purposely designed to do nothing other than follow the example of what seems to be most “active” and “energetic” in our culture at any given moment. Determined to do nothing but learn from the environment rather than in any way to teach it, they are swallowed up by the various “mystiques” that they try to imitate. Odd contradictions thereby emerge, my personal favorite being the iron clad union of Church and State which has developed through progressive Catholic commitment to the seemingly opposite secularist principle of their absolute separation. All too swiftly, Catholic initiatives “fall behind” the erratic alterations of the willful and flighty a-religious society that the supporters of timeliness worship. They then become yet another batch of sore thumbs used to illustrate the Church’s intrinsic inability to keep pace with change. This engenders a new and frantic round of timely reforms to heel to a western world which is, as noted above, itself already irrelevant and dying. If the fifth century Church had taken the modern Catholic path, Pope St. Leo would have sallied forth from the gates of Rome to give the keys to the city to an “energetic” Attila the Hun rather than to try to convince him to go away as quickly as possible. And that seemingly invincible conqueror, welcomed into the Eternal City, would have himself soon been swept away by some other momentarily powerful barbarian, proving that the opening of the windows to the “fresh winds of Hunnish change” would have been an enormous and pathetic waste of time. Meanwhile, those pointing out the failure of the policy of servile accommodation with the powers that be would have been chastised as being “deaf to the promptings of the Holy Spirit” and “disrespectful of the wisdom of a holy pope”.
Impotence amidst epoch change shouted out from every corner of the lands that I regularly visit this summer. Passing through villages where I was unable to buy a bottle of wine because the food shops were all in the hands of Moslems, visiting couples who would never dream of marrying or baptizing their one and only child, hearing the criticisms of people incapable of understanding how my wife and I could tolerate the prospect of the imminent arrival of a third infant, and threading my path into houses of worship through groups of threatening and abusive native youths controlling the steps and portals, I found confronting such change the ever saccharine, ever smiling, ever optimistic Church of No Hassles. And it was this toothless wreck that tried to respond to the draft of a European Constitution which left out any reference to the Christian heritage in its statement of the formative influences on our civilization, by begging, pitifully, for at least a shred of historical honesty, and often with the hideous argument that honor should be given to religion for the hand that it had had in creating the very Enlightenment that has systematically sought to crush it. Where, in such uncontrolled flux, was the transcendence that stands calmly above one’s times, offering something meaningful to guide them and confident to judge them?
There was, of course, one representative of such transcendence available, and, luckily, there were many places in Europe where it might be located. In a world of epoch change, abandoned by a Church which feels obliged to offer herself to be drawn and quartered by whatever force seems to be powerful enough to require accommodation, the Traditional Mass of the Roman Rite stands out as a solid, meaningful, eternal rock around which to throw ones flailing arms and flagging spirits. Happily and confidently above its times, it escapes that superficial spirituality of the passing, cheap sensation that sends honestly hungry hearts on a desperate hunt for anything whatsoever which smacks even slightly of substance—as is happening en masse in prisons around the globe, where inmates find that Moslem preachers give the guidance and the answers denied them by ecumenical chaplains and liturgies from Outer Space. Classical, discrete, and coherent, it escapes entirely the truly reactionary trap fallen into by those who would slap a few Latin words here and there onto the carcass of a liturgy condemned to a rap dance which alters with every slightest breeze. The Traditional Mass was there, even if the labor of finding it sometimes took an entire day of investigation and travel. And the message that it sent out was that of the Permanent Things. Everywhere, it breathed the spirit of the Church of Pope St. Gregory the Great, who sponsored spiritual programs that aimed to conquer a frightening new world in the making rather than simply “listening” to it and following its violent and pagan teachings. That spirit made it overwhelmingly clear, once again, that here, amidst its prayers and ceremonies and the Christian vision that gave them birth were the answers and the promise of hope in a time of cultural collapse that the Church of No Hassles could never give.
This is why I think that the Mass celebrated at Santa Maria Maggiore on Mary 24th was so valuable. Many motives may have entered into the permission and stature given by Rome to that ceremony. It in no way indicated the end of our troubles. Opposition to the Traditional Mass is strong enough to guarantee us a longer period of wandering in the wilderness than we might wish to contemplate. Nevertheless, it encouraged our colleagues in Europe enormously, illustrated just how much ground we have gained since 1988, when such a ceremony would have seemed to be nothing other than the dream of the most clueless utopian, and revealed a perhaps unconscious realization on the part of a number of ecclesiastical authorities that without the spiritual depth that it possesses, the Roman Catholic Church is doomed to be swept away by the same floodwaters of epochal change that she herself has helped to unleash. Merely by taking place, the Mass at Santa Maria Maggiore has entered into our dossier proving the legality of the ancient Roman Rite. And, most importantly, the flag of transcendence, substantive meaning, and permanence which it flew had to have stirred the hearts of an unknown number of clerics and lay people who were hunting desperately for spiritual guidance, were shocked by the contrast between the Traditional Liturgy and a modern counterpart which is anchored to nothing, and are now destined to become our future friends and allies.
Some time ago, in a previous article, I noted that we, in our frustrating and often unrewarded battle for Tradition, are building the future every bit as much as those who constantly claim that they are “forward looking” in their approach. In fact, we are constructing that future even more securely than any self-proclaimed futurists, both because we are more consciously aware of the fact that modern western culture is in free fall, and because we know what we want and where we ought to be headed.
Our familiar world may be shipwrecked and lie in pieces on the rocks, but those rocks can still include the solid granite of the Roman Rite and the teaching it enshrines. And on those rocks we can revive Catholic civilization, ever ancient, ever new. Where else could we turn to do so?
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