Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Why the Pontifical Tridentine Mass is Especially Valuable for America

(Program for the visit of Alfons Cardinal Stickler to Inaugurate the Dietrich von Hildebrand Institute, February 23, 1992)

“Tu, ad liberandum suscepturus hominem, non horruisti Virginis uterum”

“Thou, when taking on human nature to free man, didst not disdain the Virgin’s womb”

Te Deum

Protestantism was built upon the doctrine of the total depravity of man after Original Sin. This doctrine has profoundly corrupted modern society’s appreciation of even the most noble of human attributes, not to speak of its attitude towards the use of things of the world in general. Art, music, literature, poetry, philosophy—indeed, the whole history of man’s endeavor to find the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, and “to restore all things in Christ”—came under the censure of those who logically developed the Protestant message. All were attacked as the useless vanity of fallen creatures who are offensive to God. The sacred authority of the Holy Roman Church, her Magisterium, and her Hierarchy were especially condemned as the most notorious of blasphemous efforts on the part of a wicked world to associate itself with the transcendent, good God and His plans for men.

Our nation’s values have been shaped, historically, to a large degree, by Protestantism, especially in its Puritan form. The average American, whatever his religious ideas or lack thereof, carries with him an immense amount of cultural baggage from the nation’s Protestant heritage. This is evident in the great suspicion, prevalent in all aspects of our society, of everything which involves authority and a tradition which defends the role of the intellect and the arts in lifting up our hearts to eternal Truth. It is evident in our society’s tendency to condemn as useless, impractical or even dangerous the view that all creation, from books to bells, from symphonies to sashes, from frescoes to frankincense, can and must be pressed into the service of the greater honor and glory of God. Such a view, then, becomes distinctly countercultural in a Puritan society, especially when the principles of that society have been secularized, as in our own.

Each of us is a limited human being with a tendency to be buried in the spirit of his time and place. It is easy for us to recognize the flaws of another era and another homeland, but very difficult to admit those of our own. Normal human nostalgia for the familiar, and fear of that which surpasses our present intellectual routine, can make us hesitate before accepting a challenge to slogans, pet projects, and simplistic crochets, reiterated day and night over the course of decades or even centuries. But when such nostalgia, such closing of the mind to higher truths, such premature burial in the petty details of the life of the so-called “practical” man deprives us of a superior cultural heritage and of full exposure to Divine Light, then it is the duty of the countercultural to enter the picture to set things straight.

Hence, the special value of the Pontifical Tridentine Mass, which is countercultural in a positive way, in the deepest sense imaginable in the American environment. It is a complete and palpable rejection of everything puritanical, parochial and inferior in our own time and place. It places the authority of the presiding pontiff as an alter Christus beneficial to the life of all of us in a spectacular light. It takes the whole of salvation history seriously, presenting the congregation everything from the ceremonies of the Temple to those of the Last Supper at which the old sacrifice was replaced by the new. It does this clearly, each gesture and ritual action conveying layer upon layer of meaning, using language and art and music in which the wisdom of all past ages, from Egypt through Greece and Rome and up to the present, takes its part in the great song of praise sung to God by His faithful. It appeals to us as whole men, to our intellect in both its rational and poetical dimension, to our eyes, to our ears, to our sense of smell, imitating, in doing so, the Word Himself, Who did not disdain to take flesh so that we could be saved. In short, it commits the supreme “sacrilege” of daring to try to make the world pleasing to God, and in a way which teaches that the insights of several thousand years of Tradition may have at least as much to say about how this can be done as the editorial page of the morning newspaper.

Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, in describing the life of her husband, the late Professor Dietrich von Hildebrand, once said the following: “He was not ahead of his time, or behind his time. He was above his time.” To be above one’s time is the first step towards living in God’s time, and in God’s Truth. The Pontifical Tridentine Mass lives precisely in that Heavenly realm. And it is, ultimately, for this reason that its ability to civilize, inspire, exalt and sanctify extends through the ages and does not fade like a building of the 1960’s which is already now an architectural eyesore. Viva Cristo Re!

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