They are traditional Catholics, lovers of everything laden with Latin, incense and chant. Their expressive piety within the sanctuary earns them the label “holier than thou”. Their fine attention to liturgy earns their reputation as sticklers. Their study of the Church’s ancient practices makes them “medieval.” They don’t tend to smile at Mass or greet everyone, which makes them seem aloof. They are not like the atheist, the prodigal the homosexual or the addict who can be safely welcomed with open arms. No, these are Pharisaical agitators stuck in the past. They threaten everything previous generations have fought so hard for.
Yet we fail to realize people are made differently, with different personalities, talents and needs and that they worship in different ways. For a traditional, Mass is about an intense encounter with a transcendent God. It is a mystery that leaves them silent and somber. What is underneath the somber exterior is a person reaching out for love. How we react can make all the difference.
I firmly believe that the average parish doesn’t do enough to welcome these folks. Most indifferently watch them bristle against sentimental hymns and forced hand-holding. They could care less if a casual, socialized liturgy sends them running out the door. This is sad because each person has gifts to offer. It is sad because our hearts remained closed. “They are not like us, they can’t get with the program” we say and thus, we turn them away. Traditional Catholics have different spiritual needs. The parish church accounts for the needs of different cultures, different age-groups and but not the needs of traditionals. Most of all, the contemporary Mass which doesn’t speak to them, is usually the only option available. If they do so much as ask for a pinch of incense, a line of chant or even proper rubrics, they are dismissed as arrogant. I have heard countless horror stories of people who received harsh admonishment for asking a priest to stop abuses in the Mass. As stated in the document, Redemptionis Sacrementum, we all have a right to liturgy that is authentic and faithful (chapter 1, 18).
Most people won’t complain about abuses, let alone notice them. Again traditional Catholics have different needs and they are often punished for expressing those needs. Feeling unwelcome, they go off in search of an elusive Byzantine Divine Liturgy or Tridentine Latin Mass. If they can find a parish that offers these, the traditional Catholic may quickly find a home amidst the sacredness and quiet. But what if no such options exist? In the worst case, they find ways into schismatic groups that breed bitterness towards the Church. The stronger ones are back at the diocesan parish, remembering the scoldings, misunderstandings and pain. Either way, they have been alienated.
Since the needs of traditional Catholics are seemingly hidden away, I will reveal them. There are three main drives or needs for these Catholics who are more attached to older liturgical expressions. We do well to recognize them as they are in reality, quite natural human needs.
The first need says: “Give me a heritage.”
We see this in those who grew up worshiping a certain way, were comfortable, and see no need to change anything. They are pragmatists who stick to what works. Changes in the liturgy left them confused and feeling somewhat betrayed because what they did before suddenly wasn’t good enough. When told their way is wrong or “backwards” their temperament becomes stubborn and argumentative. They are often called “Hard-heads”.
Retaining traditions is a way for people to retain their identity. Ingrained customs, rules and ritual helps them make sense of who they are and of the world around them. Pragmatism makes them feel grounded, as if their way of life has meaning. It also is apparent in younger generations who feel root-less and long for a connection with other human beings. The disconnectedness caused by modern technology is remedied by a sense of heritage. Chanting in Latin or some other sacred language unifies them with myriad ancestors. It helps them to know thousands of people have sung the same song or said the same prayer. For them the faith is like a torch carried through history. They belong more at home in traditional liturgy.
People with pragmatic needs are usually very loyal. People of community, they can offer great dedication to any parish endeavor. They are likely to join councils and clubs such as the Knights of Columbus or family ministry. Acceptance and appreciation are very important for this lover of traditional values. Their influence offers strength and stability to the parish church.
The second need says: “Give me mystery.”
Some want to love God and express that love as boldly as possible by means of ritualized worship. They are the Idealists. In more derogatory terms they are called “ritualists”. More modern ways of worship make them feel constricted, barren and sterilized. Conformity with current fashions makes them bristle and even act out when pressured. Those who want to wear chapel veils and kneel for communion are often called “Rebels”. People see their actions as ostentatious and they will reply that love is ostentatious.
Some people desire a certain freedom and love the ritual because it allows us to come as they are, ditch the world and become immersed in worship. Rituals and high liturgy makes them feel as if there is something special and mysterious in our faith that can oppose the abuses, something that won’t change or slip away.
Not everyone has the same life experiences and we should consider this. Mystery and ceremony breaks one out of the banal, 9 to 5 workday. Some people need liturgy to give them a retreat into God. Younger people realize this and tend to shy away from liturgical innovations that come off as sappy or fake. They have been bombarded all day with noise and chatter and do not want more of it when they come into church. For them and many other, mystery is the real deal.
People with idealistic needs offer a liveliness and love of beauty to the parish church. These people are lovers of art and liturgical symbolism, keen to recognize the meaning of each prayer and gesture. They usually excel at contemplative prayer and will join prayer groups, music ministry or any activity that enriches the liturgy. Being able to express themselves, nourish genuine friendships and engage in traditional devotions is very important to these pious souls. Their gifts can be aimed towards the spiritual renewal of a parish.
The third need says: “Give me order”.
Yes this is what makes traditionals so ill reputed as “rigorists” and “legalists”. The modern environment often leaves people feeling bereft of control. Unable to make sense of who they are, they may experience unworthiness. Too many changes in the liturgy leave them confused and scared. Any incident of abuse scandalizes them deeply. Mastering and following the rules is a way they can gain some control over the environment which has changed so much. It is a way for them to feel worthy. Confronted with casual Catholicism, their temperament becomes scrupulous, hyper vigilant and judging. When they worry about rubrics, they are called “Pharisees”. Yet these people believe rubrics exist for a reason and for the betterment of the church community. Legal observance isn’t just about conformity, it is about ordering a deeply broken humanity. A higher order is sought, which will arm them against the flesh and the devil.
This need for order is often felt by converts who studied and prepared for the faith. Some of these deserted a former life for Christ and wonder why everyone else wants it easy. Easy doesn’t work for them. They crave challenges. Traditional liturgy addresses this challenge. They have to be quiet. They have to focus. They have to honor God. This rigidity may upset older generations who once again, felt constrained by traditional ways.
Thus, the new generation is different. Younger priests often pay more attention to the rubrics. They show concern for things like formation, reverence and continuity. This reflects a need acutely felt by the growing generation. Rather than insist young priests only care about rules, we should realize Christ provides for the needs of His Church in every age.
People with law-observing needs have a keen eye for detail. They are superb learners and teachers of the faith and despite their apparent rigor, they can be very conscientious people with big hearts. They like joining Bible studies and RCIA teams. Being able to address real issues, have questions answered and give input are important to these folks. Their gifts can help empower catechesis in the parish church.
Younger Catholics with traditional leanings are often drawn to the disciplines of altar serving and the Liturgy of the Hours. If you teach them how to chant, they’ll love you. They view priests and authority figures as role-models and thus are deeply scandalized when a minister scolds them for being “too extreme”. Their zeal can be reigned in by gentle guidance and simply allowing them to become members of the community. Treating them as outcasts who need to get with the times will usually result in acts of rebellion. Their strong emotions make them especially vulnerable to schismatic groups. It is important we listen to them and understand why traditional observances benefit them.
There are many facets to the traditional Catholic. Some will not fit definitively not have all the needs mentioned here. Naming them as rebels and legalists is very unfair and doesn’t address the person’s real needs. Each wants to love and serve God the best way they can. Each believes they are doing what they can to stay Catholic amidst a tide of baffling changes and currents. No matter how progressive you are, it’s best to see traditionalists as people who want to love and follow the Church. Even those who go into schism honestly believe what they do is out of love. It is love marred by sins which we all can fall victim to.
We should try to reach out and understand those who are strongly attached to tradtitional liturgy rather than judge them. Beneath it all is a deep hunger for God which they feel the modern age has not met or even worse deprived them. There will always be “holier than thou” folks in every camp. Pride is no respecter of persons. It affects the guitar Mass devotee as much as the Latin lover. It is time we change our views. It’s time we stop pushing these people away. Let us view the love of tradition, mystery and ritual not as a weakness or superiority complex- but as a unique gift of personal faith and strong convictions.
I recommend that all those interested in what the Church teaches about the liturgy read these documents.
Redemptionis Sacramentum– deals with what is legitimate liturgical abuse and what is not.
Sacrosanctum Concillium– Vatican II document about liturgical reforms.
Summorum Pontificum– Concerns the legitimacy of the Tridentine Latin Mass.