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For a Darkening 21st-Century Church, the Light Is Tradition

It never ceases to amaze me just how dark the world becomes in the month of December, as we approach the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. I wake up in darkness, thinking it’s the middle of the night, when it’s already almost breakfast time. I look around at a dismal sky at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and wonder why the sun has to leave us so soon. It is as if the dark is closing in, surrounding and smoldering the day.

Yet we are aware, from the experience of every year we have ever seen in our lives, that the upper hand of darkness is only temporary. We know that sure enough, right around the time when the Church celebrates the theophany or manifestation of the true Light that enlightens every man, the days will slowly begin to lengthen, each day a little more, until the motions of Heaven and Earth bring us to the summer solstice, on which our Catholic ancestors lit huge bonfires in honor of the Forerunner. We know that the cycle will repeat, back and forth, as long as the world endures – until it is transfigured by divine fire at the moment of the Last Judgment, and yields to eternal darkness for the damned, eternal light for the blessed.

This elemental cycle has always served Christians as a spiritual metaphor. Unlike nature’s strict cycles, however, history is made by free human beings under the gaze of a sovereignly free God; its days and nights follow no predictable pattern. Thus, after what seemed (and in many ways was) a period of tremendous growth between the Wars, the Church entered into a fifty-year stretch of winter, surrounded by the darkness of heresy, apostasy, indifference, and abuse.

For the vast majority of Catholics alive today, there has been no alternative to the superficial pablum they have been given and are still being given since the era of Vatican II. There is not even the awareness of how radically inadequate this neo-Catholicism is to the dogmatic, ascetical-mystical, liturgical, cultural, political fullness of the Faith. Without the possibility of comparison, Modernism conquers territory after territory. This is why the powers that be have striven for as long as possible to suppress the existence of any alternative to the official conciliarist narrative and agenda. Annibale Bugnini went so far as to say that if the old Roman Rite could remain extinct for just two generations, the liturgical reform would establish itself successfully.

Bugnini’s dream did not come true.

The good news, the gleam of light in the prevailing darkness, the evidence that winter will not have the final word, is the improbable growth of the traditionalist movement, from the mid-1960s to the present. When the long night of postconciliar “renewal” had descended and the bitter winds were howling, the traditionalist movement kept the flame from extinction. In spite of the imperfections of its members (could these ever be absent among fallen men?), the traditionalist movement is awake, alert, and aware – and it is indeed growing. Traditionalists love their Catholic faith; they practice it and make sacrifices for it, study it and discuss it; they are ready by the grace of God to defend it to the death, and no one on Earth, be he Masonic or mitred, will take it from them.

“Aren’t traditionalists just a tiny minority?” worldly wisdom asks. But Christ our King is not a democrat who rules by majorities; He is an absolute monarch who rules with an iron rod, as Scripture says, and chooses the weak to shame the strong. As I never tire of reminding people, every great reform movement in the history of the Church has started just as the Church herself started: with a small band of zealous disciples acting on a vision of “how things ought to be” that harks back to an earlier fullness. Educator Michael Platt notes:

Revolutions in manners and morals often start with just one or two or a few persons saying “no” to something. Human things are often like an army in flight that will never turn until one soldier stands and fights. It is sometimes said “you can’t bring back the past,” but you can, and strong ages, such as the Renaissance and the [Counter-] Reformation, do precisely that – revive and renew something lost, forgotten, and good.

Not to recover and reconnect with Catholic tradition, not to repent of our unwisdom, is to surrender to the insidious totalitarianism of the modern West. Modern philosophy and its sidekick modern theology brought about the progressive undermining of our tradition; it is only the resurrection of that tradition that will prove an effective antidote to modernity’s poisons. We must be traditional, like Mary, who “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” We must be anti-modern, as were the Roman pontiffs from the time of the French Revolution to the early twentieth century.

To my fellow Catholics, if you are already grateful beneficiaries of the Church’s authentic liturgy, stay faithful to it, and invite as many friends, family, and strangers to it as you can – preferably to a High Mass.

If you do not yet know the beauty, purity, and depth of the traditional Faith, or the solemnity and intensity of its timeless rituals, don’t deprive yourself any longer of that which is most profoundly Catholic. Seek out the Mass and the other traditional sacraments and sacramentals, if they are anywhere near you. See for yourself the difference just having the Latin Mass makes. If you can, move your family to a town or city with better access to this powerhouse of “grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). For us Latin-rite Catholics, this is where the true Faith, the Faith of the Church of Rome, is permanently at home; this is where the encounter with the Lord is most real, most efficacious, most exalted.

If you are wavering between old and new, ancient and modern, organic and fabricated, don’t put off the decision any longer. The old Mass with its unique anaphora; virile orations; annual reading cycle; rich calendar; and detailed, dignified ceremonial has a 2,000-year arc of development behind it. The new Mass is a committee-fashioned stew of bits and pieces of euchological material from here, there, and everywhere, filtered and bowdlerized for modern sensibilities, with a healthy dose of ex nihilo novelties, puffed out with a giant though thematically narrower lectionary, denuded of ritual, fragmented by options, subject to uncontrollable manipulation. All of this is demonstrable fact, hiding from which does neither your soul nor the Church any good.

If Catholics want to survive the increasingly satanic onslaught of late modernity and the even more diabolic disorientation within the hierarchy of the Church, we will need every last resource of tradition we can call upon – arms and armor, bulwarks and fortresses. We will need asceticism, beloved devotions, authentic rites; priesthood, religious life, and holy matrimony lived with heroic generosity, including homeschooling. We will need what Roberto de Mattei calls a “spiritual and moral separation” from bad shepherds.

The times are evil. God put us here right now for a reason. He is calling us to embrace and support the fullness of Catholic tradition – without compromise, without apology, without fear, without counting the cost, without looking back over our shoulders like Lot’s wife, or like the Israelites pining for the fleshpots of Egypt when they thought they had it easier. Easier, yes, but they were slaves building the palaces of their pagan masters. This is a time for freeborn soldiers of Christ. Baptism freed us, and Confirmation prepared us for this moment. The Holy Spirit will not fail us in our hour of need.

Even in the deep of night, when hours pass with terrible slowness, there still shine the chaste moon and the host of stars. Our Lady and all the angels and saints never abandon us. They intercede for us from their thrones in glory and beckon us to be faithful and fight manfully, until we can join them ourselves. The children of the glorious Mother of God and ever-Virgin Mary will never be alone, never succumb to despair, never grow faint, and never be defeated in the end.

We are indeed looking out at a world submerged in darkness. We look at churchmen naïvely or cynically in collusion with the world. We look at the invasion of worldliness into the very sanctuary of God. In company with the Magi, we need to leave behind the inadequate wisdom of this age and set off in search of the Light that conquers the winter – the Light that still shines, burning with an inextinguishable brightness, wherever the traditional Catholic Faith is believed, lived, prayed, suffered for, and rejoiced in. “The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness hath not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5).

A rewritten version of this post has been incorporated into the Conclusion of my book Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico Press, 2020).

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