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It’s Time to Imitate Our Forefathers: Never Give Up!

(Editor’s Note: This is Part I of a three-part series: “Leading a Traditional Catholic Life in a Time of Civil War.” Part II can be found here, and Part III here.)

The past two weeks have been highly emotional for many Catholics. We felt anger, and justifiably so. We talked incessantly about what had happened, about what might happen in the future, about how we could respond, and about the meaning of it all

But sooner or later, the initial shock wears off and the anger subsides, yielding place—in far too many souls—to sadness, depression, despondency, lethargy, or, worst of all, a desire to give up. For that is indeed the worst thing tradition-loving Catholics could do—to stop praying, working, and fighting for traditional Catholicism and its crowning glory, the Tridentine Mass.

One can see on social media the difference between the cholerics and the melancholics, between the tireless confronters and the worn-out pewsitters. The cholerics will keep fighting until their last breath, but the melancholic might shrug his shoulders and say: “Oh well, I guess now that Francis has given my bishop the power to kill the Mass, and my bishop has killed it, I should just start going to the best Novus Ordo I can find in a half-hour radius, and put up with the mediocre music and the multitudinous lay ministers. It’s over: the TLM is dead. Our movement has been sunk and we should get on with life.”

Believe me, I get the feelings of frustration and weariness, the desire to stop fighting, the wish to live a “normal life” (or at least to pretend that one can do so after the motu proprio). Some even try to persuade themselves that they were mistaken to be in love with the great Catholic tradition—that they must have been “too attached” to it for their own good, and that this must be Providence’s way of purging them.

Friends, this is not the Spirit of God speaking: “for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:7). That way of talking to ourselves is a voice of discouragement that casts down and does not lift up, a voice turning us away from the glory God has revealed to us to draw us closer to Himself and to help rebuild His fallen Church. In every traditionalist heart has been planted a seed of awakening and awareness, of wonder and gratitude, that is meant to grow and bear abundant fruits in oneself and for others, “for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12). We must not walk away from that “glory streaming from heaven afar,” or plunge into a tailspin that profits neither ourselves nor those around us.

How was it that the Tridentine Mass and other traditional practices and customs ended up in our lives, in this second decade of the twenty-first century? Why are they still here when fifty years ago, Paul VI tried to suppress nearly the whole liturgical legacy of Catholicism? How could a pope who was riding high on centuries of ultramontanism—who, as it were, “trampled Trent by Trent”—have failed to succeed in his ambition?

There was one reason, and one reason alone: our forefathers in the traditionalist movement resisted, protested, sacrificed, and labored mightily to keep the patrimony of the Church alive when its appointed guardians were either indifferent to it or actively expelling it. These men and women wore out the steps of bishops’ houses and chanceries. They published pamphlets and gave talks, traveled to get-togethers, kept in touch across nations when doing so was more laborious than it is for us, sent representatives to knock on doors in Rome. They never stopped. The holy stubbornness of the first traditionalists, their unbending determination, their refusal to take no for an answer, is what rescued the Mass (and much else besides) and allowed it to reach you and me today. 

Will we do the same for our children and grandchildren, for Catholics in the distant future? Right now, we are the links in the living chain of transmission. If there is to be a Summorum Pontificum II (or something even better) down the road, we will be responsible for the conditions of its possibility by refusing to go away, refusing to let the Church hierarchy tread on us.

I find that few who attend the TLM in our times—especially young people and young families—are well acquainted with the long-drawn-out battle to save the Latin Mass against unbelievable odds, with barely any resources, motley troops, and precious few leaders. We need to know our history.

From the start of the traditionalist movement in the mid-1960s when the Mass began to be played with in earnest, a minority of concerned Catholics sought to retain great ecclesiastical traditions: Latin, Gregorian chant, celebration ad orientem, full ceremonial, appropriate vestments, the complex theologico-liturgical body of Catholic prayer refined and matured over the centuries. The publication of Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum in 1969—a document named more subtly, but no less mendaciously, than Francis’s Apostolic Letter Traditionis Custodes—galvanized the nascent movement, which shifted from defending this or that quality of traditional worship to defending the totality of the heritage embodied in the previous liturgical books (the lex orandi), including the doctrine they express (the lex credendi) and the way of life they support (the lex vivendi).

Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, it was a desperate uphill battle. Literate laymen, asking for a few crumbs from the master’s table, vied against powerful bishops and cardinals who, as often as not, slammed the door in their faces. Petitions were written up and signed, frequently to no avail. Letters were published again and again in newspapers and magazines. If not ignored, these letters were treated to humiliating and condescending replies from diocesan liturgists: “You’ll get used to it and soon love it!” (Want to see an example? Check this one out. We’re hearing similar things today from well-meaning Catholics who just don’t get it.) It didn’t matter that the traditionalists always had the better arguments, as we can relish in the episode of William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line with Michael Davies and Malachi Martin; they had no power, no position, no credibility, no numbers.

I want to share with you some recollections sent to me recently by an elderly Englishman who lived through the revolution. Take careful note:

Now that the TLM is under direct threat from a pope, it might be a good time to make the younger generation who are the majority in TLM parishes aware of the history of the Latin Mass movement and the seemingly impossible struggles in those early days when all did seem lost. It is indeed an unsettling time right now, and one which I thought we had put behind us. I started to serve Mass in 1952 and was in my twenties when the changes started to be imposed. I loved the Mass and Benediction and could not believe what was happening; it was as if the Church had gone mad. In the 1960s it seemed that all the young people were into drugs of all kinds—LSD, for example. I was approached on a number of occasions to “see if I was interested.” My reply was always the same: the only drug I needed was incense; nothing else came close. I was usually met with incomprehension.

During the very bleak days of the 1970s and 80s, I witnessed the wanton destruction of lovely parish churches but I was a voice crying in the wilderness—to coin a phrase—in my parish and diocese. Priests and altar servers were warned against fraternising with me; a bishop told me my constant criticism of the Church’s liturgy would drive my family away from the practice of their religion. Under the English Indult we were granted three Masses per year at a country parish on a Wednesday evening at 7:30pm, with no advertising. On one occasion we asked for another because a special feast of some English martyrs fell on a Wednesday. The Bishop was very angry and said that if we did not stop pressuring him he would stop the lot!

I met Michael Davies in 1980 and we became regular correspondents and eventually great friends. In the 1980s a thaw started and the temperature kept gradually improving until 2007 when the sun finally came out. This scandalous document from our current pontiff (isn’t a pontiff supposed to be a “bridge builder”?) is doomed to fail and there are early positive signs that it will. Any senior prelate will see through this motu proprio and distance himself from it. They will have to be discreet but they will do so. My own bishop has been very quick to point out that he sees no need to change anything. We have fought for the Mass before and we must do it again. It is not a time for despondency but a time for action and rolling up sleeves to defeat this latest liturgical assassin.

I recommend taking time to find out more about what it was like—just what a long journey it’s been:

Those who want a “deep dive” could pick up a copy of Leo Darroch’s Una Voce: The History of the Foederatio Internationalis Una Voce, a book that amply illustrates the incomprehension, obstructionism, animosity, and double-dealing the lovers of tradition were met with every step of the way. The more we read about this heroic generation and the obstacles they overcame, the more inspired we will be to do in our day what they did in theirs. [Update: Another book that should have occurred to me as I was writing this is the hugely entertaining volume And Rightly So: Selected Letters and Articles of Neil McCaffrey. The pieces from the sixties and seventies on Church life and liturgical change are especially valuable records.]

One thing we must keep front and center in our souls: what we are fighting for is good, sacred, Catholic, and worthy of our deepest devotion. It cannot be all of a sudden forbidden or declared dangerous. And we are not disobedient for holding fast to it or seeking it. The traditional movement would not exist at all if, at the beginning of the final phase of “liturgical reform,” Catholics had not persistently gone against the wishes and even the legal determinations of Paul VI and other bishops. Paul VI began to relent just a little; and John Paul II acknowledged that the traditionalists’ aspirations were rightful; and then Benedict XVI opened up the treasury to everyone. That initial “disobedience” was not once and for all condemned; its legitimacy was eventually accepted, because the traditionalists had in fact fought on the basis of true principles and for true goods that the Church needs and will always need.

It is no different today in 2021. We must do exactly as our forefathers in the traditional movement did, and be cowered by no one’s threats, dissuaded by no one’s animosity, deterred by no obstacle, seduced by no “good enough” or “tolerable” alternative.

In the second part of this series, I will talk about how our situation is different from theirs and the kinds of objections or temptations that are likely to pull us off course. 

[Photo: The first formal meeting of the International Una Voce Federation in Zurich in 1967, where Dr Erich Vermehren de Saventhem was elected founding President. Courtesy of the FIUV website.]

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