I am one of those “aging boomer” priests that, according to the stereotype, is supposed to cherish Saint Louis Jesuit music, liturgical dance and the like. Only I don’t and even in my exclusively Novus Ordo days never really did. I was spiritually and temperamentally prepared for my Bishop asking me to help with the celebration of the traditional Mass. It was a tough learning curve, thirty eight years ordained and just the NO but I did it. As other priests have said of their first celebration of the traditional liturgy, it was my second first Mass. To use a phrase popular in clerical and religious circles, it was a “transformative experience.”
Celebrating the traditional Mass has deepened my appreciation of both the Eucharist and the Priesthood. When I stand at the altar, it’s clearly an altar, not to be mistaken for a table. It’s an altar on which is offered sacrifice and not just any sacrifice but the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. This is so much larger than me. I enter into this sacred mystery and I conform myself to the rite predetermined by the Church and its tradition. The angels and all the saints are there also. This is not a rite made “meaningful” by the options I choose or create but a rite that is meaningful by the very fact that it expresses the faith of the Church of yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Facing the Lord, I am acutely conscious of the participation of those worshiping with me and the saints and angels I invoke repeatedly. I am small, dwarfed by the physical space and more so by the ineffable mystery. I do not have to be inclusive or make people feel welcome. I am not the central focus of the rite, nor is my personality or gift for communication determinant. In the traditional Mass I fade behind the great Mystery. I can just be a Catholic priest “in persona Christi.”
The more I celebrate the traditional Mass, the more I am convinced that if the Church is to have a vibrant evangelical future, able to proclaim the fulness of the faith and call men and women to conversion and salvation, the Novus Ordo is not enough. The traditional Mass and Sacraments must be readily available. All restraints by bishops and the Holy See must be lifted. It’s what Pope Benedict tried do with Summorum Pontificum.
Then along comes Pope Francis and Traditionis Custodes. After initial reactions of grief and scandal, the questions “Why?” and “Why now?” kept going around in my head. I was aware that Pope Francis had little regard for the liturgical tradition but I thought he would wait for Pope Benedict to die to move against it. The motu proprio has an urgency about it. Pope Francis seemed to be impelled to get this over with.
Then there was the announcement of the Synod on Synodality to figure out what synodality means. The Preparatory Document and Vademecum are replete with vague verbiage. An example:
It is precisely in the furrows dug by the sufferings of every kind endured by the human family and by the People of God that new languages of faith and new paths are flourishing, capable not only of interpreting events from a theological point of view but also of finding in trials the reasons for refounding the path of Christian and ecclesial life. (Prep Doc 7)
Pope Francis is quoted:
We recall that the purpose of the Synod, and therefore of this consultation, is not to produce documents, but ‘to plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands.’
Some commentators have remarked about the intentional ambiguity of some of the texts of Vatican II. This synodality is now ambiguity on steroids.
In April 1975 Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia and declared year Zero, a new beginning in building a Marxist Utopia. This seems to be how Pope Francis and his Synod office see the Church right now. With this process starting,
We are called to abandon attitudes of complacency and comfort that lead us to make decisions purely on the basis of how things have been done in the past… The Synodal Process provides us with the opportunity to open ourselves to listen in an authentic way, without resorting to ready-made answers or pre-formulated judgments. (Vademecum 2.3)
Often enough Pope Francis speaks of the “God of surprises.” Most recently on September 18, speaking to representatives of the Diocese of Rome he said that the Synod was about “being open to the God of surprises” and that we should “prepare for surprises.” Does the “God of surprises” bear any resemblance to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit or is he/she/it really a god malleable to any purpose the Pope and Synod deem fit?
Pope Francis wants a liturgy tailored to his God of surprises and unsurprisingly he has to restrict the traditional liturgy to accomplish that. “The liturgical books promulgated by Saint Paul VI and Saint John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, are the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite”? (TC 1) While the post-Conciliar texts can be used for a reverent and truly Catholic celebration of the mystery of faith, we know that their very malleability allows them to be used in ways that are a denial of that same faith. This is one of the basic problems of the modern rites but maybe it’s here that they can serve the Synod process. Remember, the Vademecum called for listening “in an authentic way” which means not “resorting to ready-made answers or pre-formulated judgments.” In other words, everything is up for question. This is where the God of surprises fits in. He/she/it is not bound by the ready-made, the pre-formulated, the Traditional.
Traditionis Custodes – its content, spirit and tone – and the Synod preparatory documents bring to mind Pope Paul VI’s words as he lived with the less than good fruit of the Vatican Council. In December 1968 he said, “The Church is now confronted with uncertainty, self-criticism, one might almost say self-destruction. As if the Church were doing violence to Herself.” This was so soon after the Council’s conclusion, a council that was spoken of as a new springtime, the results of which resembled more a nuclear winter. With the high flown verbiage describing the Synod process, it seems the Church is doubling down on destruction. Is this “the smoke of Satan” that the same Paul VI spoke of in 1972?
Even if Traditionis Custodes is not part of the synod “plan”, it serves its purpose. The Synod is presented as a grand rupture with the past in the spirit of openness to being surprised by God. If the god of surprises is to be heard, Tradition must be silenced. Resist.
 FRANCIS, Address at the Opening of the Synod of Bishops on Young People (3 October 2018) in Prep Doc 32.
Father Richard is a diocesan priest in the United States.