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A Plea to Youth Ministers: Give Up the Past and Embrace an Ageless Tradition

Some time ago, a Catholic priest wrote me a wonderful letter about tradition and youth ministry, which turned into a correspondence that struck me as worth sharing with a wider readership. So many of us face the issues discussed therein, week in and week out. I asked the priest his permission to include some of the text, and he gave his consent.

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Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,

I just read Tra le Sollecitudini [Pope St. Pius X’s 1903 motu proprio on music in church] and have a couple of questions. They mainly circle around the weight of the document, and how it interacts with other documents of the Church – questions of authority.

It seems as though any attempt to use the document authoritatively runs the risk of the claim that it’s been superseded by Vatican II. For example, when it says sacred music “must be holy, and must exclude all profanity,” that is of course not merely a disciplinary matter (one subject to change), but a normative one (it is true in the order of being). One the other hand, because some of the disciplinary matters have in fact been superseded, it seems that it might also allow the rejoinder: “Yes, the music must be holy and must exclude profanity, but just as it’s wrong about the use of Latin, and wrong about women singing in the choir, so, too, is it about what counts as holy and profane.” Another way it might be put: you once pointed out that sad, sad line in Sacrosanctum Concilium about “useless repetition.” You assigned it as disciplinary and therefore prudential and changeable. Might not someone say the same about using profane music? It could be prudential to use, if it draws someone in.

That claim essentially challenges Benedict XVI’s claim that what was sacred for our fathers is sacred for us. I think he’s right, but it isn’t obvious that he’s right. He may be right in the order of being (it’s sacred for us whether we realize it or not), and he may be right for people who still believe that the preconciliar church of their fathers is their own church. It isn’t clear, however, that the average Catholic in America holds that Latin, Gregorian chant, communion on the tongue, saints’ days, fasting, penances, facing the Lord to pray, beautiful vesture and architecture, etc., that we’ve received from our fathers, is sacred. In fact, at least a small number actually hold those things in contempt.

And I think one of the challenges is to face up to the fact that to some degree, what we find holy does change! Think of the human body. It was held in contempt by the ancient pagan world, and after having been sanctified by the Lord’s Incarnation, it is again held in contempt in this neo-pagan culture.

These are things I’m dealing with in my position as youth minister of a huge Catholic parish, where the unspoken expectation is that I’ll encourage “youth Masses” and “praise and worship.” To me, Pope Pius X offers clear, understandable principles that are obviously expressive of a once common and universal understanding of the liturgy. But you once wrote that the encyclical Mystici Corporis reads today as if it had been written in another universe, and I feel somewhat the same way about Tra le Sollecitudini. Indeed, the very idea that there’s a tradition to refer to as an authority seems a universe away.

Can you tell me how you wade through these matters?

Yours in Christ,

(Father N.)

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Dear Father,

Thank you for your honest and heartfelt letter. I understand the problems you’re talking about. It’s by no means easy to navigate what we are supposed to do when there is so much dissent, contradiction, amnesia, and just plain ignorance. And yet I believe that if one studies what the Church has taught over the centuries and especially during the past 100 years, one can find a deep continuity there, in spite of the surface squalls. That’s what I was trying to get at in this article.

Moreover, I take it as a given that if a Church document is promulgated with the force of law, as Tra le Sollecitudini obviously was, and as Summorum Pontificum is in our own day, it remains in force except in those provisions where it has been abrogated. So while the prohibition of women in choirs was, in fact, lifted later on, the ban on pianos and bands in church was never lifted, and for good reasons. (See here; that article, in turn, has links to a few other pieces that explore the issues. You might also check out this interview, where I go into the nature of sacred music and make practical suggestions.)

Another thing I think is important is distinguishing between prudential, contingent judgments – e.g., “the office of Prime needs to be abolished,” which may or may not prove a good idea in the end – and matters of principle, such as “the Church offers to God the sacrifice of praise in the Mass and the Divine Office.” The latter is something the Church must always do. When one examines the documents on sacred music, one finds a remarkable consistency of principles, albeit different degrees of tolerance or flexibility regarding what corresponds with (or at least does not conflict with) those principles. Here, too, is where a certain amount of philosophical and theological training is simply indispensable – training, regrettably, very few people have. One who has studied Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Ratzinger, thinkers of that stature will understand where the principles are coming from, and that they are rooted in the nature of man, the nature of music, the mystery of the Incarnation, the stages of the spiritual life (purgative, illuminative, unitive). Then it’s a matter not simply of swallowing a magisterial statement, but of seeing that the magisterium is enunciating, for our benefit, something that must be so. It’s like St. Thomas saying that God reveals His existence to us, even though we can demonstrate it by the use of our natural reason, because most people won’t, in fact, reach it that way. But they could.

As to your more specific situation as a youth minister, I think we have made a serious wrong turn in assuming that what young people want is a second-rate version of what the secular world gives them. The Church cannot compete with the entertainment industry. She is in the business of winning souls for Christ with the proclamation of a beauty they will never encounter in the meat market. This demands a certain otherworldliness, a countercultural challenge, an exposure to our own rich heritage. It is a dead end to pander to the lowest common denominator.

In years of working with college students, I have seen that those who are serious about their faith will get more and more serious if they are fed nourishing spiritual food, which includes a more traditional style of liturgy and music. Conversely, they will stay superficial and a bit bored if they are given the usual
“fast food.”

You’d think the American bishops would try to find a serious answer to the question: why do we lose a vast swath of young people after confirmation? It clearly can’t be the lack of youth ministry programs, which exist in their thousands. It is because of an outdated and ineffective paradigm.

I’ve recently written a few articles specifically about praise and worship music and what the problems are with it, as well as the notion of inculturation it depends upon. People have found them helpful:

Sacred Music vs. “Praise & Worship” – Does it Matter? (Pt. I)

Sacred Music vs. “Praise & Worship” – Does it Matter? (Pt. II)

Is “Contemporary” Church Music a Good Example of Inculturation?

If I may add a word about one difficulty you raised – namely, that Pope Benedict XVI might be too sanguine when he says, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too” – I think he is saying not that our current generation already holds it to be sacred and great, but that it remains such in itself for anyone who discovers it with an open mind and heart. Hence, he says almost immediately afterward: “It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.” This is as if to say: the sacrality and greatness of Catholic tradition places certain demands on us here and now. We are obliged to hold on to these things, to rediscover them if they are in abeyance, and to pass them on to the next generation.

So I see Pope Benedict making a judgment based on the principle of conservation of tradition and of the guidance of the Church by the Holy Spirit, which cannot be contradicted by any later developments. It’s one thing to expand on what you’ve got; it’s another thing to reject it.

Thank you very much for your encouraging words. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be able to address these topics and correspond with good people about them. I wish you all the best.

God bless,

Peter Kwasniewski

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Dear Professor,

Thank you for taking the time to write a thorough reply.

I had not read the piece on judgment, but I think it touches the nub. Cardinal Newman saw it coming – the rise of private judgment. One of the mantras of my superiors is, “Let’s do what the kids want,” to which I reply, “It isn’t clear their desires are well formed or should at all be determinative.” The exchange presupposes the difference between private judgment and conscience. The Great Tradition does, or should, serve as a sounding board for our judgments. If the notes of our judgment are discordant with the Tradition, we, not the Tradition, must become better tuned.

But why are so many consciences discordant with Tradition and its beauty? What has caused priests and people to belittle Latin or ad orientem or chant? These attitudes and others like them should be warning signs that something has gone very wrong. Cardinal Ratzinger puts it concisely: “The guilt lies then in a different place, much deeper – not in the present act, not in the present judgment of conscience but in the neglect of my being which made me deaf to the internal promptings of truth.”

Our problems, it seems, lie within the very reaches of our being. So back to Cardinal Newman, and to a famous passage:

The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion. A conclusion is but an opinion; it is not a thing which is, but which we are “certain about;” and it has often been observed, that we never say we are certain without implying that we doubt. To say that a thing must be, is to admit that it may not be. No one, I say, will die for his own calculations; he dies for realities. This is why a literary religion is so little to be depended upon; it looks well in fair weather, but its doctrines are opinions, and, when called to suffer for them, it slips them between its folios, or burns them at its hearth[.] …

Logic makes but a sorry rhetoric with the multitude; first shoot round corners, and you may not despair of converting by a syllogism. Tell men to gain notions of a Creator from His works, and, if they were to set about it (which nobody does), they would be jaded and wearied by the labyrinth they were tracing. Their minds would be gorged and surfeited by the logical operation. Logicians are more set upon concluding rightly, than on right conclusions. They cannot see the end for the process. Few men have that power of mind which may hold fast and firmly a variety of thoughts. We ridicule “men of one idea;” but a great many of us are born to be such, and we should be happier if we knew it. To most men argument makes the point in hand only more doubtful, and considerably less impressive. After all, man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal. He is influenced by what is direct and precise. It is very well to freshen our impressions and convictions from physics, but to create them we must go elsewhere. (The Tamworth Reading Room, Discourse 6)

The vast majority of the faithful should be able to hear the music of the Church, have it resonate deeply in their souls, know that it’s true, and never need to give an account of why. This is where the problem lies. The vast majority can’t give any account of the whys or the wherefores. Confusion has sedated them.

Cardinal Sarah points this out in incisive remarks in his recent interviews about silence. Catholics are losing the poor. So Newman again:

Obedience is the test of Faith. Thus the whole duty and work of a Christian is made up of these two parts, Faith and Obedience; ‘looking unto Jesus,’ the Divine Object as well as Author of our faith, and acting according to His will. Not as if a certain frame of mind, certain notions, affections, feelings, and tempers, were not a necessary condition of a saving state; but, so it is, the Apostle does not insist upon it, as if it were sure to follow, if our hearts do but grow into these two chief objects, the view of God in Christ and the diligent aim to obey Him in our conduct. I conceive that we are in danger, in this day, of insisting on neither of these as we ought; regarding all true and careful consideration of the Object of faith, as barren orthodoxy, technical subtlety, and the like, and all due earnestness about good works as a mere cold and formal morality; and, instead, making religion, or rather (for this is the point) making the test of our being religious, to consist in our having what is called a spiritual state of heart[.] (Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 2, Sermon 14)

His fear would be even better founded today, for the danger is now almost entirely realized. People in fact don’t know what to be obedient to.

So how did we get here? The other way to ask the question: What has made the Church so deaf to the internal promptings of truth? This is a pressing question for me. It’s one that’s at least, but not only, historical in nature. I do think Catholics in America found false friends in the Founders. Enlightenment rights language corrupts Catholic rights language. But surely there has to be more to it.

This long missive ends by connecting what I said with your reflections on youth ministry in particular. We think we can offer degraded versions of the secular entertainment industry, and somehow (by magic?) their hearts will be converted. I have been pressured to do a great variety of things that could be done whether or not Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and almost nothing contingent upon that reality.

We’re working under a false premise: “We will do anything to get the youth to see how much God loves them.” Nearly everything I’ve encountered in contemporary youth ministry is based on this premise. If it takes playing crappy music, fine. If it means having dull, short sermons, fine. If it means making everything as easy and as convenient as McDonald’s, fine. So long as they realize “God loves them.” But it’s faulty because we’ve lost the resonance with the internal sound of truth. We want to allow the children’s private judgments to rule – but not really. We let the adults’ assessment of children’s private judgments rule. Thus, God, Truth in Person, is evacuated, making it impossible for the sentence “God loves you” to resonate. The term “God” is empty.

It doesn’t matter if you know that God loves you if you don’t know who God is. And if you don’t know who God is, then you can’t possible know what love is. So we build an entire edifice (at great cost!), desperate to convey to the children that,“[Empty term] [empty action]s you.” Little wonder the children lose interest! And a large wonder some stick it out.

May all the saints keep us in prayer.

Yours in Christ,

(Father N.)

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Dear Father,

The issues you are struggling with are the same ones Cardinal Newman was facing, except that in his day, everything was cinctured about with a sort of Victorian respectability. Still, he saw the revolt against Christianity in his time, and he predicted that it would accelerate and degenerate. Your reductio ad absurdum of the “[empty term] [empty action]s you” captures the vacuity of a faith without roots, without heritage, without clear compass points and anchors. We are floating adrift, and desperately clutching at the flotsam and jetsam of popular culture to see if anything will hold us up and keep us from drowning.

On a more hopeful note, I think the emptiness of the self-referentially modern approach is becoming more and more evident, at least to those who were not brainwashed in it back in the ’70s and ’80s. A shift in mentalities takes a long time, but consider the fact that healthy families and a large number of priestly and religious vocations are coming from those parts of the Church that have resisted mindless modernization to one degree or another (one thinks of Poland, or of traditional monasteries and convents, or parishes affiliated with the Latin Mass). God’s victory unfolds over centuries, not over decades, and it always happens in surprising ways.

What made the Church so deaf to the internal promptings of truth? This is a most difficult and painful question to ask. It’s hard to set a point in time, but one wonders if there was not a form of rationalism and worldliness that crept in during the Enlightenment period (with obvious exceptions – God raises up saints in every age) and reached its peak in the middle of the twentieth century, when it seemed at last as if man had entered a new age, the age of love, peace, unity, human rights for all. It was the most seductive trap that could ever have been set up: a secular Gospel dressed up with the ideals of Christianity yet without the Cross, without Christ. The rupture with tradition happened at this point in a dramatic way: all that old medieval stuff, asceticism, the sacrifice of the Mass, the Latin divine office, scholastic theology, it all had to go; it wasn’t futuristic, transhistorical, metamorphic, optimistic.

It is not going to be easy to rebuild, as the monks in Norcia are experiencing. The earthquake tore down all the churches, and there are piles of rubble everywhere. But there are still people of faith who are determined to rebuild Norcia, to revitalize its economy, and to make it as beautiful as it was before. This seems to be a perfect parable for the Church in general. When you rebuild, it’s not a case of nostalgia, because no one can re-create the past, not even God; but one can create the future to be in continuity with the past, to be its new likeness. That is not nostalgia, but wisdom, humility, and trust in Providence. That is how I understand my vocation as a tradition-loving Catholic.

Thanks again for your probing questions.

In Domino,

Peter Kwasniewski

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