The Sacredness of Tradition

Author: Alice Von Hildebrand

The Sacredness of Tradition

Alice Von Hildebrand

OVER the past thirty years, the secular duel between Satan and the Church has reached unheard-of proportions. All the forces of hell seem to be loose, and the Church has been shaken to her very foundations. Of Satan's many tools, perhaps the most insidious are the hidden techniques he has devised: infiltration from within, and the topic we are now addressing - erosion (or outright abolition) of sacred customs and traditions.

With respect to the latter, two questions must be distinguished: first, can customs and traditions be legally abrogated by Church authorities? Second, is it desirable that they should be eliminated? The answer to the first question is obviously "yes." The Pope, as head of the Church, has the right to abolish certain traditions. But the question remains: is it desirable that he should do so and does their abolition always serve the good of the Church?

Centuries ago, Plato taught: "Any change whatever except from evil is the most dangerous of all things." This is why he urges legislators "to find a way of implanting this reverence for antiquity." Alas, since Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church has abandoned several of her most venerable customs and traditions, and it is our contention that this has both weakened and damaged the spiritual life of the faithful. The list is long, but I shall limit myself to some of them. The first that deserves our attention is Paul VI's lifting the prohibition to eat meat on Fridays.

Abstinence makes the soul grow stronger

It is typical of Catholic theology to stress the unity of body and soul. The idea that our bodily actions can have a positive or negative influence on our soul's spiritual development is part of our anti-Gnostic Catholic Tradition. Significantly, the major world religions prescribe certain dietary laws which their adherents are bound to observe. Orthodox Jews are not permitted to eat non-kosher food; Moslems must observe the Ramadan; Hindus are vegetarians. St. Benedict wrote in his rule, the model for most religious orders, that monks should abstain from meat at all times except when either sick or debilitated.

Why were Roman Catholics told to abstain from meat on Fridays? The reason is obvious: it was to remind them that our Saviour died for us on that particular day, and to invite them to do penance and make sacrifices on that very day in remembrance of Christ's crucifixion. Was this positive commandment cruel? No. Did it put the faithful under undue stress and difficulty? Clearly not. In her loving wisdom, the Church had spelled out several valid excuses that exempted some from this commandment: travellers, sick, weak, or elderly people; children under the age of seven; dramatic situations (war, famine, etc.) charity (for example, when a Roman Catholic was invited by a non-Catholic who forgot to respect the Catholic prohibition and served meat; refusal to eat the prepared meal would humiliate the host and constitute a lack of charity).

Long established and deeply meaningful, this tradition in no way imposed unbearable burdens on the faithful, burdens that 'modern men' could not possibly shoulder. Everything spoke in favour of its being preserved; nothing objective could be said in favour of its abolition. Why, then, was it abolished? One is tempted to assume that Church authorities, under the influence of the spirit of the Sixties, were convinced that certain traditions constituted an unnecessary ballast which actually prevented the faithful from concentrating on what truly mattered They made the fashionable mistake of identifying 'secondary' with 'unimportant,' a confusion which has gained currency today and which leads people to break certain moral laws on the ground that they are 'secondary,' and therefore not important. Abrogating this law has certainly contributed to the spiritual decadence and laxity which we witness today.

Granted, Pope Paul VI did invite Catholics to replace abstinence by some other sacrifice of their own choosing. But one wonders how many faithful even think about it today. The younger generation is now totally unaware that sacrifices are called for on Fridays. The sad truth is that - deprived for years of orthodox teaching - they probably do not even know what the word 'sacrifice' means.

Kneeling while receiving Holy Communion

In the same vein, we can deplore the fact that the tradition of kneeling while receiving Holy Communion has been abolished. Whether this abolition was officially prescribed by the Holy See or whether individual bishops introduced this

practice in their dioceses is irrelevant. The fact is that, since Vatican II, most altar rails have been removed, discouraging or even preventing the faithful from kneeling. In Belgium, new churches are so built that kneeling is rendered impossible. The congregation sits during the whole Mass; only at the moment of consecration do they stand up for a few moments. Once again, a sacred tradition has been ruptured, and we can raise the question - why?

A sharp distinction between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, on the one hand, and 27,000 Protestant sects on the other, is that the former believe in the Real Presence of our Lord and Saviour in the Holy Eucharist while Protestants believe it to be a mere symbol. Roman Catholics take seriously the words of Christ "My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed," and therefore firmly believe that He is physically present under the appearance of bread and wine. The only appropriate physical response to this unfathomable mystery is adoration, best expressed in our culture by kneeling. It would make no sense whatever for Protestants to kneel in front of a mere symbol.

If Christ were to appear visibly to us, we would instinctively and immediately prostrate ourselves in front of Him (a response exemplified again and again in the Gospel). Failing to take the physical posture appropriate for adoration can only weaken the faith of the faithful in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. For if spiritual beliefs influence bodily behaviour, our bodily behaviour necessarily has an effect upon our soul - a psychological truth deeply understood by St. Benedict, the father of western monasticism.

One is permitted to raise a question: Was this sacred and deeply meaningful tradition abolished to accommodate Protestants who took offense at 'Catholic idolatory'? Was this unfortunate step taken to make an ecumenical gesture that would placate our separated brethren? Whether it has, in fact, brought Protestants an inch closer to the one true faith can be questioned. That it has had a negative effect on the faith of Roman Catholics can hardly be contested.

Communion in the hand

Communion in the hand is another case in point. This practice was first introduced in Belgium by Cardinal Suenans, in flagrant disobedience to the rubrics given by the Holy See. Not wishing to publicly reprove a brother bishop, Paul VI decided to lift the ban prohibiting Communion in the hand, and left the decision to Individual bishops. Overnight the practice was universalized, and there have been some isolated cases of priests refusing to give Holy Communion to parishioners who knelt and wished to receive on the tongue. In one diocese in Canada, police were actually called to arrest a devout family of kneeling communicants.

Apart from the fact that once again, a long established tradition has been broken, Communion in the hand has two obvious drawbacks. First of all, we live in a climate of desacrilization while what is urgently needed today is to re-establish the sacred in our churches. When an object is sacred or precious, the first thing that comes to mind are the words: "do not touch it." It is a sign of respect, and when manipulation (from the Latin = hand), becomes commonplace, it is an indication that the duty to show reverence to sacred objects and persons is no longer perceived. The prohibition to touch objects is rigorously enforced in museums; , it should be enforced in Roman Catholic churches where Christ is physically present.

Moreover, the abolition of this regulation tends to weaken the essential distinction which exists between a priest and a lay person. Whereas the former's hands are consecrated by the sacrament of Holy Orders, the latter (who may be just as holy or even holier as an individual) has not received this privilege. To allow lay people to touch the Body of Christ, and to handle the chalice containing His Precious Blood, is bound to make the faithful forget the fundamental difference which exists between the priesthood of the priest, and what is called the priesthood of all people, strongly emphasized by Luther. The priest can consecrate; the people cannot. Priests can forgive sin; the people cannot.

Surprisingly enough, some priests encourage this levelling. Many of them choose to dress like lay people, making it impossible to distinguish them from laity. Rare are those who wear a Roman collar, yet the collar is a symbolic expression of the extraordinary dignity priests have received. One is tempted to raise the question: Why are many priests so anxious to make people forget that they are ordained? Is it uncharitable to assume that it is because, having lost their faith and the , they can no longer appreciate the greatness of their calling, and the awesome responsibility which it carries with it?

Altar girls

We cannot conclude without alluding to the last break with tradition which has recently taken place in allowing girls to serve at the altar. This took place despite the Holy Father's publication in 1980 of which solemnly outlawed the practice. Not only did the papal about-face reward disobedience (many bishops had allowed this practice in their dioceses in disregard of the Holy See) but, once again, the sacred cord of tradition has been dangerously frayed. God, as St. Augustine reminds us, can always bring good out of evil, but the fact remains that the spiritual life of the faithful is once again put to a severe test.

Contemporary Catholics find themselves more and more jailed in the narrow prison of 'their' time, 'their' nations, 'their' secular mores, and of the contemporary mediocrity which seems to be the birthmark of our epoch. Instead of breathing the pure supranational, supra-temporal air of the supernatural, they are more and more forced to breathe the fetid air of moral, spiritual, intellectual and artistic decadence; no wonder they are gasping for breath.

Not only do we live in an age of 'uncommon nonsense,' but actually in an age of total confusion. Men no longer seem capable of discriminating between truth and error, light and darkness, good and evil. It is crucial for our very survival that we should go back to sanity, and one way of doing so is to fight the unisex, value-free mentality which is one of the most deplorable symptoms of our anti-culture.

Men and women, while equal in dignity, are different and therefore are called upon to fulfill different functions. Men symbolize the active principle; women the receptive one (which is not to be identified with passivity). This complementarily finds its expression not only in the mystery of the sexual sphere, but on a much higher level, in the fact that the dignity of the priesthood is assigned to men and not to women. It is proper that a human male should actively duplicate the words Christ spoke at the Last Supper; while to the human female has been assigned the glorious function of sacred receptivity, so powerfully expressed in the words of the Holy Virgin, the blessed one among women, and the most perfect of all creatures. It was she who gave women their holy motto: "Be it DONE unto me according to Thy word."

Secondary does not mean unimportant

Tradition (which for Roman Catholics is as important as the Bible) should not be limited to matters of dogma and morals. It also includes forms of worship which go back for centuries and which establish a living bond between the past of the Church and the present. It is most unwise to proclaim that the second form of tradition is 'secondary' and can therefore be abolished. Let me repeat emphatically; secondary does not mean nonimportant; it means less important....but nevertheless of great significance.

Should we despair? Far from it. First of all, we have the divine promise that "the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church." And there are hopeful signs. One is the revival of the Tridentine Mass which is not only spreading more and more in many dioceses, but is attracting a whole crop of young people, starving for a sacredness which they rarely find in their parishes. Another is that new religious orders are being born to replace those which, because of the unfaithfulness of their members, have fallen into total decadence. Gregorian chant (banished from many parishes since Vatican II) is now being rediscovered by millions of secular young people who long for sacrality and have never tasted the sweetness of this angelic food.

When confronted with secularism, the faithful should always turn to spiritual weapons: prayer and sacrifice. But they should also use every legitimate human means, and ask their bishops and parish priests to re-establish important traditions such as replacing the Blessed Sacrament on the main altar, veiling the tabernacle, having Benediction and the Forty Hour devotion reintroduced to parish life. They should do so tirelessly, with reverence for the office of our pastors - but with consciousness of their right to fight for their spiritual needs.

This article was taken from the December 1995 issue of "Christian Order". Published by Fr. Paul Crance, S.J. from 53, Penerley Road, Catford, London SE6 2LH. The annual subscription to "Christian Order" is $20.00.