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A Sacred Patrimony That Cannot Be Repudiated

July 27, 2022 Frontpage No Comments

By JAMES MONTI

What should be the Church’s relationship with her past? Is it a past that she can continue to build upon and draw nourishment from, or is it a past that she ought to put aside and even repudiate? Clearly there are efforts underway to do the latter in an ever more decisive way, not only with regard to divine worship, but even with regard to the Church’s moral teachings.
One cannot help but fear that the increasingly absolutist tone of the movement to make the Church break away from her past is intended to clear the ground for the imposition of a radical new theology and ecclesiology. And yet the Church cannot repudiate her past, for her past is a life of two millennia lived as the spotless Bride of Christ. After a lifetime of fidelity to our Lord and His divine and eternal values, she cannot now become the bride of our secularistic world and make its materialistic and hedonistic values her own.
The Internet has hugely impacted all our lives, a technology that can either inspire us or ruin us, depending on how we use it. When used well, it can open up a heretofore unseen world of spiritual treasures. On the positive side, what has emerged via the Internet is the utter vastness and splendor of Catholic literature, art, architecture, and music from the Church’s past, revealed by countless digitized texts and photos from around the world. At a time when all too many of our Catholic churchmen and theologians want us to forget and repudiate our past, quite a few secular university scholars are studying with deep interest what this two-thousand-year-old Church of ours has contributed to the culture of mankind.
Speaking from my own personal experience of searching the Internet, I have been really stunned by the sheer breadth and depth of spectacular traditional Catholic architecture to be found all across Latin America. One can’t help but envy those whose local parish church is a centuries-old masterpiece purposefully designed to inebriate the soul with the glory of God and the pure joys of Heaven. Is it any wonder that we would want to “restore” in our own parishes the vision of faith enshrined in these priceless monuments of our fathers in the faith? Is it any wonder that our hearts feel numbed and stifled by the lifeless and soulless church art and architecture of the past 60 years that in many places has been forced upon us as a purposeful renunciation of the Church’s past?
When we look through the pages of Church history, every genuine “reform” of Catholic life has in one way or another been a call to restore what had been lost, to return to a tradition that had faded or fallen by the wayside, most especially when the spirit of the world had crept in to dilute it. The famous “Carmelite reform” of the sixteenth century initiated by St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) was nothing other than a call to return to the original, traditional charism of the Carmelite Order and to expel the spirit of the world from Carmelite life.
Vital to the survival of the Church and the salvation and sanctification of our souls is the preservation of a traditional understanding of what the Mass and the Holy Eucharist truly are. Such a traditional faith is both a matter of unchangeable truth and of irresistible beauty, the sheer beauty of what God has given us in this sacrament.
In a booklet that Dietrich von Hildebrand (1989-1977) wrote in the mid-1970s to address the terrible attacks upon the teachings of the Church that were already well underway at that time — hence the booklet’s stark title, Satan at Work — the great Catholic philosopher says of the consecration:
“Let us always remember that what happens in the moment of consecration is the greatest event, the event of all events….Time is abolished and we find ourselves at the foot of the Cross. We are present at the crucifixion of Christ” (Dietrich von Hildebrand, Satan at Work, Butler, N.J., Roman Forum, ca. 1975, p. 30).
Von Hildebrand’s reflection upon what the moment of receiving Holy Communion ought to be for us, first and foremost as our most intimate moment of communion with our God in this life, but also as our deepest experience of communion with our family and friends, is among the finest ever written on this subject:
“Holy Communion is, above all, the most intimate, the most personal love-union of our souls with Jesus. This love-union surpasses everything a man’s mind could ever imagine. In the first moment of this union with the absolute Thou, with the great Beloved of our souls — as St. Francis of Assisi called Jesus — the world fades away. . . . But then, in the next moment, we realize that Jesus has also come into the soul of the beloved who kneels beside us . . . something which surpasses infinitely not only all we could give him, but even all we could ever dream of giving him. What an incredible experience it is to receive Holy Communion together with a dearly beloved person, and to know the overwhelming feeling of union with his soul in Jesus, to be drawn into Him [Jesus] in common and to know that He dwells in both our souls simultaneously” (ibid., pp. 30-31).
In the above passage, von Hildebrand speaks of “the beloved who kneels beside us.” He is of course describing the way that Holy Communion is received in the traditional manner: while kneeling side-by-side at an altar rail along the perimeter of the sanctuary. This is the normative manner for receiving Holy Communion at the Traditional Latin Mass, but there is nothing to preclude this practice from also being observed at the Novus Ordo Mass. It is the traditional, centuries-old way to meet our Lord in this Most Holy Sacrament. It is a disgrace that beginning in the 1960s the altar rails in countless churches were ruthlessly torn out in the name of “liturgical change.”
It is one of many factors that has contributed to a loss of faith in the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. But pastors seeking to restore reverence for the Holy Eucharist are bringing back the use of the altar rail, for there is no shame whatsoever in being a “restorer” of good and holy things that bring people closer to God.
The adherence to tradition is also a matter of love. When we hear the name “Pope Benedict,” the three Pontiffs bearing this title who most readily come to mind are Benedict XVI — the Benedict of our own era, Benedict XIV (1675-1758), who wrote profusely on ecclesiastical subjects, and Benedict XV (1854-1922), who led the quest for peace during World War I. Yet there is still another Pope Benedict who despite the shortness of his reign three centuries ago deserves our attention — Pope Benedict XIII (1649-1730). Described by the French philosopher Charles-Louis de Secondat — the Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) — as a Pontiff intent upon adhering to the “ancient usages” of divine worship, Pope Benedict absolutely loved to celebrate the sacred liturgy in all its unabbreviated and unhurried Baroque splendor.
While other Popes often availed themselves of the provision in the papal ceremonial for some prelate other than the Pontiff himself to preside in the celebration of the papal liturgies, Pope Benedict XIII was determined to take on the presiding role at every Mass and liturgical function he could, no matter how physically taxing it might be. Particularly illustrative of his zeal in this regard was his celebration of Holy Week in 1725.
On Wednesday evening, he attended the entire office of Tenebrae in the Sistine Chapel, a rite that with its many Scripture texts, responsories, and antiphons sung in the most effusive manner would have consumed three or four hours. Rising early the next day, he spent from 6:00 in the morning until 1:00 in the afternoon on Holy Thursday celebrating the Mass at the Church of St. John Lateran with the blessing of the holy oils, the Eucharistic procession to the Repository, and the Mandatum, washing the feet of thirteen priests.
On Good Friday the Pontiff again began his day early, celebrating the rites of the Adoration of the Cross and the Mass of the Presanctified. On the evening of Good Friday he went to the parish of Santissima Trinita dei Pellegrini, a sixteenth-century church and hospice for pilgrims, where he joined the cardinals in their annual custom of waiting upon the tables of the pilgrims at the hospice. On Holy Saturday he took on the ultimate test of physical endurance for an aging Pontiff, celebrating the entire liturgy of the Easter Vigil which from the blessing of the Easter fire at the outset to the conclusion of its High Mass and truncated Easter Vespers spanned an amazingly long ambit of nine hours.
After pausing for nothing more than a mid-afternoon chocolate drink, having kept a rigorous fast, he withdrew into the confessional to hear Confessions until evening. And on Easter Sunday he took on the celebration of High Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, imparting afterward the customary Easter papal blessing.

A Deep Pastoral Love

Pope Benedict XIII’s zeal in this regard was habitual, driven by a deep pastoral love of souls. The consecration of a new church was perhaps the single longest rite in the entire Roman liturgy, yet Pope Benedict managed to celebrate it so often, first as a bishop and then as a Roman Pontiff, that by 1726 he had consecrated 360 churches.
Closely related to this rite was another shorter but nonetheless demanding ceremony, the consecration of a new altar, something he had done 1,600 times by the year 1728.
In the annual Corpus Christi procession, he would carry the monstrance all the way on foot. He frequently conferred the Sacraments of Ordination and Confirmation, and cherished hearing Confessions. In just the first six months of his pontificate, he managed to celebrate every sacrament and to perform every episcopal consecration rite given in the Roman Pontifical.
Montesquieu tells of the Pontiff on one occasion spending three hours in freezing cold weather to carry out the full rite of adult Baptism for several Jewish converts. During his annual stay at the Dominican friary on Monte Mario, Pope Benedict sometimes gave catechism lessons to children at a nearby church.
In his work Trojan Horse in the City of God, Dietrich von Hildebrand observed, “…there are things that have a message for man in every epoch, things that can never be superannuated, because of their intrinsic value and their truth” (Trojan Horse in the City of God, Chicago, Franciscan Herald Press, 1967, p. 208). We need to hold fast to such things, because they have been made timeless by Almighty God.

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