Monday 18th November 2019

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Reverence For The Past

August 7, 2019 Frontpage No Comments


In my job as a library clerk at a major seminary library, it has been my particular joy to work in the Rare Books room, handling Catholic books dating from the 1400s to the 1700s. Many of the books are of the visually impressive “folio” variety, with sturdy pages roughly equivalent to the size of 8 ½” x 14” legal paper bound in ribbed wooden covers embossed with intricate designs and religious symbols.
Even the distinctive scent of these tomes and the room where they reside communicates a sense of the long centuries that have passed since these books were first read and studied. Here one encounters in a compelling physical manner Pope Benedict XVI’s “hermeneutic of continuity,” pages inscribed with what the Church had already been teaching for fifteen centuries when these books were printed and which the Church has continued to teach over the five centuries that have followed.
What likewise strikes the mind and inspires awe in handling such volumes is the thought of the successive generations who have read them. Here and there one finds an underlined sentence, a hastily jotted annotation in the margin, or even the cartoonish sketch of a tiny human hand pointing to a passage that some soul now known only to God found particularly worth taking to heart some three or four centuries ago.
These tangible remnants of lives lived long ago are a potent reminder of our common mortality, that those who once treasured these books have long since departed this world for their eternal destiny, and that we too shall someday share their fate. We like them will ultimately be judged by just how well we will have lived the tenets of the faith inscribed and handed down in these venerable pages.
It scarcely needs to be said that we live in a culture that wants to forget it has a past. It worships the “here and now” as the only really relevant moment of human history. Often enough there is an almost total ignorance of history, an ignorance of nearly everything earlier than 1960. But in many cases there is something worse — a hostility toward the past.
Within the context of the history of our Catholic faith, this takes the form of scorn, ridicule, and even contempt for much of what our forefathers believed and practiced. They are tight-cast as gullible, ignorant, childish, narrow-minded, bigoted, and superstitious people who mindlessly went along with doctrines and rituals invented by their equally gullible, ignorant, childish, narrow-minded, bigoted, and superstitious clergy. There is the utterly arrogant assumption in contemporary academic circles that we understand the Bible and who Christ really was and what He really taught far better than they did.
The eagerness to throw away our Catholic past is a major dimension of the plague of irreverence that has beset the Church over the past six decades. It has inspired the destruction of beautiful church art and architecture as well as the decimation of priceless Catholic book collections in the halls of higher learning. Much of this is driven by the agenda of desacralization, the push to make the Church all about this world rather than about “the life of the world to come” (Niceno-Costantinopolitan Creed, The Roman Missal – ©2010 ICEL).
To achieve this rewrite of the Gospel, the prophets of “this-worldliness” as Dietrich von Hildebrand aptly called it have needed to discredit and even demonize the Heaven-directed vision of our fathers in the faith. I have come across authors who have actually made the ugly and hateful accusation that the clergy in the past taught the people to set their hopes on Heaven only in order to keep the poor in their place, to keep them from aspiring to social justice and equality.
Those who think that the Church should be all about the here-and-now seem to forget that ours is not a faith that was founded just last week, or just last year, or during the Second Vatican Council. It is rather a faith that looks back two millennia to when the Son of God walked the Earth. The entirety of Sacred Scripture dates back almost twenty centuries and more, some of it in the Old Testament much more.
The Gospels themselves teach us reverence for the past. At the beginning of St. Matthew’s Gospel, we find a very long recitation of the entire lineage of Christ (Matt. 1:1-17). To the modern mind that immediately grows impatient with anything it can’t see a practical use for, the reading of this list is nothing more than tiresome. But what Matthew is teaching here is that the all-important and supremely sacred life and mission of our Lord, the centerpiece of all human history, was built upon and deeply rooted in the history of the children of Israel. So the past does matter — it matters immensely, and it deserves our reverence.
Of course, often enough, the continuing relevance of the Sacred Scriptures is admitted — more or less — by critics of the Church’s liturgical past. For them, it is mainly the Church’s medieval and Baroque past that they deride as a tissue of outmoded, out-of-date, corrupt departures from the supposedly pristine and ever-novel spontaneity of early Christian worship.
But for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, it quickly becomes obvious in looking back upon the span of time since the era of Christ that the intervening centuries were teeming with life in the Church’s articulation of the Gospel, the living if that Gospel in the lives of her saints, and the oblation of her heart and soul in the celebration of the sacred liturgy.
What binds together these authentic, organic developments is not the “intoxication experienced in swimming with the stream of a certain epoch” (Dietrich von Hildebrand, New Tower of Babel: Modern Man’s Flight from God, Manchester, NH, Sophia Institute Press, 1994, p. 61), but rather what Dr. Alice von Hildebrand has so aptly called “the golden cord of tradition.” It is a bond of continuity, and “Continuity reflects the situation of eternity, an eternal ‘now’ in which all is contained” (Dietrich von Hildebrand, Liturgy and Personality, Steubenville, OH, Hildebrand Project, 2016, p. 98).
The sacred liturgy is all about touching eternity, about turning our gaze toward our final destination that lies beyond the time-bound limits of this world. In her divine worship, Holy Mother Church raises her eyes above the low, dense, oppressive clouds of the here and now to set her sights upon Him who is the Desire of the Everlasting Hills.
In the Mass, we enter into a communion of prayer not only with those at church with us, not only with Catholics around the world, but also with “the peoples of the past,” those who have gone before us over the past two thousand years “with the sign of faith” (Roman Canon, The Roman Missal — ©2010 ICEL), who now behold the face of God. The prayer we share with them should rightly transcend time and not be the slave of our own era.
A decades-old or centuries-old Catholic church isn’t merely “an old building.” Beneath its hallowed vaults and rafters generation upon generation of the faithful have poured out their supplications and tears. Within it the drama of human life, the drama of salvation, has played out countless times, through Baptisms, Confessions, weddings, and funerals, but above all through the daily celebration of Holy Mass.
The things of our faith that have withstood the test of time deserve our reverence. In his work on the doctrine of Purgatory, The Supplication of Souls, St. Thomas More (+1535) observed, “…time always trieth out the truth” (The Supplication of Souls, in The Workes of Sir Thomas More Knyght, sometyme Lorde Chauncellour of England, wrytten by Him in the Englysh Tonge, ed. William Rastell, London, 1557, p. 299). The centuries-old doctrinal formulations, prayers, ceremonies, sacred music, art, architecture, and literature of our Catholic faith possess a permanence that the latest theological or liturgical fads do not.
Communion with our Catholic past is an integral part of man’s calling to receptivity, the humble and docile reception of what has been handed down to him by his forefathers in the faith, by Holy Mother Church — indeed by God Himself: “…the primary mission of man lies not in creating but in cooperating” (Dietrich von Hildebrand, Celibacy and the Crisis of Faith, Chicago, Franciscan Herald Press, 1971, p. xli).
The restoration of full recourse to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite by Pope Benedict XVI is a prime example of the Church’s reverence for the past, as the Pontiff himself explained:
“What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. 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” (Pope Benedict XVI, Letter to the Bishops on the Occasion of the Publication of the Apostolic Letter, given moto proprio, Summorum Pontificum, July 7, 2007 — ©2007 Libreria Editrice Vaticana).

Supplication To God

Reverence for the past also embraces liturgical traditions that have not been restored, but which were devoutly practiced centuries ago in various localities of medieval and Renaissance Catholic Europe. For a five-hundred-year-old missal or book of liturgical ceremonies isn’t just a quaint paper artifact of long-gone and long-forgotten medieval prayers and rites. The words it contains and the ceremonies it prescribes were in their time offered in earnest supplication to the infinitely good God, and once rose like clouds of incense before His throne.
They were fashioned for the divine eyes to see and the divine ears to hear, and thus remain precious and sacred. By learning about them, we can breathe anew the spirit of reverence and piety that inspired them.
In his work Trojan Horse in the City of God, Dietrich von Hildebrand observed, “No, we have not loved the past too long. We never can love enough the glorious past of the Holy Church” (Trojan Horse in the City of God, Chicago, Franciscan Herald Press, 1967, p. 214).
Our Catholic past deserves reverence. It is a bridge to the sacred and a holy tapestry woven by the hand of God that links us to every other Catholic since the birth of the Church. It is an inheritance of unutterable splendor to which we are the very fortunate heirs. It gives us roots, it makes our souls feel at home, and confers a peace that the world cannot give.

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