There have been a couple of distinct times in my life that I can remember having to “go back.” Let me explain.
Once was in college. I was in the Army ROTC program and a part of the Ranger battalion. As such, one of the things we had to learn was “land nav.” That’s land navigation if you didn’t pick that up. Basically, what that means is we had to learn how, given nothing but a map and an objective, how to get ourselves and our unit from where we were to where we needed to go to accomplish our mission. You had to learn how to read a map and the “lay of the land” in order to do so. Getting lost could have, literally, fatal consequences.
Well, I got lost. I was unsure on how to read a compass at the time and how to plot routes to travel from point A to point B. So, rather than ask, I just sucked it up and tried to get it done. And I got lost. My platoon sergeant found me wandering around and said, “Go back to the beginning and start over.” I wasn’t happy about it but I knew I was lost and so I did.
The second time was putting that concept of land navigation into practical use during my time as a trainee police officer. I had to learn how to read street maps in order to get from where I was in the city to where I needed to go. Yes, it was long enough ago that we needed physical maps and didn’t have fancy computers or GPS to tell us where to go. Anyways…
I got lost more than once. My training officers were not amused with lack of attention and inability to do my job. I remember getting lost once and not knowing where I was. My training officer said, “Then go back to the last place you know and start over.”
Sound familiar, right?
Sometimes we just have to go back to the beginning and start over.
I think this is really apropos for the Church today. I feel like, in many ways, the Church has lost her way. She has become confused and is wandering around lost, trying to find her way from point A to point B, not really sure how to get to where she needs to go to accomplish her mission. I think there are a lot of reasons for this and I really don’t have the time or space to discuss them all. But I do want to touch on one that I believe is really important: Tradition. Specifically, tradition in worship.
Some of you reading this were instantly triggered just now when I said tradition and worship. It’s okay, you’ll be fine. Some of you are probably thinking that I talk about this too much and some of you probably don’t care.
We should care because our abandonment of tradition is killing the Church. I know that sounds very dramatic, but I want us to consider some things. I base most of this on anecdotal evidence and personal experience. There are some hard facts that I can and probably will quote but, nevertheless. We look around us and lament about how the secular world is so corrupt and lost and blah blah blah. And it is. The secular world is so corrupt and lost and sick that it’s dizzying to watch the pace at which things seem to be disintegrating.
But the Church is no different. I mean, if we’re being honest.
Ok, so some hard facts first. You can find some of these in Kenneth C. Jones’ work Index of Leading Catholic Indicators: The Church Since Vatican II.
In 1958, 74 percent of Catholics attended Sunday Mass. By 2000, that number dropped to 25 percent. In 1965, there were 126,000 adult baptisms. In 2002, there were 80,000 (keep in mind that the population of the world has increased in these years also). In 1965, there were 58,000 priests. In 2002, there were only 45,000 priests. In 1965, there were 1,575 ordinations to the priesthood and in 2002, there were 450 ordinations to the priesthood. In 1965, 1 percent of parishes were without a priest. By 2002, 15 percent of parishes were without a resident priest.
These numbers could go on and on. One of the most shocking is found in a 2019 study published by the Pew Research Center that found that only 31 percent of Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Read that again slowly and let it sink in. 69 percent of our brothers and sisters do not believe when Jesus said, “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood,” He meant it. The overwhelming majority of Catholic Christians in the world today do not believe what Jesus Himself taught about the Eucharist.
And we wonder what has happened to the Church.
To be fair, we are the ones who have allowed this. We, the faithful, are the ones who have not only stood by and quietly went along with the slow decline of the Church, but we have actively participated in it. We are to blame. Jesus hasn’t changed His mind about the Church. The Bible hasn’t changed. God the Father hasn’t changed His mind about how things are to be done, how He is to be worshipped.
We have done this.
So, what are we to do?
To be honest, I think some of this is inevitable. Some of this, I believe, is a purgation of the Church. Some of this God has and is allowing to see who will be faithful. But, other than some of this being God’s doing, most of it is our doing.
So, what are we to do?
I think the answer going forward is to go back. With all my heart, I believe the way forward in the Church is to go back to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. We need to return to the traditional beliefs and practices of the Church as she has been and done from the beginning. And this is not a mystery. We know how to do this, and we know what must be done.
Let’s be honest, we don’t want to. We don’t want to because it will be uncomfortable for us and, truth is, we’re really more about our comfort than we are our holiness. We’re more about the status quo and less about obedience to what Jesus has told us we are to do. We would rather be friends with the world than brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus.
And we wonder what has happened to the Church.
Let us return, with humble hearts, to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Let us return to the worship of Christ’s Church as the saints before us worshipped. Let us jettison our concerns and insecurities about how the world views us and prostrate ourselves before the throne of our Lord and Saviour. Let us beg His mercy. Let us bring our sacrifice of praise in a proper and holy way befitting His majesty. Let us sing and pray along with our forefathers in the faith. Demand it of ourselves and our priests and bishops. Make no mistake; this will not be easy and demands great courage of us. Cry out to those who will listen that we want to be part of the Church as she has always been, not as the world has tried to make her.
Sometimes the only way forward is to go back to the beginning.
The priest moved to the Gospel side of the altar. He began to chant the Gospel. My four-year-old daughter turned to look at me with big eyes.
“Daddy, who is that?”
“Who is who, baby?”
“Is that Jesus?”
“Is who Jesus?”
“The man who’s singing. Is that Jesus?”
I smiled at her. “Yes, it is.”
Yesterday my family and I attended the only Latin Mass offered in our diocese. I had been once before with my eldest daughter, but this was the first time my youngest and wife came also. It was a sweet moment. We’re tempted to say, “Oh how cute and innocent children are.” But before we too quickly dismiss this as kids being cute, I would like for us to consider something.
I want to consider the wonder of the worship of the Church.
When the Church gathers for worship on Sunday, we are participating in the worship of the Church as she has worshiped for ages past, as she is worshiping now around the throne of Heaven and receiving a small foretaste of how she will worship in eternity.
There is a great mystery here. We too quickly move on from it to our great detriment. I fear that, in the modern Catholic Church, we have lost sight of what is really happening when we come to Mass. Some of that truncated and selfish view of worship I blame on the liturgy and some I blame on a lack of proper teaching and catechesis.
We have failed miserably in teaching our faith to those who are currently in the Church. This has been an ongoing problem for some time. We have failed to catechize and the clergy, in many instances, have failed to preach and teach well. It is no wonder that, according to the Pew Research findings, only 31% of Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We haven’t taught our people what the Church actually believes. We’ve just told them to show up and do as they’re told and don’t ask questions.
It’s no wonder there’s no wonder. It’s no wonder Mass feels dry and dull. It’s the Church’s fault.
Which brings me back to my youngest this past Sunday.
She intuitively senses that something mysterious is happening when we come to Mass (the Latin Mass). She is more imaginative than me, less impeded by modernity and cynicism. She feels the symbolic, nay the realism, going on at the altar when the priest stands in persona Christi, praying and speaking on behalf of his people. We’ve lost that in our modern liturgy. We’ve lost something instinctive, something primal, something holy and transcendent in our worship.
My good friend, Ben Harris, writes it this way:
“For many years, we have been told about a "springtime of the Church", an age in which we were finally ready to take on the world with our "new evangelism" after the long winter of old Christendom. This springtime, the warming of the world, and shattering of barriers was heralded to be the end of militant, defensive Catholicism: a day when we could cease guarding ancient coals with tenacious diligence to sow gospel seeds into fertile ground. And, during the tenuous peace of a post-Second World War era, the temptation to see society as entering a new age must have been overwhelming. At the dawn of the Second Vatican Council, the West had moved from decades of industrial warfare, societal collapse, the death of old Christian monarchies, economic devastation, and genocide into an era of relative peace and prosperity. I am sure that, to the Council Fathers, everything must have been telling them that our "springtime" had finally come... but springtime is never as cut and dry as that.
We were promised an ecclesiastical springtime, and that's exactly what we got. In the temptation of sunny days, we let the warm fire of tradition grow cold, failed to gather more wood to keep the hearths burning, and hastily planted our gardens, only to be left wondering how our seedlings could be buried under snow as we shiver by dying coals. Our springtime optimism was dashed by the bitter north-winds of communism, secularism, the sexual revolution, corrupted clergy, and rising persecution of Christianity in the heart of old Christendom. Like the disciples, we went with Christ into a cheering Jerusalem, only to see him crucified as we ran from his presence.
Still, there is work to be done. We cannot cower in disappointment and let the coals of tradition burn out because our hasty planting has died in the ice of modernity. Through study and liturgical reverence, we gather fuel to rebuild the fire of tradition into a blazing inferno; through our prayers, we carefully cover the tender plants to keep them safe from frost; through our evangelism, we open the door of our warm home to those shivering in the unexpected snow. Now is not the time to experiment and rush to plant new fields, but to remain faithful, prudent, and dedicated to age-old ways. If, like the Blessed Mary and St. John, we remain close to Christ and return to the tradition he gave to us, we will behold the Church in her resurrection with her risen Lord.
In the various traditional rites of the Church, be they Latin, Byzantine, Maronite, Anglican, etc., there is an air of wintertime sobriety. The cold rains of post-modern chaos, political extremism, heresy, paganism, and moral degeneracy pour outside, but in these ancient liturgies the fires of tradition sustain the family of God in health and safety. There is no place for experimental optimism either in the ancient Mass, or in the present crisis of the Church. Our task of wintertime labor has not yet given way to the ease of warm days and late sunsets, so return to the warmth of tradition, brave the snowy wind of the world, and fulfill the duty you have been given.”
The wonder of the warmth of tradition is that it teaches us something on a primal, even soul level that we cannot possibly hope to fully explain. We are formed by the tactile reality of the movements of our bodies: kneeling, making the sign of the cross on our bodies, genuflecting, bowing, opening our mouth and receiving the Blessed Sacrament. The wonder of the practice of our faith we see when the priest faces the altar, on our behalf, and offers up the present sacrifice of Christ on the cross for our sins and the sins of the whole world, as it has been done in the liturgy of the Church for the last 2000 years.
Our children see that and feel that in an unadulterated and beautiful way that we would do well to learn from. In the traditional liturgies of the Church, we are (in the words of my friend Ben) “infantililzed”, not feeding ourselves with our own hands but being fed by the loving hands of a Saviour and brought into the warm embrace of a loving Father. We are not in control and that is a very good thing.
“Daddy, is that Jesus?”
Yes, my daughter.
That is Jesus, dying on the cross for the sins of the world.
That is Jesus, standing even now at the throne of God pleading His own shed blood.
That is Jesus, calling His brothers and sisters to pray and kneel and bow and weep before Him.
That is Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity, come in the flesh so that you and I may literally embrace the wonder of salvation right before our very eyes.
That is Jesus whom we receive at the altar when we kneel in humble submission, understanding that we cannot feed ourselves.
That is Jesus and He is the wonder of it all.
Thanks be to God!