Those Angry Traditionalists

Ever attended a clown Mass?  Me neither.  To be sure, I’ve seen lovingly photographed liturgical bizarrenesses from time to time chronicled on the Internet. And I’ve seen some enthusiasts for the Latin Mass often talk as though such stupid liturgical antics are happening everywhere all the time and that they and they alone stand between the Church and the complete and utter circus-ization of the Mass. But have I been to an actual clown Mass?  Nope.  Never saw one—and I live in the Archdiocese of Seattle.

Now I agree 1000% that the Blessed Sacrament is the absolute center of the universe and of all history. If you want to know What It’s All About, look at the Eucharist. And I agree that, in the Mystery of God’s Providence, the Eucharist has been entrusted into our fragile hands in the same way that Jesus was entrusted into the hands of the Holy Family. We have an obligation to do our best to celebrate the Mass reverently and worthily.

But there is also the danger that we can forget that the Mass is God’s before it is ours.  We can start to regard it as our property. Certainly liturgical abusers are doing this. But “saviors of the liturgy” can forget in their own way as well. They can come to relish liturgical abuses because, well, it’s rather gratifying to one’s pride to be the Savior of the Liturgy, innit?

When I entered the Church I heard of the dreaded Clown Mass. I got the impression that such things were endemic. I got the impression I was entering a war zone where I would have to struggle every day with unspeakable outrages against the Eucharist.

It’s been 20 years and the worst I’ve have to put up with is listening to “Anthem” now and then.

Nor have I met anybody else who has to endure the liturgical monstrosities I was expecting based on the horror stories of some. Yes, I know they happen now and then. But what has come to impress me most about the Church is this: what is really and truly common in the Episcopal communion constitutes the outermost end of the bell curve in the Catholic Church.  All the horror stories I heard were actually pretty rare events.

On the other hand, I have frequently encountered, both on the Web and in real life, people like the one described by a correspondent of mine who wrote me last January:

At the March for Life in DC last week, our group (mostly young teens) came across a marcher holding aloft a Crucifix with a big sign: “Latin Mass=Truth; New Mass= Abortion”. As I respectfully disagreed with him, he brought up receiving the Eucharist by hand, as if that somehow that had to do with saving unborn children.

That note sums up why I have no interest in becoming a liturgical fussbudget. Basically, at the end of the day, my Bible (and the teaching of the Church) insists that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control, not bitterness about mediocre liturgy and still less blasphemy at valid liturgies approved by Holy Church.  People who act and talk like this are going to have to figure out how to be fully Catholic or they are going to disappear, because true Catholic faith evangelizes and, like it or not, this is not evangelizing: this is shouting “Repel boarders” and then pouring boiling oil on the your own archers. Such treatment of brother and sister Catholics is, well, evil and will serve to ensure that Traditionalism (or, at any rate, this kind of Traditionalism) dies out in a generation or so.

When I pointed this out on my blog, I was tartly rebuked by a Traditionalist who reproached me with these words: “Your interest in ‘correcting’ traditionalists is… shall I say… oddly disproportionate to your interest in understanding the things we care about.”

Here’s the thing: in the early Church, Christians did not huddle up and demand that those around them understand the things they care about. That’s because the command they had been given was “Go therefore into every nation, teaching them to observe what I have commanded”. They were a missionary Church conquering the world with love, not a Fortress desperately wishing to bring back the good old days. They didn’t hunker down, griping about how converts were screwing everything up, or complaining that things were better way back when, or talking as though faith, hope and love were wimpy symptoms of Kumbaya Catholicism. They endured real persecution of the “roasting on hot griddles” variety and not of the “having to sing ‘Anthem’” variety. And they left a distinct impression on the pagans around them: “See how they love one another.” They did not approach life with the expectation that those who came at them from outside owed them something.

But that, alas, is often the impression I have gotten from many (though certainly not all) Traditionalists. Like it or not, discourse among a great many Traditionalists very frequently tends to be filled with anger and contempt for Catholics who do not share their burning interest in traditional forms of piety.

Bottom line: I’ve never seen a clown mass. But I have encountered lots of angry Trads who have, oh, let’s see, compared the Paul VI rite to a Black Mass, made clear that “Novus Ordo types” are second class Catholics, spent a great deal of time obsessing over Jews, sneered at John Paul II and Benedict as “Novus Ordo Popes” who have compromised the Tradition, threatened people in my parish physically, smeared good priests with nasty rumor campaigns, compared the Paul VI rite to abortion and generally made their claims to be the Guardians of True Catholicism something so repellent that I wouldn’t touch the Faith with a barge pole if they were really the True Apostles of it they claim to be. And that experience is not just mine. One reader out of many wrote in to concur with this all-too-common anecdote:

Re: your blog about how they don’t play well with others, a friend of mine took a breather from his Latin Mass group one year after a post-Mass brunch turned into a boisterous discussion over whether it was morally licit to pray for God to strike down Hillary Clinton. He said he was well into the discussion when he caught a glance at people sitting at other tables, their mouths agape, listening in shock and disgust to what the traditionalist Catholics were talking about. He realized that HEY, we’re not really being a good witness to the faith.

Now here’s the deal: in much the same way that I think Muslims need to stop whining about how lots of people perceive Islam and focus instead on why so many people have such similar perceptions, so I think not a few Traditionalist Catholics should focus more energy on changing whatever it is in their sub-sector of the Church that leaves so many of us outsiders with such a bad taste in our mouths. Rather than telling us we don’t have that bad taste in our mouths or demanding that we overlook our various experiences and get with the program of understanding them, I suggest they take a good hard look at the customer feedback and see if they can improve the service.

The reason I say this is that I have more patience than the vast majority of Catholics with trying to understand Traditionalists. I’m actually pretty far out at the end of the bell curve on their side when it comes to celebrating Mass reverently and respecting the Church’s teaching. I care about a lot of stuff that the great mushy middle in the Church doesn’t much see or care about. And the response of a great many Traditionalists to that shared interest and common ground? Well, I’m not only a neo-con heretic, I’m even “an enemy of Christ, an enemy of tradition, and a member of the synagogue of Satan.”

If people talk this way when the tree is green, what will they do when it is dry?  If they treat their sympathizers this way, how on earth do they expect to make their case to those who don’t much sympathize with them?  That’s not a strategy for evangelization or discipleship of others. It’s a bunker mentality that will ensure the failure of Traditionalism as a serious influence in the Church.

Put simply, here’s how the real world works: When the outsider’s principal experience of Traditionalism is of repeated and frequent encounters with mean people who are perpetually angry about remote arcana and loony conspiracy theories, the outsider is not going to feel any obligation or interest whatsoever in “understanding the things we care about”. Telling outsiders to Traditionalism that they need to overlook their experience and stop talking about what they have actually seen and heard will be about as successful as Muslim attempts to force people to not notice the less-than-lovely face that the Religion of Peace shows the world. Are there kindly Traditionalists?  Yes!  There are lots of good Muslims too.  But it would be better if the “Outsiders Should Just Stop Seeing What They So Often See” approach was abandoned and the less-than-lovely things that seem to crop up in the community so often were addressed somehow. That’s how you make progress with people who don’t know you all that well.

Assuming, of course, that one wants to make progress and grow in influence in the Church. However, the nature of lesser sins (whether of the Left’s favorite sin, lust, or the Right’s favorite sin, anger), is that they both feed into the great sin, Pride. And pride is always ultimately a death wish.

So I have to ask, is clinging to anger more important to Traditionalists than actually winning hearts and minds to their cause?

If so, then their cause is doomed and they have paradoxically abandoned the worship of God in the name of pure liturgy, older forms of piety and anger over same.

If not, then Traditionalists should start seeking the Holy Spirit now so that they can find some better way to bear witness to their good cause and purify themselves of the bitterness that so often characterizes their movement. Too much rides on what they are fighting for to let anger destroy it and alienate people who need to see what it has to offer.

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