Sunday, April 24, 2016

What Our Tradition Teaches Us

Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.” (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 4, Ethics of Elfland)

I am often reminded of this brilliant quote when I get into arguments regarding Church liturgy, which usually develop along "conservative" vs. "progressive" lines. I've been in hundreds of these kind of discussions as principal of a Catholic high school, often revolving around music: should drums be allowed in Church, or should we limit ourselves to organ? Contemporary songs or Latin chant? Journey Songs or St. Joseph Hymnal?

The problem with the "either-or" of these debates is the tradition of our Church, properly understood, usually argues for "both-and." The "vote of our ancestors" crosses over two thousands years of practice, embracing different cultures, different epochs, and with peoples facing different challenges. Our present squabbles are merely blips.

For example, when it was first introduced, many Churchmen believed that the organ was inappropriate for Church liturgy. St. Augustine of Hippo (354 A.D.), arguing against the use of any musical instruments during Mass, said "The pipe, tabret, and harp here associate so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theater and circus, it is easy to understand the prejudices against their use in the worship.” St. Thomas Aquinas, almost 900 years later, said: "Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize.” (Thomas Aquinas, Bingham’s Antiquities, Vol. 3). This is the same Church that said, after another 900 years, that "The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem in the Latin Church, since it is its traditional instrument, the sound of which can add a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lift up men's minds to God and higher things." (Musica Sacra #62).

I am not arguing that the Church is inconsistent--it is a living, breathing thing that grows and evolves. But I am arguing we should be wary of any absolutist claims about what is or is not "most appropriate" or the "best" liturgical form. Our history will not allow it. The ideas of today or any other single period in our Church are just as provisional and transient as those from other eras. There has been no "perfect" or "pristine" period of Church liturgy that trumps all contemporary versions.

The most "orthodox" stance, then, is to be open to the broad tradition of the Church, as it appears in its many forms. In my role as principal of a Catholic school, I want our students to be familiar with the great hymns of our Church, but also with some of the best contemporary liturgical music. Our school liturgies should include "high masses," full of incense and bells, but they should also include intimate "lower" masses that call our students, in their own vernacular, to a closer relationship with the Lord. Latin? Yes! English? Yes! Marian devotions? Yep. Social justice teachings? You bet. 

The beautiful, sometimes strange and eccentric traditions and celebrations make our faith much more interesting to teenagers.  I believe our schools and parishes should embrace these beautiful and many-splendored practices, praying that they will resonate within, according to each person's sensibilities and needs.

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