Summorum Pontificum

Traditional Catholics are often accused of being uncharitable and self-righteous when it comes to their brothers and sisters in Christ who do not fall within the traditionalist orbit. In fact, traditional Catholics are routinely accused by other traditional Catholics of being uncharitable and self-righteous when it comes to their brothers and sisters in Christ who do not happen to fall within some very specific traditionalist orbit. Certain folks claim that these divisions are all part of a divide-and-conquer strategy instituted by opponents of tradition. That charge, which isn’t very plausible to begin with, is undermined by the reality that traditionalists possess no shortage of reasons to generate their own divisions without outside assistance. Even the sedevacantists—the most “hardcore” wing of traditional Catholicism—can’t keep themselves together despite their miniscule numbers. It’s really no surprise then that the rest of the traditional Catholic world is fractured along any number of lines: liturgical, ecclesiological, spiritual, aesthetic, and so forth.

I am not calling attention to a new problem. With the arrival of Summorum Pontificum (SP) in 2007, traditional Catholicism was given both a shot in the arm and a new occasion for sin. As more and more Catholics began attending the Tridentine Mass in their home parishes, more and more traditionalists, accustomed to being on the fringes of the Catholic Church, began expressing their indignation that these “half-trad” Catholics were muddying the waters by not being “principled enough.” Priests who chose to learn the vetus ordo were also placed under attack because they still celebrated the new Mass as well. In looking over the polemics that have been raging for the past seven years, one might very well conclude that there is a sizable contingent of traditionalists who would prefer that SP never happened at all. That way they could, perhaps, go back to feeling especially heroic, like the last soldiers on the wall valiantly repelling a heathen horde which is only a charge or two away from penetrating the gate and sacking the city.

For my part, SP was a beacon of light that helped bring me back to the Catholic Church after seven years in Eastern Orthodoxy. There were other factors as well. In December 2007, nearly three years before leaving the Orthodox Church, I curiously ducked into St. Peter’s in downtown Chicago during my brisk lunchtime stroll to find that impressively sized church filled with Catholics singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” for the processional hymn. It was a Novus Ordo Mass, the first I had been to in nearly a decade; and there I found faith and life, the sort which I had come to believe didn’t exist anymore in the Catholic Church. Granted, I was, liturgically speaking, unimpressed, but at that moment such matters were a secondary, maybe even a tertiary, concern. I had a reason to rethink Catholicism.

SP had come down the pipe a few months prior, though I didn’t pay it much notice at the time. My experience with the Tridentine Mass growing up was quite limited; my “liturgical home” so-to-speak was the Byzantine Rite of the Ukrainian and Melkite Catholic churches. Even so, I left St. Peter’s that day in December to the Paulist bookstore a few blocks away and purchased Baronius Press’s 1962 English/Latin hand missal. I told myself that I was doing so out of “curiosity” and/or to “brush up on my Latin,” but the truth was that I wanted to see what I was missing in my old confessional haunt. Unfortunately, not much came out of that initial reacquaintance with Catholicism. From time to time I would thumb through the missal to compare certain “Latin celebrations” with “Greek celebrations”; that was about it. It would take the deaths of my Catholic grandparents in 2009 and 2011 respectively to turn both my mind and my heart back toward the Catholic Church. The details of all of that are for another time. But on Septuagesima Sunday 2011, eleven days following the repose of my grandmother, I found myself on my knees at a low Tridentine Mass and never communed in the Orthodox Church again.

There are those who will object and say SP was not absolutely necessary for my conversion (reversion) and maybe they are right. The truth of the Catholic Church does not lie in its liturgy alone, though that truth should be expressed fully through it. Had SP not been there, I could have returned full-force to Eastern Catholicism or found an Ecclesia Dei/indult/Society of St. Pius X parish to go to. But my resistance at the time to both of those “tracks” was an unwillingness to trade one ghetto existence for another. Please keep in mind that I do not use the term “ghetto existence” derisively. Empirical reality accompanied by external hostility creates ecclesiastical ghettos, and most who find themselves in such ghettos would greatly prefer to be out of them so long as they did not have to yield on principles: doctrine, liturgy, spirituality, etc. Even though my thinking on ecclesiastical ghettos has shifted considerably over the years, the desire to avoid falling into one made SP that much more integral to my return. Sure, I was a bit naïve to think that SP dismantled the wider Catholic Church’s ignorance of, if not hostility toward, the Tridentine Mass. However, I was right in viewing that document and the spread of the vetus ordo as clear signs that Rome’s liturgical patrimony once again had a legitimate place in the life of the Catholic Church.

Now three years have gone by and I find myself, after much reflection, defending certain ecclesiastical ghettos, albeit with the express hope that the richness and truths preserved in such ghettos may once again become central to the wider Catholic Church. But let me be clear that such defenses are not packaged with vitriol toward “mainline Catholicism” or what some traditionalists call “neo-Catholicism.” There are many, many things wrong in the Church today, but that doesn’t mean those Catholic faithful who, for instance, attend the Novus Ordo Mass or keep posters of Pope John Paul II on their wall, are evil or the enemy. I sometimes wonder if I have ever been successful convincing certain traditionalists of that fact. Then again, I have a hard enough time convincing certain traditionalists that certain other traditionalists aren’t evil and the enemy as well.