The Way We Were (Not)

One cannot travel far on a country road without coming upon an antique store. Such shops usually contain very few genuine antiques and offer instead a collection of unremarkable bric-a-brac gleaned from local attics and cellars. But their atmosphere entices us to browse. We may not be looking for anything in particular but simply enjoying pleasant reveries of what we imagine to have been simpler, happier times.

“If only it could be as it once was,” we sigh to ourselves. But antique stores are not a recent phenomenon. I remember passing them on country roads when I was a boy sitting in the back seat of my father’s 1952 Pontiac station wagon. My father liked to stop and browse and often bought something: there was an ice-cream maker with a crank handle, bound copies of old newspapers, 78 rpm records from the 1930s, and other useless things, all of which found a place in the corner of our basement where they collected dust until they were either thrown out or made their way from yard sales back to the sort of shop from which they came.

I imagine the collecting of bric-a-brac from bygone times admits of infinite regression. Perhaps Egyptians of means used to purchase artifacts of old dynasties and enjoy fantasies of how much better life was under Rameses or Thutmose II. I think the pastime of antiquing endures because of a persistent belief that the days of yore were closer to ideal, however we may frame that ideal. And we might note in passing that this belief contradicts the idea that the latest is the best. We have a deep intuitive sense that we are fallen creatures who need to regain lost virtue, not evolving animals ever ascending to new heights of physical and mental development.

And the fantasies we have about times past are really a longing for how we would like things to be now; for how we would like ourselves to be. For the past was, in its essentials, much like the present, despite superficial differences of costume and custom. But making our ideal dependent upon circumstances that no longer exist relieves us of the obligation to realize it in the present. There is a passivity involved in idealizing of the past: an implicit acceptance that we are creatures fated by external conditions rather than free beings shaped by our own choices.

There is a notion prevalent among many Traditional Catholics that it was the loss of the Tridentine Mass and sound catechetics following the Second Vatican Council that led to the present problems in the Church. It follows, then, that the restoration of pre-Vatican II Catholicism will remedy the situation. But will it?

We had all of the things that Traditionalists now long for before Vatican II, and they proved unavailing. We tend to forget that the men who suppressed the Tridentine Mass were bishops and priests who had been saying this Mass for decades; in some cases, for the greater part of a lifetime. Yet, they not only abandoned the Mass of their ordination: in many cases they became its sworn enemy. 

And the abandonment of clear pre-Vatican catechetics and the imposition of ‘progressive’ doctrines of a rather fuzzy nature was the work of men who had studied Thomism during their seminary training, along with dogmatic theology. They did not lack knowledge. They lacked love, for we do not cast aside that which we love. We cherish it and protect it.

External structures, no matter how admirable, remain external unless they are loved. Sanctification of a man comes from grace and his internal disposition. If those who spent their lives saying the Tridentine Mass really loved it, they would not have abandoned it so easily. The same is true of the laity who accepted the changes so passively. Nothing that was truly dear to them was being taken away.

And if, by some miracle, the Pope were to decide to replace the Novus Ordo with the Tridentine Rite by universal decree, I expect that the laity, for the most part, would shrug and continue their pro forma Sunday attendance, perhaps a bit relieved that they no longer had to mouth the bidding prayers and the other responses.

Commenting on the general indifference of Catholics to liturgy and doctrine, the late Bishop Castro de Mayer once said that if he were to ascend the pulpit on Sunday and announce there were now four Persons in the Trinity, it would likely make little impression upon his hearers. This is perhaps an exaggeration, but not much of one.

It seems likely that in the next generation, the Church will be greatly diminished in size. The pre-Vatican II Catholics are like World War II veterans: they are dying off and there is no one to replace them. Their children and grandchildren have, in many cases, forgotten about the Church. If they still attend Mass, it is the New Mass, which no one really loves. Religion without love is mere habit. It does not sanctify.

Those who genuinely love the Faith will endure, often despite Church leadership and even in the face of its attacks. But their numbers will be small. The world and the Church appear to be undergoing a sea change: values are inverted, words are emptied of traditional meaning, and Orwellian Newspeak has become the lingua franca of the New World Order, which the Pope and the hierarchy appear eager to serve.

The present state of the Church and the world may seem very dark, but for those who love Our Lord, it presents an opportunity. With the loss of external structures and support, we have to rely more on our own relationship with God, which is threatened now in so many ways. We must fight for our love without losing the tenderness of that love in the struggle. And the fight must be carried on within more than without, for the enemy of love is selfishness.

It is good that we should stand up for our beliefs, but there is always the danger that our ego – that inner demon that thrives on vanity – may interpose itself and become the focus of our efforts. The truth can become my truth and, eventually, the truth can become subservient to me, to my vanity. And we like to have a quantifiable way of measuring our success, which again draws us toward external things. The true measure of spiritual progress is how well we love one another.

It may be pleasant to imagine a past in which all was well with the Church: the convents and seminaries were full, the Mass was in Latin, doctrine was certain and sound. But we should recall how quickly all of this was swept away, and think honestly and deeply about why this occurred.

In the end, all that we will be able to keep is that which we have loved. So, each day we would do well to consider what it is we truly love and to observe how this love governs our actions. From where do our desires arise and who are they intended to serve?

The wide world will keep spinning and the grand vista of history will continue to spread out in time. Popes and presidents and prime ministers and dictators will come and go. We are not answerable for them. When we stand for judgment, Jesus will ask us one thing: “Did you love others as I loved you?” This is His commandment, the way, the truth and the life. And it is not fulfilled in the past or the future or in erecting some edifice in the world. It can only be lived each day, in each encounter with another, in each thought that we nourish and word that we speak.

So, let’s not spend too much time thinking about the way we were, but look instead at the way we are. We have been promised that if we seek first the Kingdom of God, all else will be given us. If we seek first to bring about an external circumstance, no matter how admirable it appears, we may lose the Kingdom of God, even if we succeed.

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