People hate labels. In the Catholic world today, there are lots of them. “Traditionalist” is a label that I, however, am proud to claim, although it is often used derisively by other Catholics. Some people think of so-called Traditionalists as grumpy, nerdy, elitist, conspiracy-theorists who want to imprison other Catholics in the dreaded Middle Ages. The term “Traditionalist” describes those Catholics that value the “smells and bells,” that is, the fullness of Catholicism expressed in teachings and morality, traditions and prayers, and in the celebration of the liturgy. These Catholics are connected to the Catholic Faith as it has been known throughout all of the ages of the history of the Church. Often they make great sacrifices to live and worship in a traditional way, traveling long distances to attend Mass, and bearing up under the misunderstandings of family and friends. Being labeled Traditionalists, they are identified by the tradition they love so much, by people that think it is all crazy.
Actually, it is not crazy. All believing, faithfully-practicing Catholics should become Traditionalists. It’s really not scary and weird like people think. Being a Traditionalist is like visiting your extended family every week and learning more and more about who they are and who you are. Living this way connects you to the purpose of the Catholic Faith, it leads you to a more complete obedience to the wise and sacred instructions of the Church, and it is a just-plain more beautiful way to worship and to live. I’ll tell you what I mean.
I like to know the purposes of things. A hammer is for nailing, a stamp is for sending mail, and a baby is for loving and teaching how to be a good human being. Everything has a purpose. Sometimes things have more than one, but they are easy to identify. The Catholic Mass has a purpose. Has anyone told you what it is? It is the re-presentation of Our Lord and Savior’s Sacrifice of Himself on the Cross. Through the actions of the ordained Priest, He offers Himself to the Father during each Mass as a Sacrifice in a continuation of what He did on Calvary 2,000 years ago. Being present at the continual offering of God the Son to God the Father, which is the purpose of the Mass, is the most sacred thing a human can do.
Think about that for a second.
Now you know why they built Chartres Cathedral like they did, and why seven or eight generations spent almost 200 years building Notre Dame.
Because of what the Mass is, it is the best possible way a human can worship God. One of the things Traditionalists are known for is a love for the Traditional Latin Mass—the Catholic liturgy of the ages that is prayed in the sacred Latin language. This Mass grew and developed out of the faith of centuries of priests and religious, those holy ones who believed in the mercy of God and had complete faith in this Sacrificial Action of the Blessed Trinity that we human beings are marvelously permitted to participate in. This is special. This is very special, sacred, and sublime. But is this the kind of understanding and attitude that your priest and your fellow congregants display every Sunday at your average parish church in Anytown, America?
And that is the reason that Traditionalists love the Traditional Latin Mass. When the priests celebrate this form of the Mass, it is obviously a special, sacred, and sublime experience of worship, “the most beautiful thing this side of Heaven,” it has been said.
Part of what makes it so sublime is that when the priests, the acolytes and the choir are praying and singing and acting, they are doing so in a complete spirit of obedience. If you compare the regular “modern” Masses at our local parish churches today, you will see that they feature dozens and dozens of variations from each other: differences in how things are done, in what prayers and words are said, and what kinds of songs are sung during Mass. Many—perhaps most—clergy and laypeople in parish committees believe they can do whatever they want with “their” Mass: play and sing what songs they feel like, accompany those songs with whatever guitars, drums, etc. that they have around, put the Tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament off in a closet, or have a comedic question-and-answer session with the second grade Sunday School class right after the homily, for example. Now, match this type of thinking with what we have discussed as the purpose of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Yes, this attitude feels wrong because it IS wrong. There are specific instructions in several books and documents available to all Catholics explaining what we are supposed to do at Mass. Parishes that don’t follow these instructions are being disobedient. Parishes that do ARE being obedient. Traditionalist Catholics want to be obedient to God by following the Church’s instructions on the Mass, as they and other faithful Catholics already are trying to be obedient to the Church’s doctrine and teachings on morality. Traditionalists see all of it as a package deal.
Looking at the previous reasons for being a “Traditionalist”—giving greater obedience to God’s Will, and participating in a fuller expression of the true purpose and nature of the Mass–might make the following seem lightweight. But this was why I initially started to embrace the traditional Catholic ways. An American Cradle Catholic who is almost 30 at this point, I only became a “Traditionalist” about two years ago. All my life I went to my local parish Masses faithfully every Sunday, but I always knew something was wrong. Typically, Catholics in my age group don’t even go to Mass. Although I know they are obliged to go, I really can’t blame them for being confused by the lack of faith seen at many Catholic churches. Such a lack of faith in the true nature of the Mass is evident in the downright ugliness of the post-1950s buildings which are decorated with faded felt banners, and resound with jingles of the 1970s banged out interminably on guitars and bongo drums, Sunday after Sunday. I figured that something must be wrong with all this when I was seven, but I didn’t have the words for what was wrong until I was nearly twenty-seven. This ugliness is not fitting, not proper, not right–and it does not reflect Who God is or prepare us for what our eternal destiny with Him is like.
God made us a beautiful world, and He designed it with built-in principles of organization (like the Law of Gravity, for example, or the precise and intricate rotations of the planets). What we perceive as beautiful is always based on certain principles: you could say, principles that add up to a sense of rightness, of fittingness, a proper order of things. This is because God created us so that we would perceive the patterns and principles he built into the world as beautiful things. So, beauty is actually NOT in the eye of the beholder—we human beings discover what is objectively beautiful, based on universal principles–we can’t simply decide something is beautiful just because we want it to be. We have been created to find the patterns and design of beauty in the world as a way to seek God.
When you look at the Catholic art of the past, when you hear the glorious harmonies in ancient Catholic music, or walk into an old church, you instinctively recognize some of God’s beauty. Worshiping God through the Traditional Latin Mass has always brought people first to their knees, and then to their easels, pipe-organs, and workshops. The beauty of the elements of traditional Catholic worship flows out into the lives, art, and culture of Catholics, ultimately making the whole world a better place. The beauty of Traditional Catholicism, especially in its heritage of incredible sacred music, is what first pulled me in. The sacred beauty is what led me on a journey to investigate the ways Catholics have always lived and how they have worshiped for centuries. What a discovery! I have found treasures, and the beauty of Traditional Catholic worship was the treasure map that showed me the way.
If you love the Catholic Church and all her Divine teachings, but you have not yet made the jump and become a “Traditionalist,” do not be afraid to do it! Everything you already love about being Catholic is found in traditional Catholicism–only you will find it is emphasized and connected and lived out in a more immediate, powerful, and breathtakingly beautiful way. You will sense more completeness in your faith, as you learn the flow and pattern of the ancient Latin liturgy. Because there is so much rich context, you will understand the teachings and traditions of the Church even better. This is no exaggeration–it happened to me. Going Traditionalist really feels like leaving a two-dimensional plane and bursting into full-depth 3-D space. And that is why Traditionalists at Mass are solemn and yet so joyful at the same time—the richness of Catholicism spread before them is an incredible, unmerited gift, a cup overflowing.
I believe that “Traditionalist” is a term that someday will apply to us all. Of course, when it does, there will be no more need to use it. But for now, while people are using it, we can use it to identify and to encourage each other. Hopefully I have nudged you to begin attending the Traditional Latin Mass, and to observe more of the ancient customs and ways of our beloved Church. Although it might seem a little strange and different right now, at first, I promise that very soon it will feel just like coming home. God will lead you to Him through the richness and fullness of His Holy Church.