Ten years ago, the bishop of a modestly sized American diocese died. When this happened, a fellow blogger who lived in that diocese decided to start a local campaign. He wanted to organize a pilgrimage to the cathedral every day for a week to pray for the soul of that bishop, and to pray for a holy replacement. As a traditionalist, he felt this was a great way for the rest of the diocese to see that, though they were at times persecuted (before Summorum Pontificum traditionalists frequently were the target of persecution and marginalization), they wanted to be a part of their local church and contribute to building it up. To help promote this event, he reached out to various other bloggers and commentators across the ideological spectrum. The answers were telling.
For several local traditionalist bloggers, they greeted the program with silence. It wasn’t out of some animus towards the liturgy the bishop celebrated, doctrinal stances, etc. The bloggers were too busy focusing on what some cardinal in Europe said about some topic that everyone forgot after five days. The response of those who were typically called “conservative” Catholics wasn’t any better. While they spent an incredible amount of time bashing traditionalists for being elitists, setting up their own parallel churches and the like, they weren’t very interested in my friend’s campaign either. It was an election year, and there was some hot button culture war issue in Washington to rile up the already converted masses about.
I fear not much has changed in the past decade. Catholics of all stripes love to dial up the outrage on issues they cannot control and are seldom impacted by, but will barely lift a finger to better the Church right in front of them. The Church in America has suffered an institutional collapse because it has forgotten the primary rule of reform, whether it be in the individual or the ecclesial. This rule is described by Dom Lorenzo Scupoli in his classic work The Spiritual Combat:
For whoever has the courage to conquer his passions, to subdue his appetites, and repulse even the least motions of his own will, performs an action more meritorious in the sight of God than if, without this, he should tear his flesh with the sharpest disciplines, fast with greater austerity than the ancient Fathers of the Desert, or convert multitudes of sinners.
It is true, considering things in themselves, that the conversion of a soul is, without doubt, infinitely more acceptable to the divine Majesty than the mortification of a disorderly affection. Yet every person, in his own particular sphere, should begin with what is immediately required of him.
In the Gospel, Christ states that the job of the Christian is to be “salt of the earth.” (Matthew 5:13) While it might be hard to understand in today’s economy, salt was once a prized commodity. Soldiers were sometimes paid with salt instead of gold. (Hence the phrase “worth their salt.”) Salt was a miracle product throughout most of human history. While we today associate salt with making something taste better, the people of Christ’s time would have associated salt with its ability to preserve the freshness of meat. When Christ told His disciples to be “salt of the earth” that is what He had in mind. The goal of the Christian, first and foremost, was to preserve all that was true and beautiful directly in front of them.
This is also the lesson of the monks around the time of the Roman Empire’s decline in the West. They are frequently portrayed (by religious and secular sources alike) as individuals who hunkered down in their monasteries while the world decayed. Some people call for a modern day “Benedict option” where Christians retreat from society and engage in survival mode until the culture collapses of its own weight, and then we rebuild Christendom. (So the theory goes.) How are we being salt of the earth in this instance? We are indeed preserving food (tradition and our faith) but for what purpose? The world and the Church are starving for the Gospel, and are we just to say “be warm and filled?” (James 2:15-16) We preserve the faith so we can share it with others.
This is the real lesson of the monks of that time period. They preserved most of civilization during that time, but they did not hoard it to themselves. They found peasants to minister to and instruct in the faith. They passed on the traditions and knowledge they inherited to others, and eventually Christianized Europe. Yet before they did all those great things, they started locally. How many of our great commentators and bloggers are staples of such local reform, to say nothing of the average Catholic? If one can be so bold, often they focus on things far away from their control as an excuse. When you are focused on the latest outrage and scandal of the month, you don’t have time to preserve the local church and spread its influence.
In the beginning of this article I linked to a scholarly essay (by a man who is about as far from a traditionalist as you can get) that stated the Church in America has suffered an “institutional collapse.” Europe and Latin America aren’t doing much better. That collapse came about because a lot of Christians were lukewarm in their responsibilities towards the Gospel. A lot of Catholics stopped preserving the traditions of their fathers, including those who adopted the moniker traditionalist. Sometimes that collapse was hastened by the imprudent actions of priests, bishops, and popes, even very good ones. Sometimes it was through the actions of bad popes, just like previous times in history. During such times of confusion, Catholics need to have a sense of perspective. There are a thousand scandals the blogosphere can inform me of, and very few of them I can do anything about. More often than not, they will just serve to dial up the outrage. Outrage can be good, if properly channeled. Yet more often than not, outrage leads to despair.
Even with all of these scandals swirling around us in the violent maelstrom that is contemporary Catholicism, the command to start with what is in front of us retains its urgency. We still have traditions to uphold and maintain, a soul to unite to Christ, a Gospel to believe with every ounce of being, and a church in front of us to build up that reflects all of those things. Don’t do these things out of a desire to retreat from a cruel world. Do these things as a way to overcome that world.
image: Meditation Chapel at Mt. Angel Abbey, Oregon / Shutterstock