About 6 months ago, a teachable moment found me when my 3-year-old son brought to my attention a stick he held in his hand.
“Look, daddy, stick!”
“Yes, son, that is a stick. What’s the Latin word for stick?”
Since that moment, I’ve endeavored periodically to gauge when he’s ready to begin learning the great language of our fathers in the faith. I figure he needs to have acquired a masterful grasp of memory before I can teach him our universal, patrimonial, vocabutastic language. Usually, that conversation goes a little something like this:
“Aaron, do you know the Latin word for stick?”
“What is it?”
Latin is an important part of our patrimony in Western Civilization. From it (and from the whole Greco-Roman Tradition) come our politics and our laws, our poetry and our prose, our language, our culture, our identity. In the absence of Latin study, we as a nation have found ourselves disconnected from our roots, and the things that pass for culture today would never have done so in a more classical time.
Click here for an example.
And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind,
Never knowing who to cling to
When the rain set in,
And I would have liked to have known you
But I was just a kid.
Your candle burned out long before
Your legend ever did.
-Elton John, Candle in the Wind
Even more obvious is the impact of Latin on the Catholic Church. A few months ago, a Benedictine priest friend encouraged me to promote the concept of patrimony in the Church. As today is the birthday of our patrimony-restoring pope, I can think of no better time than the present to consider the past.
The Second Vatican Council has been billed as one that transformed the Church with ease, but this is not simply true. To oversimplify a very complex matter, the council was fraught with theological battles, mostly between two camps. The first proposed an aggiornamentoAn Updating, an updating of the faith focused on innovation to meet the demands of the modern world. The second proposed a ressourcementA Return to the Sources, a return to the patrimony and traditions of the Church. The effects of the conflict between these can be seen today in theology, in biblical scholarship, in catechesis and in pastoral work.
In these last 7 years since his election as the Roman Pontiff, we have come to know Joseph Ratzinger, a man of the council, as our beloved Pope Benedict XVI and we have met a man of stupendous intellect firmly rooted in the Western Tradition, yet innovative in his application of it. Almost immediately after becoming pope, Benedict got to the work of healing the rift caused in the wake of the council (not by the council), unifying these two warring factions. It’s important to note that neither of these positions, aggiornamento or ressourcement, is wrong per se, but each taken by itself without the other can be damaging. The content of evangelization must always be rooted in the tradition, but the methods must always be dynamically updated to meet an ever changing audience. Pope Benedict always understood the need for these forces to work together, and his methods reflected his own desire to reconcile them. He did not simply acknowledge one side over the other, nor did he blend the two. Instead, he found common ground, a common goal. What common goal could they possibly have? In his pontificate, the new generation of Christians faced a crisis of identity that would lead them to fall prey to the enemies of Christ. Pope Benedict did what came naturally – he returned to the tradition in an innovative way – principally, by means of the restoration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.
It really is the perfect response. By focusing on the needs of a new generation, he appealed to the aggiornamento crowd. By focusing on the restoration of tradition and patrimony, he appealed to the ressourcement crowd. There are, to be sure, some bitter clingers. Aggiornamento folks aren’t always happy to see the young embracing tradition. They like to point out how the numbers are against Catholics – the rate of cohabitation, for instance – but they are ignoring the fact that the voice and reach of faithful Catholics is growing as the Gospel reaches a younger, more dynamic generation in control of the reigns of social media. Some ressourcement-minded folks also may confuse youthful vigor for immaturity in the faith (this was sometimes my experience as a Steubenville student) or view new evangelization methods with the same suspicion some (not all) aggiornamento-informed catechetical models of late have rightly deserved. They might even understandably fear that these new, young, dynamically orthodox kids are just following the Latin Mass as a fad, without recognizing that the evangelical Catholicism on the rise among young American Catholics is not only dynamic and innovative, but also deeply traditional. Despite these possible reservations, one thing is clear: apart, these forces of aggiornamento and ressourcement caused lasting damage, but together, they have brought about a renewed orthodoxy.
This plan, what Fr. Z calls the “Pope Benedict’s Marshall Plan,” is working. Young Catholics are coming in droves to the Extraordinary Form, many of them previously unaware that such a rich liturgical tradition existed. The Latin Mass speaks to a new generation, the audience the aggiornamento crowd wished to address in a language the ressourcement crowd wished to have preserved; this next generation understands few of the Latin Mass’s words, but all of its spirit. Long floating adrift in a sea of a wishy-washy, indistinct Catholicism, they are enraptured with awe at the concrete witness of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in its Extraordinary Form: candles and incense and chant. Could there be any doubt whether Pope Benedict was just the man for the job? In this post-christian identity crisis, the Latin Mass reminds us young people who we are and serves to mobilize us to support and defend our Church. We have Pope Benedict to thank, and the conclave (and Holy Spirit) who elected him.
The restoration of our patrimony will continue to bear fruit among the young. In my own still-little family, we appreciate the occasional opportunities we have to attend the Latin Mass. My son’s even starting to pick it up. When we walked into Mass the other day and smelled incense, he began to sniff the air, looked at me, and said, “daddy, do you smell that? It smells like Latin!”
You know what else? He saw a candle at Mass and confused it for a stick. “Look daddy, baculum!”
Yep, it’s time for us to pass on that ancient patrimony to our nextgen Catholics.