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Honor Your Father and Mother: The Importance of Tradition Today
March 28, 2019
A common trope in popular films is a character who loses his memory and has to rediscover the truth about who he is.
These films can be big budget action thrillers, dramas about aging, or cheesy chick flicks. But regardless of the genre, these films are compelling because they reflect the fact that losing one’s memory is one of the most disorienting things that can happen to anyone.
Indeed, much of our identity and sense of selfhood flows from our memories of past events. While life is always lived in the present moment, memory provides the context and continuity that makes living in the present moment possible. Without memory, we are lost in a sea of impressions devoid of meaning. We have no frame of reference to interpret our experiences. Even the most intimate relationships, relationships that have formed who we are, become strange and foreign, without the least bit of feeling associated with them.
Memory, then, is essential for life. Devoid of memory, we are helpless and have no sense of who we are. We are entirely helpless and dependent on the goodwill of others.
Tradition and Memory
Memory is essential to an individual’s sense of self. But I would also argue that the memory, the experience of continuity, is likewise essential to the life of faith. Tradition is not merely a matter of repeating the same actions; it is rather the living memory of the Church. Without it, the Church loses all identity and becomes helplessly dependent on the whims of the world.
To be Catholic in any meaningful sense, then, is to be traditional. Everything we know about what it means to be Catholic has been handed down by our forebears, our fathers and mothers in faith. “Hold to the traditions,” taught Saint Paul, “which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). And so we should. Without the reference point of tradition, we cannot say what it means to be Catholic in any significant way.
That is not to say tradition is a static thing, any more than memory is a static thing. New experiences are constantly being added to its deposit. We learn and grow. But nonetheless, these new experiences are always interpreted and measured by what has come before.
One of the simplest and most powerfully succinct ways of articulating this truth came from the dictum of, ironically, a Lutheran pastor I once knew who was Catholic at heart if not in actuality: “No innovation without tradition.” He was exactly right.
Since her foundation by the Lord Jesus, the Church has been faced with constant new challenges, from persecutions and hostile governments to missionary expansions and engaging new cultures. The Church must respond and bring the gospel to all nations in dynamic ways. But everything that the Church does must be assessed and interpreted in the light of tradition, and must, as much as possible maintain the living current of continuity of the Church’s memory.
Loss of Memory, Violence to Tradition
The situation we face today is similar to a man who has lost all memory of his identity and who tries to reinvent himself from scratch. Millions of Catholics in the pews have no sense of where the Church has come from, and they are ignorant of even the most fundamental tenets of Catholic belief or practice. They have no knowledge whatsoever of traditional devotions or customs, practices which sustained countless generations through the most difficult circumstances of history. If they are aware of these things, they disdain them as the sentimental, superstitious, and benighted acts of a more childish and ignorant age.
Likewise, the seeming majority of the world’s priests have no knowledge of the Church’s ancient liturgy, doctrine, or practice, much less basics like the Latin language that shaped the history of the Church indelibly. Such priests sincerely believe that the Church began at Vatican II, and that all that became before should be effaced and obliterated as much as possible. Like hopelessly optimistic amnesiacs, they believe that we can rebuild the Church from scratch according to our own designs.
This violence to tradition is not only tragic, it is catastrophic to Catholic identity. Is it any wonder that, once this iconoclasm and intentional amnesia began, that millions left the faith? Is it any wonder that faithful, who had indeed been faithful to what had been handed down, who watched stain glass windows smashed, marble altars jackhammered, statues and liturgical books thrown in the trash, felt they had lost all sense of faith?
For what was the faith if tradition had been destroyed? It was, it seemed to many, merely an empty body without a memory; a soulless shell of what it once was. Far from a promised new spring time, this obliteration of the Church’s memory was the greatest tragedy of recent times.
When an individual loses his memory, he is usually exposed to familiar places, people, music, and objects in the hope that this exposure will aid him in recovering his memory. This is entirely logical.
Likewise, the recovery of the Church’s memory must consist in us exposing ourselves to the ancient teachings, devotions, practices, music, art, and liturgical worship that sustained the Church for millennia. Priests must again familiarize themselves with the ancient language and formulas and rites. Laity must immerse themselves of the fruitful culture and faith of their forebears. It is the only way to recover our collective memory.
I am happy to say, that throughout the world, this process is already beginning. Tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of young people are discovering the riches of tradition—the living memory of the Church that was denied them. It is their birthright, it is their heritage. It is theirs to claim and revive. May this renaissance, a true rebirth, of our Catholic memory continue for decades and even centuries to come.
Honor Your Father and Mother
“Honor your father and mother,” says the fourth commandment. One can either be faithful to the memory our fathers and mothers in faith, or one can dishonor and despise it and trample it in the dust. But regardless of how one considers it, tradition remains the living memory of the faith that gives context and meaning to everything we do as Catholics. Abolish tradition or do violence to it, and the faith loses all meaning.
We live in a rootless age; a time in which, to borrow Saint Paul’s words, many are tossed about by every wind of doctrine. Confusion reigns. Our memory is nearly, but not entirely, lost. In such a time, we are called to fulfill the commandment to “honor your father and mother,” to show reverenceto those who have come before us and to preserve their memory—to honor the faith, so frequently purchased and sustained with the price of blood and tears, which they handed on to us. May we with God’s help do so.
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