Sunday, December 13, 2015

Passing on the Tradition - Notes on Formation

The past few days have afforded to get in touch with some old acquaintances: a now retired auxiliary bishop and a former priest-professor I had while and undergrad.

The Dear Bishop now walks with a cane, plots his movements carefully, his battle word face surveying the landscape in bifocal glasses. 

Fr. Professor responded to an email I sent - just hoping to check in, really. He revealed that he was diagnosed with Parkinson's and retired from active teaching over the summer. He presses on withe last of the PhD theses he advises and is gradually clearing out his office.

Both of these men have two things in common.

Both men demonstrated great fidelity to the Latin liturgy as it was revised after the Second Vatican Council. This was not shallow emotive "love" for the liturgy or a celebration of the liturgy as "creative" play. Rather, this was the commitment to the new liturgy in all the contours of is Latin form and firm adherence to its law of prayer as the law of faith. In brief, they were rare examples of men who accepted the Pauline liturgy as a the liturgical tradition to be received, without seeking to amend it in conformance with "particular" interests. Both men devotedly observe the divine office via the Liturgia Horarum and can make even the most ardent critic of the Pauline liturgy appreciate the corpus of hymns.

Both men, and I don't think this is coincidence, are also examples of that last generation or so of priests who may be said to have had a pre-Vatican II formation. They both have a living memory of the Roman Church before Vatican II and their formation before, during, and in the immediate years after the Council was still defined by pre-Vatican II discipline and practice, even though the Roman liturgy was substantially recast. 

The Dear Bishop and Fr. Professor are instances of the journey that generation is making towards the great transitus. There is an enormity to this event that appears when pause if given for consideration. As that generation enters its twilight years, they bring pre-Vatican II formation with them into the sunset of age. 

The influence of Vatican II upon formation in the Roman Church is ubiquitous - there is no corner of said church that does not bear the influence of the Council. Traditionalists may object and point to their own orders. They may also point to the relative youth of their priests (and in some cases bishops). At which point it is reasonable to ask, how many among them have an actual memory of formation before the Council? What percentage of Traditionalists under the Roman umbrella have the real experience of formation before the Council? How much of today's Traditionalist formation is artificial or fabricated and as a consequence ill-reflective of formation prior to the Council? And where does one find a credible conduit for pre-Vatican II formation in the modern world?

Contextually speaking, pre-Vatican II formation is impossible. Vatican II, whatever one thinks of it, was a watershed moment in the Roman Church and perhaps Western culture as whole. There is no facet of Roman Catholicism that has not been formed by this Council. Even the Traditionalist orders that view the Council with suspicion developed their identity, agenda and "charism" in reaction to the Council. As such, even in terms of content it is not a guarantee that Traditionalist Catholicism necessarily provides pre-Vatican II formation in virtue of its content being defined and conveyed under the influence of the Council. 

If pre-Vatican II formation still exists, it exists in a more piecemeal fashion as opposed to in the well defined contours of an institutional entity. It is found here and there, scattered in the wind, in the living memory of those who experienced it in the original context and offer to impart some this same experience. 

I have seen the ethos of the original liturgical movement conveyed best by priests who lived it, such as the late Fr. Bernard Gilgun, as opposed to those who self-consciously try to recapitulate it. I have seen a total application of lex orandi, lex credenti in persons such as the Dear Bishop and Fr. Professor, as opposed to a number of rank and file men (my age or younger) who never experienced pre-Vatican II Catholicism and are obsessed with a faux scholasticism. I have found Tanquerey's The Spiritual Life implemented as praxis among monasteries that give scarcely a thought to their old liturgical books.

This is not to say the Roman Church is not in a state of crisis or otherwise decline. Like the West as a whole, the Roman Church is waging an internal war between adherence to principles that were once considered immovable and increased secularization. It is to say, however, that if one truly believes the Western Tradition is of importance, merit, and benefit, one must seek it out with utmost honesty, recognizing that there are no easy answers to difficult questions, nor comprehensive cures for complex maladies. 

Formation is everything. Spend enough time with the ancient monastic literature and one sees how that principle is foundational to Christian praxis. The problem of contemporary Christian formation (particularly Vatican II inspired formation) is a known problem. What is less known is whether or not elements of pre-Vatican II formation are capable providing some perspective on account of the issues raised above. Traditionalist Catholicism scarcely recognizes the degree to which it was formed by Vatican II, and how much of its content is largely formed by persons with limited or no experience of pre-Vatican II formation. The window for rediscovering pre-Vatican II formation grows ever more narrow. The best way to find it, is to find the priests an religious that lived it and an coherently impart its content to another generation, however piecemeal the content may be. 


  1. That is a most interesting observation V. I had a conversation with a friend who is an ex-committee member of the LMS a few weeks ago and we were reminiscing about clergy we had known. One thing we observed was that all of those formed pre-V2 were very different to those formed afterwards - even if some of those formed afterwards were more 'traditional'. All of the pre-V2 clergy had one thing in common in that however difficult or even obnoxious some of the worst were there was also another 'side' to them that would always shew itself in case of need and whatever their idiosyncrasies - and there were many of them - when the proverbial 'push came to shove' all of them, without exception, could be relied on to offer their full assistance. Something has clearly been lost.

    1. Something was lost, although an accurate description of what that something is proves elusive. My working theory is that it has to do with the content of pre-Vatican II formation, although it may also have some connection with shifting cultural standards of what constitutes manhood as well.

  2. I would dare say that much of the change has been occasioned by the change in focus in academic theology from broad and deep erudition to narrow and specialized scholarship. Seminaries, having drawn most of their teachers from that cohort, would reflect that change. But further, the academy seems little interested in the Church Fathers or Holy Tradition, save perhaps for something at which to sneer. The loss of the classical, biblical and patristic languages in most of academe has probably also had its effect. And finally, the exclusive concern of academe for intellectual, and not spiritual, development is not to be discounted in its effects upon modern priestly formation.

    But I will not belabor the point, nor shall I continue to drone on your dime. A happy Nativity to you, and a fruitful Nativity fast. And, if it is not taken amiss, here is something which may amuse you:

    1. There is definitely an issue of whether or not Theology (and ministry for that matter) has any real grounding in the West. The content of theological education in the West largely reflects the interests of the upper classes (liberal or conservative). Consequently, the theologians produced reflect a demonstrable propagation of such content. At best, Theology is a profession of academia. In either instance, it is arguable that Theology has been removed from any real context. The appeal of the Patristics is that they were not talking to an academy of the elite. They were "in the thick of it." Sadly, the agenda of the upper classes has successfully co-opted the image of what Theology in the context of an active ministry looks like.