A friend passed along to me one of the more recent frenzied Facebook posts of a former Catholic apologist who will not be named. (His signature writing style will make it clear enough for those who are aware.) He’s not someone I believe deserves any attention aside from our prayers, but just in case anyone is still listening to him, I want to address something he comes back to time and again: the notion that Catholics who care about the integrity of their faith and the quality of their worship — particularly “traditionalist” Catholics or those who are critical of the pope — deem themselves the “Greatest Catholics of All Time.”
I’ll say it right here in front of anyone who cares to listen, since I am included in those to whom this label has been applied: I do not consider myself a great Catholic. I am, if I’m being honest, not even a particularly good Catholic. Here’s why…
I do not prefer the old Mass because this is somehow demonstrative of my superior taste; I prefer the old Mass because through my study of the differences between the old and new rites and my understanding of theology I have come to believe it to be a more perfect and pleasing way of worshiping God – a way which benefits both the Worshiped and the worshiper. It has stood the test of time by nourishing countless saints, and is not tarnished in any way by those who disparage it or those who have come to love it. In the same vein, it derives no additional merit from my presence and no added value from my preference. It is a testament to the love of God of Catholics over 1500 years, and it was taken from us by those who feared its power. We are so blessed to have found it, not the other way around.
I do not believe the pope presents a problem to the faith because I don’t like the way he looks or where he’s from or the manner in which he expresses himself; I believe he presents a problem to the faith because he appears to believe he has the power even to supersede the divine law, re-shaping the teachings of Our Divine Lord according to his own conceptions. These beliefs are not the fruit of arrogance, but of the demonstrative incompatibilities between certain papal actions, words, and writings that have been examined by not a small number of competent theologians, philosophers, pastors, and prelates. No Catholic feels greater for having an adversarial relationship with the man who is supposed to be the guardian of the faith, and has so often chosen otherwise.
I do not believe that following the laws and precepts of the Church automatically bestows goodness or sanctity on a person, but I do believe that they are necessary to attain goodness and sanctity. I do not believe that these things are important because I observe and follow them (I often fail), or because I have some obsession with the law or some infatuation with rigidity. Instead, I believe they are important because God said that they are, and He seemed very concerned that we observe them carefully, and His ministers and Vicars and countless saints over the years impressed upon us that these things matter a great deal to our eternal salvation. It is not out of a sense of self-importance that I seek to do these things, but out of a sense of obligation to our Divine Creator, which, I hope, given enough graces, might even be transformed into a desire to do them purely out of love for Him.
On the same token, I am not interested in displaying harshness and judgmentalism towards sinners. I am very much one of them. Like so many of us, I often wish the rules were easier to follow, that the laws weren’t so easy to break, that we could do more of what we want and less of what we are required to do. I have often, perhaps more often that not, chosen the easy path, broken the laws, and failed in the voluntary efforts — like prayer and penance — that would aid me in observing them.
I have committed the sin of presumption, time and again, giving in to what I want and knowing that when I decided I should try harder the confessional would be there waiting for me. I have taken God’s mercy for granted.
But I do not want excuses made for me, because I know I will take advantage of them. I do not want someone to tell me that my sin is not my fault, or not a sin at all. I do not want to be accompanied as I continue in my selfishness, but rather, encouraged gently but firmly that I must stop what I’m doing and return to God’s graces if I want to enjoy eternal life.
And I do not want excuses made for others who have perhaps not had the benefit of learning their faith as well as some, because I fear they will be left to remain in their sin, and lose their hope of eternal life. My opposition to this coddling of sin is not because I believe I am better than they, or because I want them to suffer. It’s because I want them to have the fullness of life in Christ.
To be clear: there is nothing about me that makes Catholicism great, but I am made better by the greatness of Catholicism, and I seek to serve it by preserving that greatness.
As for the matter of traditionalism in particular, I observed something today that I wanted to share with you.
As I’ve no doubt written countless times, I absolutely believe the Novus Ordo is defective and damaging to the life of faith. But as I left the local parish after confession this morning, I saw a woman who looked to be in her 80s, stooped over and shuffling with a cane so slowly towards the church that her forward progress was almost imperceptible. I made it the better part of 100 yards towards my car, turned around, and saw that she was still making her way up the same 20 feet or so of sidewalk so she could get to daily Mass.
That’s devotion. I don’t know how else to describe it. If I was in that physical condition there’s not a chance I’d make that much effort to do anything that wasn’t incredibly important to me. And maybe not even some of those things.
We needn’t give up our certainties on the importance of right worship to recognize that God still provides grace to those who seek Him even in impoverished circumstances. And this is why I urge caution to my fellow traditionalists when I see them casting aspersions on those who attend the NO, or using derogatory terms like “neo-caths,” indiscriminately to describe not just those who lead the revolution in the Church, but those who have been victimized by it by no fault of their own. Some of the people in the pews at the NO could put us to shame with their faithfulness. Well, they can put ME to shame at least. You’ll have to do your own reflection. But I bet we all know some pious person – perhaps even a family member – who remains an example to us all, even though they’ve been immersed in half a century of liturgical destruction.
So who are the real Greatest Catholics of All Time? They are the people we know as the saints. By any measure, they were men and women who cared quite a great deal about the particulars of the faith, fought rhetorically and often died physically to defend its truths, worshiped devoutly, lived lives of charity and example, and did not spend lives consumed by rage aimed at those who didn’t see the world the way they did. None of us have attained what they have yet, and that is where our focus should be.
So no, I am not one of the Greatest Catholics of All Time, but I aspire to be — and you should too.