The Rise of the New Catholic Traditionalists

Synopsis (tl;dr): A growing trend is happening wherein ordinary Catholics are embracing the traditional liturgy and other older practices of the Faith.

It’s been popping up all over, most recently with my editor at Catholic Answers penning a blog post suggesting that we “Give East a Chance”, meaning that priests should heed Cardinal Sarah’s call for celebrating Mass ad orientem.

I’m less interested in the debate over ad orientem, or any particular aspect of traditionalism, and more in the movement of people who are beginning to embrace such practices, none of whom self-identify as traditionalists.

Catholic Answers has taken flak in the past few years for being opponents of Catholic traditionalism. So it is telling when such a blog post makes it onto their site. The truth is that many at Catholic Answers go to the Traditional Latin Mass! And several of Catholic Answers’ authors–including yours truly–also attend the TLM, in spite of not considering ourselves traditionalists.

The New Catholic Traditionalists

But it is not just stalwarts like Catholic Answers. I was surprised recently when Matt Fradd and Sam Guzman (of Catholic Gentleman) posted a video where they both spoke about how they go to the Traditional Latin Mass.

Photo credit: Joseph Shaw, Mass in the Oxford Oratory

And now Cardinal Sarah dropped a bombshell encouraging priests to celebrate Mass ad orientem, citing the many reasons for doing so that traditionalists have been pointing out for the past 60 years. Even Pope Francis celebrated Mass ad orientem earlier this year.

Whether you agree or disagree with this direction, the fact that it is happening is remarkable.

Isn’t It Still Jesus in the Mass Either Way?

I converted to Catholicism from atheism and very low-church Protestantism. Liturgy never meant a hill of beans to me. Smell and bells, incense and processing, vestments and solemnity held zero importance to me.

Photo credit: Joseph Shaw, Lady Chapel of St James’ Spanish Place. The celebrant is Fr Michael Mary F.SS.R and the server is a member of his community, Br Dominic

So as a single man, and into my marriage before children, I was unbothered by non-sacred, generally bland music during Mass, lack of reverence, odd or heretical homilies, and the other common afflictions at many Masses in the Ordinary Form. Shrug, it’s still Jesus, I said to myself.

That changed when my children began to grow older. I watched them at Mass–and yes we sat near the front!–and while I could see the truth of divine majesty behind the lackluster celebration, they could not. They saw and heard and experienced the banality, the exact opposite of what I wanted for them and knew they needed if they were to retain the Faith in a hostile culture.

Even at the good parish we went to, with a music director who had a Ph.D., we regularly endured the raft of heretical or banal “hymns” like Anthem and its ilk. These were songs I had sung for years before having children, but now I was focusing on the words and the music and growing increasingly uneasy with how bad they were.

I learned later that these songs do not even qualify as sacred music, and the Church specifies that only sacred music should be used in the Mass.

How we worship really does matter. There is truth to the slogan “save the liturgy, save the world,” which I didn’t pick up on until recently.

Pope Benedict, while still Cardinal Ratzinger, said:

“I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is, to a large extent, due to the disintegration of the liturgy.”

I was beginning to think so too. And the movement we are seeing shows that I am not the only one.

Rediscover Tradition

What are the options? Either go to the Traditional Latin Mass or change the Ordinary Form to be celebrated more reverently.

My influence with even my local parish priest in terms of liturgical celebration approaches zero, so advocating for a more reverent liturgy was not going to go anywhere. Instead, we started going to the Traditional Latin Mass, in spite of it being a long drive, in a difficult part of the city, at an awful time of day.

Cardinal Sarah
Cardinal Sarah

For a non-traditionalist like me, going to the TLM was an odd experience. I didn’t know what was happening, could barely follow along in the blue booklet: in short, it felt a lot like the first time I went to Mass while still a Protestant!

But what I did notice was reverence: sacred music, periods of silence, no ad-libbing, no innovations, no glaring omissions, no outbursts of applause.

And my children noticed it too.

In my happiness at this discovery, I wrote a blog post about why we had started going to the Traditional Latin Mass.

This post resulted in several rage-unsubscribes from my blog and emails, as well as angry comments from strangers accusing me of traditionalist phariseeism and the like. Of course, most of those readers knew very little about me and were completely off the mark, but it goes to show what a sensitive subject this is, and how on guard most Catholics are against traditionalists.

The New Traditionalist Next Door

We’re seeing a new period in the Church regarding traditionalism. It is going mainstream.

Even Jen Fulwiler is veiling!
Even Jen Fulwiler is veiling!

So, for instance, we have the somewhat perplexing rise of mainstream, orthodox Catholics respectfully criticizing statements made by Pope Francis. This didn’t happen with John Paul II and Pope Benedict. But it has with Pope Francis, and in my opinion justifiably so on many occasions.

I’ve seen pieces critical of Pope Francis’s statements in the National Catholic Register, Catholic World Report, on the blogs of canon lawyers, and other sites and publications that otherwise whole-heartedly support the pope.

I have held back in criticism, in part because I don’t know if my voice is needed there, nor if it is appropriate for me to criticize things he has said. But I, too, have scratched my head trying to figure out if he really meant what he said about large families, marriages and cohabitation, neo-Pelagian traditionalists, sacraments for divorced and remarried, and on and on.

Pope Francis is inadvertently doing much to increase this move of ordinary Catholics towards traditionalism.

Pushback and Challenges

But there’s another group of ordinary Catholics who are critical of those who are critical of the pope. And critical of anything associated with traditionalism, including ad orientem, in spite of its bona fides.

I’m friends with many of these people: they are generally orthodox Catholics who are on guard against traditionalists, who do not want to cede even one inch to them, afraid they will take a yard.

These Catholics were pushing back on Cardinal Sarah, opining that Sarah was only opining, resisting any movement toward this traditional practice.

Less applause, more reverence
Less applause, more reverence

The same has happened in many places with the Latin Mass. Pope Benedict in 2007 sent out the motu propio Summorum Pontificum to give priests the right to celebrate the Latin Mass for a group of the faithful in their area, even without the bishop’s approval.

This option has not been exercised by very many priests, and those Catholics suspicious of all things traditional have pointed that fact out as evidence that traditionalists are a tiny, disaffected minority who should be swept under the rug.

But the reality is somewhat different: many priests, even if they wanted to, would not go against their bishop. And many bishops are suspicious of traditionalists and do not want to see the TLM spread. It remains ghettoized in many dioceses, by design and not by demand.

Most priests don’t know the the TLM, didn’t grow up with it, and would not heed Summorum Pontificum even if a stable group of traditionalists requested it.

Increase Reverence of the Ordinary Form?

Other Catholics suggest to forget about the TLM and instead focus on reforming the Ordinary Form. Make it more reverent, they say. Get sacred music in there. Throw in some ad orientem. That sort of thing.

I’m sympathetic to this suggestion, and I know of a group of people quietly working behind the scenes to accomplish this noble goal. (Interestingly, they are also new traditionalists, not Catholics who self-identify as traditionalists). I think it should be attempted, but also I know how deeply rooted many non-reverent practices are, so much so that they have attained quasi-traditional status. It will take a long time.

The Way Forward

I recall getting burned by traditionalists not too long after becoming Catholic. They came out against me on my youtube channel, and to me here was a strange animal that I had never encountered before.

I soon grew acquainted with them and the copy-pasting of accusations against John Paul II, Vatican II, heretical Catholics like myself, etc. I now understand that this is the extreme end of the traditional spectrum, the sedevacantists, and it hardly represents the majority, which spans from them to SSPX members, to FSSP supporters, to people like me who just want my children to have a reverent Mass.

Say what you want about traditionalists, but one thing they did do was hold the line on traditional practices and reverent liturgy. While many made mistakes, got into bunker mentality, and came across as insanely harsh, the fact is that now Catholics like me are rediscovering these aspects of traditional worship in part because of them. The liturgical abuses that have happened in the Church over the past sixty years mitigates their culpability to various degrees.

There’s a new face of Catholic traditionalism, and it looks little like the image that it once had. It’s young, charitable, respectful of the Pope and obedient to the Church. It’s ordinary Catholic moms and dads drawn to the sacred. It’s coming to a parish near you, eventually.

Navigating the Tiber: Your Guidebook Has Arrived

I’m happy to announce that my second book from Catholic Answers has just been published: Navigating the Tiber: How to Help Your Friends and Family Journey Toward the Catholic Faith.

Origins of the Book

I was sitting at lunch one day with friends: one Catholic, two Protestants, and we were having a series of in-depth discussions about whether Catholicism was true or Protestantism was better.

Navigating the Tiber
Navigating the Tiber

The debate ranged all over: justification, the canon of Scripture, sola Scriptura, Bible interpretation, authority, perspicuity, Church Fathers, sacraments, and more.

My friend, George, asked me after each discussion how I decided to choose one topic over another, or use one argument to rebut their point versus a different one. We were able to talk one-on-one and I could mentor him in apologetics, not just the arguments but also the soft skills, the psychology, and how to connect one topic to another.

I could sit next to George each week and do this, but I couldn’t replicate that to all the other Catholics who have ever been in a discussion with Protestant friends and family, feeling stumped or confused or scared because the arguments their friends were making sounded so strong.

Navigating the Tiber was born.

This is the book I would give to any Catholic needing help in understanding Protestantism and helping their Protestant friends fairly consider the Catholic Church.

It takes you from defending your Faith to going on the offense and leading Protestants into Catholicism!

The Guidebook for Navigating the Tiber

The Tiber river flows through Rome and has been something of an unruly watercourse in its history with the city. To “cross the Tiber” means to become Catholic.

This metaphor became the book’s overall narrative image. I am helping you to navigate the waters of the Tiber with your friend, so that they can cross over. There are swift currents, dangerous shoals, hidden rocks, sea serpents, enemy ships, and many more obstacles that they (and you) will face. The book guides you through it all.

I actually wrote the initial draft for this book five years ago, before The Protestant’s Dilemma was even published. It was one of those manuscripts that just flowed out once the main idea was settled on. But over those five years I was able to hammer at it, refine it, add more experiences to it, and most of all work on it with my friend Todd Aglialoro at Catholic Answers.

Five years of hard word, whittled down to a concise paperback.

The goal: to equip you to lead Protestant friends to the Catholic Church.

Please do check it out, and let me know what you think!