Pope Francis inaugurated a new celebration in the Church yesterday, The World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly. He has spoken frequently in the past about the wisdom and experience of older persons. And the need to listen to them and be with them. He apparently thinks the theme so important that not only has he declared it a recurring observance on the fourth Sunday of July, he has even arranged for there to be a Plenary Indulgence – remission of all temporal punishment due to sin, under the usual conditions of Confession, Communion, prayer for the pope’s intentions, and so forth. In an age that is rapidly and universally losing touch with its past and, therefore, is unsteady about the future, it was an inspired idea.
Many of us of a certain age remember living with, or close to, grandparents – in my own case even great-grandparents. They were a living chain to past challenges and success in overcoming them: such as immigration to a new country where they were discriminated against and didn’t know the language; World Wars I and II; the Great Depression; poverty and crime; the civil-rights struggle – and all within a context where help came from extended families, or not at all. And no whining. Everyone had problems and there was just too much to do.
I can’t say I learned a lot directly from a large extended family – I was young and typically foolish. Indirectly, I realized that I had been born into something larger than myself. Larger even than them. As large as the world.
The concrete results, generally, were what the late great British Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks called “adaptation without assimilation.” A society and a religious tradition – if they are alive – must face new moments. That is what it means to be beings in time, whose arrow runs in only one direction. But to negotiate those adaptations successfully means to remain rooted in one’s deeper identity. Without those roots, you get what we see all around us now: people who have separated themselves from the natural stabilizers of identity – family, faith, nation – and grope at new “identities” in various ideologies of race, class, gender. It’s understandable, but futile because identifying as, say, a “non-binary person of color – pronouns they, them” – or similar shifts will disappear with the next social fad.
Family and nation are the most immediate natural markers of identity, but religion is the deepest because it goes back to the taproot, to the origin of all things, and its course over ages (at least in religions like Judaism and Christianity that recognize a God active in history). And it’s only when we are in touch with the God that cannot fail that we’re in a position to confront whatever the world can throw at us. Many no longer believe it, but the only identity worth having is to know you are made in the image and likeness – sons and daughters – of God, with all the privileges and grave responsibilities that brings with it.
All these things go much deeper than politics, sociology, science, sex, you name it. G.K. Chesterton comes to mind here, as he does in so many contexts:
Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. . . .Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. (Orthodoxy)
Any serious writer knows how difficult it is to say something memorable, something that will even last a few weeks or months. One major reason we return to our long Catholic tradition is that it has survived the rise and fall of whole civilizations, changes of mentality, persecution, even death. Vatican II promoted aggiornamento, a kind of “updating” – in continuity with the past. What else can real Catholicism be than a tradition that carries forward what time cannot undo, into new times?
Much less well known is that the Council also sought ressourcement, a return to the sources, beginning with the Bible, the Fathers of the Church, and the whole marvelous panoply of thought and practice through the centuries. Inside that longstanding household, there’s room for the passionate individualism of St. Augustine, the cool and clear rationality of Aquinas, the evangelizing energy of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the deep mysticism of Teresa of Avila, and many more unforgettable persons.
It’s a bit ironic then that, just prior to the World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly, Pope Francis seems to have taken a diametrically opposed position about the wisdom and experience of a deep tradition like ours by curtailing the Usus Antiquior, the older and elderly wisdom of the Latin Mass, a language that all the figures mentioned above worked in.
Pope Benedict’s generosity in making those liturgical grandparents and great-grandparents more accessible still has a role to play. I’ve experienced moments of transcendence during the newer Mass. And I hope everyone reading this has as well. But there’s no denying that much of the newer liturgy – and much else that followed from Vatican II – was by intention a shift from verticality towards the horizontal dimension of Christian life. Just as the Cross has both a crosspiece and a vertical beam, the liturgy also needs both axes for the fullness of the Faith. That “mutual enrichment” was what Benedict tried gently to encourage. It stands in no little peril now.
But as the saying goes, every crisis is an opportunity. Perhaps the recent controversy generated by the pope’s effort to impose unity will bring to light matters that may have prematurely settled into different camps. It may even help us to see that what we say in our everyday vernacular languages can be greatly supplemented from something older and “other.” Let’s pray that it’s so.
Note: Hundreds of you have been taking our online Dante course – one way we’re trying to connect those interested with a significant figure in the Tradition. You can enroll in the nine-week course on Paradiso, which begins September 8, by clicking here. I’m hoping that we can offer a similar course on St. Augustine’s Confessions in early 2022.
*Image: Four Generations by Will Barnet, 1984 [Vatican Museum (Room 27), Vatican City]