Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” These words begin the sayings of the Qoheleth, or as the English audience know it, the book of Ecclesiastes. While many might view this book as a rather obscure book of the Old Testament, the great novelist Thomas Wolfe viewed Ecclesiastes as “the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known”.
What makes the work so interesting is the way in which our world is quite similar to his. The book struggles with the same questions we ask ourselves: what is the point of our existence? Why do things happen as they do? While lamenting the state of the world, the preacher gives the following diagnosis for our troubles:
What is it that hath been? The same thing that shall be. What is it that hath been done? The same that shall be done. Nothing under the sun is new, neither is any man able to say: Behold this is new: for it hath already gone before in the ages that were before us. There is no remembrance of former things: nor indeed of those things which hereafter are to come, shall there be any remembrance with them that shall be in the latter end. (Eccl 1:9-11)
For the preacher, ignorance of the past is at the root of all folly. Since we don’t remember the past, we think we have come upon this great idea that will solve everything. We moderns think we can find a grand unified theory of everything that allows us to transcend all those little petty problems previous generations struggled with. If we had paid attention to what came before us, we would have a little more modesty, since thousands of years of incredibly intelligent minds were vexed by many of the same problems we are vexed by today.
Important as this wisdom is, I believe there is another deeper understanding that is especially relevant for us Catholics today. The “former things” we do not remember is what we were made for: we were made for heaven. Heaven is our true destination, and God is our first love. Like the Church at Ephesus, we have forgotten this. (Rev 1:4) When we remember the former thing that is our true destination, the affairs of the world are indeed vain and pointless distractions which keep us from the true path we follow to heaven, to love God and obey the commandments. (Eccl 12:13)
This message is one urgently needed for the Church today, especially in America. Dr. Ralph Martin of Sacred Heart Seminary and Renewal Ministries speaks of an “institutional collapse” in the American Church. In many ways, America is finally catching up to her European brethren. From forming “Intentional Disciples” to promoting “Evangelical Catholicism”, some of the greatest minds in the American Church have offered proposals for how to make this message relevant. Everyone agrees that while the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, that doesn’t mean the Church will always be as strong as it should be. Right now the Church is under withering assault from a worldliness which seeks to transform the Church into something she is not: just another do-gooder institution, or as Pope Francis put it, a “church as NGO.”
Over the past few years, we have seen a reversal of this trend in certain areas of the Church. In these quarters parishes are flourishing and seminaries are bursting at the seams with vocations. It is one of the great success stories of the Church today, and it is something that the Catholic commentariat in America has almost completely ignored. This story is being written by a group of Catholics loosely affiliated with each other calling themselves Traditionalists. While you will get several definitions of what makes a traditionalist, I believe that at its best, a robust traditionalism attempts to provide an answer for how to follow God and the commandments in a world (and sadly even within the Church) which largely ignores God.
When this issue has been discussed in the past (especially online), it has been done with a very acidic fashion. Everyone proclaims themselves more Catholic than the other, insults like “radical traditionalist” and “Neo-Catholic” is spewed, making it nearly impossible to discuss these issues intelligently. I’d like to try something different. This column will not propose that in order to be the best Catholic, you have to act like we traditionalists. If you accept the faith undefiled, frequent the sacraments, appreciate an ordered and reverent liturgy, call yourself what you want, I will call you my ally. Just because the Dominicans are the order of preachers doesn’t mean you can’t find a greater preacher outside their ranks. Likewise, there are those who aren’t traditionalists who are faithful to the traditions of our fathers. What makes us traditionalists is how we carry out that goal. While many times our success stories will overlap with those of other Catholics, there is no denying that there are certain things which are particular to everyone who calls themselves a traditionalist. This column will examine what those things are that comprise traditionalism at its best. I hope the readers of Catholic Lane will join us on this journey. There is a great story to tell in the traditionalist movement: let us tell it in humility yet with zeal.