“Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as a Fiddler on the Roof.”A Meditation on the Loss and Recovery of Tradition.

“PikiWiki Israel 17388 Fiddler on the Roof in Netanya” by צילום:ד”ר אבישי טייכר. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

When I was a young man, a teenager really, I did the usual crazy stuff of the early, 70s, long hair, bell bottoms, wide ties, crazy plaids, shirt open at least least three buttons, and of course, rock-n-roll.

But, through it all I had this love for older things. I think it had something to do with my Grandmother, Nana, whom I loved with great affection. Often she lamented the loss of the old things and old ways. She missed the Latin Mass, she missed when manners were better, when people remembered how to dress well, when things were more certain, when, (as Archie and Edith put it, Girls were girls and men were men). She also missed when things were built sturdy and plastic was all but unknown.

Somehow her love for older things, and older ways took hold in me, even as I indulged the silly seventies. My parents’ generation born in the late 20s and 30s, and even more so those born after the War, were something of an iconoclastic generation: “Out with the old, in with the new…New and improved.”

I remember my mother often wanting to get rid of some old thing. I often volunteered to remove it, and would then hide it in the attic. Old silver, silverware, Tiffany lamps, statues, trunks etc, began to fill our attic. In addition, I loved old buildings and hated the glass boxes that were being built in the 70s. I remembered the old churches of my childhood in Chicago that “looked like churches” and lamented the “ugly modern church” of my 70s suburb. And even though I liked rock music, when I went to Church I couldn’t stand the “hippie music” of the 60s that predominated in the 70s parishes: Kum-by-yah, Sons of God. Such dreadful lyrics all on stapled mimeographed papers: Here we are, all together now, gathered round the table of the Lord, Eat his Body! Drink his blood! and we’ll sing a song of love, Allelu, Allelu, Allelu, Allelu-i-a!

My Grandmother often said how she missed the beautiful old songs, the incense, the veils, priests in cassocks, and so many other things. She somehow had my ear. I was sympathetic, hiding antiques from both my parents home and from the church too, as they were cast aside. I looked for a day when the sanity would return, and such cast-offs were once again valued.

And that day has largely come. Much of the iconoclasm of the 50s- through the mid 80s has given way, and many older things are once again appreciated. As I took some things out of the attic in the early 90s, my mother strangely appreciated them again. Other family members took some of the silver, etc. My Chalice, (photo, upper right), was an old cast off I had restored. Statues began to return to church, some of the old hymns have returned, and the Latin Mass, relegated to the cellar, has been dusted off and is now appreciated again by many, mostly younger Catholics. I have also had the good fortune of helping to restore two old Church’s to their former glory, and to undo some of the iconoclasm from which they suffered. I even wear my cassock quite often.

For the record, I do not mind some more modern churches, some of them have a handsome simplicity. But nothing irks me more than to see a beautiful older Church made to look like 1985, all white-washed and stripped bare. Thankfully, I think that terrible era is largely ending.

But we have been through a time of it in the Church to be sure. Perhaps some things had to go “into the attic” for a time, in order that they could be taken down again, and appreciated anew. But whatever the reasons for the iconoclasm, especially of the 1960s, I sense we are now recovering a balance. A balance that does not reject the new, but still appreciates the old; a balance that nods to a hermeneutic of continuity, of which the Pope speaks, rather than a rupture and radical discontinuity with the past; a balance of which Jesus says, Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old (Matt 13:52).

Many look back and wonder at the great rupture and cultural tsunami we have endured in the West. We wonder how, and why. There are of course countless reasons, but I would like to single out just one: forgetfulness.

Traditions set up and endure for a reason. Fundamentally they simplify life by giving structure, boundaries and expectations. People know more easily how to navigate in the realm of tradition. But one sign that a tradition is in danger, is when people come to forget its purpose, when people forget where it came from or why we observe it, when people forget what it means or symbolizes.

I wonder if I were to get in my time machine and go back to 1940 in this parish and ask people some questions: Why do women wear hats and veils and men do not cover their heads? Why do we kneel to receive communion? Why is the Mass in Latin? Why does the priest face toward the altar? Why are all these things done this way? I suspect I would get an answer something to the effect: “I dunno, we just do it that way. Why don’t you ask the priest?”

In other words, I wonder if the first stage of losing a tradition is when it no longer makes conscious sense to people? That is, when when it is no longer clear to them why we do what we do,  other than to say, “That’s just what we do.”

At some point when we are dealing with tradition we run the risk that they become wooden and rote, and we start sifting through the ashes of an old fire that has largely gone out. Unless we fan into flames the gifts of God’s love (cf 2 Tim 1:6) our love and appreciation of these things grows cold, and their beauty tarnishes. And then, some one says of something, “What’s this?” And we say, “What?! that old thing?!” And thus the suggestion to “get rid of it” receives a cursory nod, “Sure, that’s fine, get rid of it”

But the process begins with forgetfulness. And forgetfulness leads to a lack of understanding which then gives way to a lack of appreciation. And all this culminates with an almost gleeful dismissal of things old and now tarnished traditions which once sustained and framed our lives.

To be sure, some things need to fall away and perhaps there is place and time to lose things for a while, only to rediscover them. But what we have experienced in the last 60 years has been more than this sort of natural process. It has been a rupture, and radical discontinuity that has shaken many of our foundations, Church and family especially.

Therefore we do well to “remember” many of our traditions. The word “remember” suggests a process of putting the pieces back together again, a process of collecting some precious things that have been severed from the body and making them once again a “member” of the Body, the Church, and of our families. Remembering many of our lost traditions, even as we establish some new ones, is an important way of ensuring continuity with our past heritage and members.

Tradition is the “democracy of the dead” wherein our ancestors get a say in what we do. Tradition is a way to “re-member” the Church, to honor the ways and practices of the ancients that my grandmother recalled with fondness and a sense of loss. And it was a loss, but a loss I pray we are beginning to remedy, as we remember the best of the past and recover our traditions.

I thought of all of this as I watched this video from Fiddler on the Roof. This was written at a time when the sweeping changes of the last 60 years were already underway. And this song “Tradition!” while it tips a hat at tradition, ultimately ridicules it by implying that tradition is the kind of thing that essentially keeps men in charge, women down, and forces children into arranged and unhappy marriages.

At a key moment in the song Tevye is describing a tradition of the prayer tassels and says, You may ask, how did this tradition Got Started? And then after a pause he says, I don’t know! But it’s a tradition! The first sign that a tradition is in trouble is forgetfulness.

But the musical (written in 1964) pretty well captures the iconoclastic attitudes emerging at the time that were cynical of tradition in a general sort of way. Despite that cynicism Tevye rightly notes what we have come to discover only too well:

“Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as a Fiddler on the Roof.”


43 Replies to ““Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as a Fiddler on the Roof.”A Meditation on the Loss and Recovery of Tradition.”

    1. Perhaps. But tradition shows respect for the brains and taste and emotions of those before us. We treat them as human as we are ourselves, instead of forcing them into two dimensions and redefined into nothingness.

  1. Speaking of “cast offs”; I supplied a central Altar Card with the frame with the wheels on it that allows you to push it out of the way of the tabernacle which I secured it from another church’s throw-away pile, gave it to a local TLM parish on “permanent loan” It seems superficial to me, sometimes, but that is the only ornament I’ve been able to supply for the Divine Services in my relatively young life. I hope it accounts for something.

  2. The big ugly modern church (beige brick, orange seats, beige carpets, nothing on the wals anywhere except felt and glitter butterflies and cheap banners) they built for us when I was a teen, where the congregation looked at each other from across the way, instead of at the altar, and the choir director gave a performance instead of leading in praises of God, and no one looked like they believed what was going on at the altar was the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, contributed toward my losing my faith for a time. Thanks be to God for the traditional, reverent church we now attend. My long-time director, though, taught me not to forget that it’s still the Mass, whatever the church, or the Mass, looks like, and not to get too worked up about it, because there are people who like that sort of thing, and maybe it keeps them from leaving the Church, I don’t know. As long as they don’t go too far, of course. I do think it’s sad that they don’t see what I see, in the older forms.

  3. Additionally, I like to add that I don’t think Vatican II caused all this – I think there must have been many, many people in the Church in the 1950s who already had a lot of bad ideas, and they seized the moment. I think the World Wars had a terrible effect on people’s faith world-wide, especially the second one, and the prosperity after the Wars seems to have led many people away from fervor for the things of God, and a dangerous complacency that’s still with us today. I agree with your post, Msgr. Thanks for the “window” to speak! :o)

    1. Yes, I agree, it was largely a cultural problem that was at the root. Though many look to the 1950s with admiration for its orderliness there was something simmering under the surface about to come to a boil. It was the children of the 1950s who threw the revolution. Also, as you point out, two world wars were a horrible factor.

    2. I agree that the two World Wars are largely responsible for the steep decline of Christianity in Europe and elsewhere. The massive loss of life combined with growing secularism led to the cynical disbelief in God’s existence.
      The Year of Faith will be a small first step in slowing the decline and, hopefully, a future rebirth in the Faith.

      1. “the two World Wars are largely responsible for the steep decline of Christianity”
        Agreed. But I would ask further: Were the mainstream religions, especially Christendom, helping or hindering those wars?

  4. I always remember that the core never left, the Eucharist. Surround it with all of the tambourines you want, it was and is still the Eucharist. But yes, it’s good to see some of the traditional aspects coming back, and quite quickly I might add, even in the Ordinary Mass.

  5. How did and does the Trinity develop Tradition in His Church in time? Is development of Tradition bad? Was there truly an “iconoclasm” in the 20th century as compared to the Iconoclasm in the 8th century? Really?

    1. Yes, I think there was something uniquely devastating about the 20th century, which exhibited what the Pope and others have termed the hermeneutic of discontinuity. There was not an organic development, but a great rupture. This is not to say such ruptures have never occurred before in the history of man, but only that the 20th century, here under consideration exhibited a great upheaval and a discontinuity that is observable and now requires us to repair a great deal and recover a lot of what was inauthentically cast aside.

      1. I have seen a few parishes which were remarkably bland. I thought that to be very unusual. But I have seen others which are the opposite. My thinking is that some individuals have allowed this iconoclasm…but not all. And so stronger, more consistent leadership is required perhaps to control weaker persons who have been given autonomy.

        1. @TaillerHuws: One thing I have found at some parishes which my extroverted friends consider “vibrant”, is what seems to be suspicion toward those who wish to spend time alone with God (after daily Mass, for example). (I was not rude to these people, I just didn’t go after Mass to join in the noisy conversation.) This has been very distressing, and has prompted me to wonder about their spirituality, whether it is based merely on “warm fuzzy” feelings. (If I have difficulty relating to others socially, can they not accept me where I am? I do smile and say hi, but don’t stand around chatting.) I don’t accuse anyone, but I’m just saying what I seem to have found in several parishes with more modern-style (nontraditional) Masses. I know I still stand in need of conversion in this regard, but I am aware if it and working on it, if slowly.

          You might look objectively at your own parish, from an introverted outsider’s point of view, and see if it still seems as loving and welcoming. If it appears maybe less so, you might be the one to help change that. (BTW, one of these parishes has huge banners reading “All Are Welcome Here”, yet I usually feel more like an outsider there than I do even at other non-trad parishes. I wonder why?)

  6. Well, looking at the impact of Vatican II, we see the tremendous harm Vatican II has had on our Church and it’s mission to save souls. It is hard for anyone to refute that. Simply look at the data or observe the empty pews, drop in vocations and even the continuing church closings. So far, it has been a disaster.

    What is the core issue, thinks I? Well, perhaps the Spirit of Vaitcan II, based in the progressive arm of the Church and it’s outside influences, distorted Pope John XXIII’s opening address, October 11, 1962 away from “wishes to transmit the Catholic doctrine, pure and intregral, without any attenuation or distortion.” He goes on to expound on this by saying “it is necessary that this certain and unchanging doctrine, to which our faithful assent is due, be studied and expounded in the manner required by our times”. (6,5) What took place however, was instead of continuity we saw rupture. Even progressive Pope Paul VI had to pull us back from “rupture” to “aggriornamento”. The Spirit of Vat. II has, as you so clearly state Msgr., thrown a light switch to innovate the Catholic Church through change at the evident expense of the faithful (and probably God Himself, although I do not know).

    So, what can we do? Clearly, the Holy Spirit will deal with the issues at hand. That fact, Jesus leaving His Church in the hands of the sinners, reminds us that it is only in the Holy Spirit a solution to the apparent excesses will be found. Time and patience is all that is needed. We are seeing a resurgence, although modest, in devotional practices and even an “re”-acceptance of the Latin Mass. There seems to be a genuine desire on the part of hierarchy to revitalize the faith, although they are still showing confusion on what that exactly is. We have witnessed a cleansing of the clergy unfold through the horrendous sexual abuse of minors scandal. The new vocations seem to be more conservative to our core faith vs. many of our senior priests and bishops. Small groups of Catholics are forming to revitalize the Jesus/Mary zeal of, say, St. Gemma. Even sin is being reconsidered as the “pinch” in the small gate to Heaven. Yes, there is tremendous hope for us and our salvation. So, what do we do? Pray continually to the Holy Spirit, Mary and, of course, Jesus.

    1. Well but be careful Gary, for as stated your argument is post hoc propter hoc, a logical fallacy. That there has been a decline in all the things you mention is undebatable, but the cause is probably a little more complicated that you note. One might even speculate that things would be worse had the Council not positioned us to be able to more adequately address the modern crisis. I think we certainly agree that the Lord will renew his Church and there are many positive signs as you note.

      1. Yes, I certainly agree with you that other influences had some impact on the decline.

        I guess I am heartbroken that it has happen at all.

        Somehow, I feel as a member of the Church, I did not do more to protect it. I assumed that all intentions were pure. Clearly that was not the case. Had I been more “church militant” perhaps things would have been different, especially for lost souls that drifted away. I feel that deeply.

  7. I was a young pup when all these changes occurred — I remember being so sad about it — I loved all that old stuff — and truly, my love of history is anchored in this long history of our beloved Church. When our new church was built and dedicated in 1970, there was great rejoicing that we finally had a ‘large enough’ church — the 1920’s era church was little bigger than a glorified chapel, and, as the oldest in the family, I spent most of my childhood, standing for Mass so that my mom could sit down with the latest baby in her arms.
    then the stations of the cross were installed — impressionistic modern vibrantly-painted depictions of the stations that truly you needed a guide to tell you what they were supposed to represent. Over time, I actually began to forget what each station stood for — when they had been so clear in the small carved wooden stations. Then it seemed ‘saying’ the stations was old-fashioned and a bother.

    Yes, as you state, Monsignor, when one forgets the ‘why’ of a tradition — the deeper meaning — it is easy to set it aside. This has always been true. Entire civilizations had traditions of which we only see in pictograms and cave drawings and try to figure out ‘without a guide.’ We consider those ‘lost civilizations’ because no one follows those traditions — we have all ‘moved on.’

    Our former liturgy director was very very into the ‘explanation’ of what was in the church and within the liturgy, and since she trained me in the art of that, I’ve never stopped ‘digging into’ the historical and biblical meaning of everything that the Church produces…

  8. I’ve been with the same employer for over 20 years. Occasionally I’ll be asked why we do a particular thing a certain way, and I’ll (truthfully) respond: I don’t know! It was like that when I got here!

    1. One of the old employees where I work (government job) retired, and no one knew why she sent out this letter with a list of projects every month, so when she retired her department stopped sending it. I was in the budget office, and it took us over a year to figure out why the budget charges kept hitting the wrong departments’ overhead. Everyone was blaming someone else. Turns out, it was the letters the retired employee used to send, that no one sent anymore. 🙂

      I like to tell this story because sometimes, there’s a really good reason, even if no one knows what it is, and lots of things are really, really complicated, if you look at them carefully.

  9. When Emperor Leo III banned icons in the 8th Century, the reason he gave for banning them is that they are occasions of sin, that is an icon tempts people to worship the icon, instead of what the icon represents. There is a strange truth to that. All of created reality is an occasion of sin. Of course, some of created reality is more of an occasion of sin than other parts of created reality, in different ways for different people. We have to do the best we can.

    I think one thing that isn’t taught too well today is what we can understand about the Trinity. When, I read what St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about the interior Processions, I thought to myself, “Wow, my soul is an image of the Trinity.” And later Thomas confirmed that in a different article when he said, “Even man is one image of the entire Trinity.”

    I learned from a video I heard of Thomas Merton speaking the different between image and likeness of God: We are always an image of God, but we are only the likeness of God when we are in the state of Grace.

    Yes, Monsignor, I agree forgetfulness is a problem, and we have to remember to remember.

  10. May the LORD bless and keep Obama as far away from us. What a profound prayer. Thanks, Rabbi. Sorry Monsignor, I can help myself from being amused. But thank you, for this article, made me reminish my good old sacristan days. GOD bless you.

  11. Blind adherence to tradition can be as bad in its own way as throwing out tradition. I left the Orthodox Church to become Catholic (Latin-rite). Orthodoxy holds so tenaciously to tradition that it sometimes cuts itself off from anything living. As for the oft-repeated digs at “the spirit of Vatican II,” they are tiresome. John Paul II and Benedict represent the spirit of Vatican II as much as Rahner and nuns on the bus. Critics of Vatican II need to read the documents. True: implementation has been bad at times, but Msgr. Pope is right that to trace all the evils of today to VII is post hoc ergo propter hoc.

  12. Last night on our TV I watched an iconographer talking about his work. I must add, by way of explanation, that not many of you will have seen this because you do not live where I do. I live in the Perth area of Western Australia. This iconographer has spent the last 16 years painting Icons in his local Orthodox church. He is still at it and he goes about his work every day and lives at the back of his church. This interior is simply stunning. The Icons which he paints are all traditional in style. The comment was made that this church may become a tourist attraction here and that tourists will be charged an admission fee. Having seen this interior on my TV screen I really would like to go there and see its beauty for myself. The paintings are not finished. He still has quite an amount of work in hand. So far the costs have been met by individuals commissioning particular Icons within the church.

  13. Don’t let Msgr Fellay see that you posted a clip from that movie! Foir my part, I enjoyed that movie as showing how religious and close to God Tevye is in his everyday life.

  14. In Europe as in some parts of Asia that were heavily impacted by WW II, Christianity was abandoned by many who felt that “If God exists, why did He permit … ” (your favorite atrocity, the Holocaust, Hiroshima. etc.)
    A large chunk of western Europe had already been deChristianized by too much exposure to Enlightenment thinking, which leads to either a loose deism or agnosticism.
    Followers of Neitzche’s thinking adopt “Might makes right” as a principle, leading to totalitarian movements; and murder and imprisonment of those who resist them.
    We need constant refreshing of our knowledge of Scripture; and prayer; and the reasons and history of our Church. Outside of Mass, time in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament is a good investment also.

  15. itis good that you have come back a bit to tradition, and that we can no longer be excommunicated for attending the latin Mass. For 20 years we have been excommunicated, and Archbishop Lefevre died in this state. Ye are all very smug with your psychological explanitions but there is only one VAT II .

    1. Be careful, Honoria – you sound a bit smug, yourself. I have friends who prefer the Tridentine, but I don’t. I appreciate their preference, but I’m glad I have a choice.

    2. BTW, Archbishop Lefevre was not excommunicated for wanting the Tridentine Mass back, but for refusing to submit to legitimate authority; some of (maybe all?) his followers (himself, too??) even went so far as to claim that the Pope was not a legitimate pope. (I’ve seen fairly recent (1990s) writings by Lefevrites who still claimed this.) Vatican II did not forbid celebration of the Tridentine Mass, if some bishops did do so, and unjustly. Most people who complain about Vatican II are actually complaining about the abuses which followed it, and not about the proclamations of the Council, which they appear never to examined.

      1. And aint’t that a fact. So many people who utter the catch cry the “Spirit of Vatican II” have not even read the documents.

  16. Msgr Pope: There is an additional side the story of tradition that is worth noting. The laity forgot the purpose of the traditions because they were not taught. Pius X in his encyclical Pascendi, describes the process clearly. He states that there is a fifth column of atheists/agnostics (he called “modernists”) within the Church masquerading as theologians, historians, and philosophers, who seek to destroy traditions in the name of scientific progress. In Pascendi, paragraphs 18, 42, 43, and 55, he discusses the active attempt to destroy or distort traditions for the purposes of destroying the Faith in people.

    Here is the link to Pascendi:

  17. Monsignor Pope, I could have written your article almost word for word with the exception that my own parents were born during WWI.
    I never thought I would live long enough to finally see light at the end of the tunnel, but I have.
    Thanks be to God!

  18. Thank you for this post. It is true that the loss of tradition is partly due to the lack of understanding of it’s purpose and it started before Vatican II. In the 50’s and early 60’s, the church was packed with people every sunday for mass. But a lot of us (myself included) did a lot of whispering, laughing, got late for mass, liked to parade in our fancy clothes. We just generally went to mass because we were told to do so. We didn’t take the itiative to question our faith and were not encouraged to do so. We gradually left the practice of going to mass because having no understanding of it we thought that we might as well pray in the intimacy of our home. Today
    I thank the Lord that I came back to the faith and my natural love for tradition certainly helped me. I now understand that the mass is a commandment of Jesus Christ who told us to “do this in memory of him”. Last time I went to visit my hairdresser, I had an unexpected conversation with her. She was telling me that she has faith in God, she prays a lot, she likes christian symbols like the cross, the cruxifix, the manger etc. but she just can’t go back to church. After asking her why, she sait she got tired of people ill speaking of each other after mass. I told her I have been many years without going to mass for simular reasons and that I decided to turn that all around. She looked at me very intrigued. I explained that I decided not to listen or watch anybody at church and to concentrate on my retationship with Jesus Christ and to think of the beauty of the communion of the church all gathered in adoration from every parts of the world as in heaven. I said if you really believe that Jesus is God and that everything is possible to God then you must believe He is present when the priest consecrates the wine and bread to make it the body and blood of Christ. It depends on who you think Jesus is. She said she never thought of it that way and that she will reflect on it. I pray for her and for all the people who have faith but are on their own that they come back to the Church with it’s rich traditions and worship at mass.

  19. A friend gave me Scott Hahn’s “Signs of Life” for Christmas. Very helpful in remedying “forgetfullness” with regards our traditions.

  20. As one who lived for all of her life under the shadows of VC II, in the last few years, and often via going online, I saw pictures, older ones, mostly in the old style of Eastern Christian icons. Maybe what has been drawing me to a greater love and appriciation of them is the fact that having not really know old traditional Roman Catholic design growing up, brings out an interest in a timeless quality of the icons or even old stain glass pictures.

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