Without Our Traditions, Our Life Would be as Shaky as a Fiddler on the Roof!

"PikiWiki Israel 17388 Fiddler on the Roof in Netanya" by צילום:ד"ר אבישי טייכר. Licensed under  CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
“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: had long hair, wore bell bottoms, wide ties, and crazy plaids, kept at least the top three buttons of my shirt open, and, of course, listened to 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 the 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 sang at the beginning of All in the Family) “girls were girls and men were men.” She also missed when things were built to last and plastic was all but unknown.

Somehow her love for older things and older ways took hold in me, even as I indulged in the trappings of the silly seventies. My parents’ generation (born in the late ’20s and ’30s) and even more so the generation born after the War were somewhat iconoclastic generations. The motto seemed to be “Out with the old and in with the new … new and improved.”

I remember my mother often wanting to get rid of some old thing. I frequently volunteered to remove it and would then proceed to hide it in the attic instead. Old silver, Tiffany lamps, statues, and trunks 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, I couldn’t stand the “hippie music” of the ’60s that predominated in the ’70s parishes: “Kumbaya,” “Sons of God”. Such dreadful lyrics, distributed to the congregation on mimeographed sheets: “… Gather around 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 told me how much she missed the beautiful old songs, the incense, the veils, the priests in cassocks, and so many other things. Somehow she had my ear. I was sympathetic, hiding antiques cast aside from both my parents’ home and from the Church, too. I looked for the day when sanity would return and such cast-offs would once again be 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 brought some things down 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 was actually an old cast-off that I had restored. Statues have begun to return to churches; some of the old hymns have returned and the Latin Mass, once 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 being able to help restore two old churches 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 of the more modern churches; some of them have a handsome simplicity. But nothing irks me more than to see a beautiful older church “renovated” to look like 1985, all whitewashed 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 are established 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 it is observed, when people forget what it means or symbolizes.

I wonder what would happen if I were to get into a time machine and go back to 1940 in this parish and ask people some questions: Why do women wear hats and veils while 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 answers like “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; when it is no longer clear to them why we do what we do; when all they can say about it is “That’s just what we do.”

At some point when we are dealing with traditions, 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 fades. And then when someone asks, “What’s this thing?” we reply, “What, that old thing?” And thus the suggestion to “get rid of it” receives a cursory nod and the response, “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. All this culminates in an almost gleeful dismissal of the old things and the now-tarnished traditions that once sustained and framed our lives.

To be sure, some things need to fall away. Perhaps there is a time and place to “lose” things for a while, only to rediscover them later. But what we have experienced in the last 60 years has been more than this sort of natural process. It has been a rupture, a 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 “members” 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 “remember” 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 to 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 the tradition of the prayer shawl and says, “You may ask, ‘How did this tradition get started?’ I’ll tell you.” 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.” 

27 Replies to “Without Our Traditions, Our Life Would be as Shaky as a Fiddler on the Roof!”

  1. Oh my goodness, Monsignor, this post speaks for me. You’ve summed up so many things I’ve said or tried to explain to others. Thank you for this. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and a Blessed Solemnity, to you.

  2. I’m with you and your grandmother. I seem to be about the same age as you, born in the mid-1950’s. Yet I too always loved older looking homes with real woodwork and real plaster on the walls and ceilings, and traditional style furnishings. I too felt bad about some of the iconoclasm that happened in our Church. What I had loved as a girl were the novenas, Stations of the Cross, devotions to Our Lady (such as public recitation of the rosary) and Benediction, but most especially, the feeling of belonging to something special, something good and holy.

    Just before Christmas this year my brother made an audio CD of some Polka music, Chicago style (where we grew up and still live). When I played it, it brought back a flood of joyous childhood memories from attending numerous Polish weddings. The sounds of the instruments are particular to this style, and I even recalled some of the songs, although I haven’t heard them in 50 years. When I told my brother how much I liked it, he said something I was thinking, but hadn’t said; “We lost so much.”

    I sincerely hope our Church will begin to appreciate the things we were back before the modernists got control. I am not sure what the iconoclasts hoped for. Sometimes, when I am not feeling particularly charitable about it, I believe there was (is) a contingent in the Church who do not, will not, believe in the supernatural. They find piety offensive. They wanted worship of a God who could be related to by the intellectual rational mind, not the poetic sentimental heart. These seem to be the ones who got hold of the decision making positions in the Church, and the rest of us were in for a real whooping. It’s like a surly parent who in anger decides the girl is too old for dolls, and coldly demands she pack them all up and throw them in the trash, and watches closely to make sure it is done. It’s just cruel.

    Here’s hoping you are right, that perhaps some of those things lost can be recovered, and that there will be a restoration of what is needed to heal the “sin sick soul”: a belief in God Who is supernatural, Who is incomprehensible, yet at the same time as close to us as our own breath.

    1. You make a really interesting point there. According to view of the human person generally put forth by traditional Catholic philosophy/theology (think Aquinas etc), the intellectual/rational part of a human is the part that’s spiritual, like God and the higher creatures (angels). The bodily/emotional part of the human is the part that’s like the lower creatures (animals, minerals). Both parts of us are good and we’re whole beings only when body and soul are united (hence the General Resurrection which will reunite our bodies with our souls).

      Beauty that appeals to sentiment and moves our emotions towards God as well as our intellect is a good and holy thing. Rejecting of any appeal to the sentimental, bodily part of our makeup in favor of a coldly cerebral approach probably isn’t the best way to worship God with our whole “heart, soul, mind, and strength.”

      1. Marie,
        Thank you for expressing what I am just not articulate enough to have expressed. After I wrote my comment I began reflecting on how the strength of our Church is the rational nature of our theology and doctrine, and how it IS through our rational minds we come to know God. So I began to doubt that what I had written really reflected what I meant. But I think you have clarified what I had hoped to say very wonderfully, and I thank you.

    2. I’d sure like to find a copy of that music. (“…. audio CD of some Polka music”)
      Might you have the burning desire to loan, sell or share a copy?
      Glad to buy it if it’s available.
      Please tell me where and how to find it.


      1. (Sorry Msgr., don’t mean to hijack your blog for this side conversation. If you would rather not post this comment here, if it wouldn’t be too much a bother, could you send Larry my email address and ask him to contact me? I will send him this information myself.)

        Larry, how cool of you to ask! I am very dumb about downloads, and sharing, or this fancy computer stuff. I hardly understand what my brother did to make the CD. But if you look on YouTube and search on Chicago Polka Music or the names of some bands, (like Little Wally, Eddie Blazonczyk (Versatones), Richie Gomulka), you can get a whole bunch to look at and listen to. Here’s an example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1aavDifdIAk

        I think my brother used You Tube Enhancer Plus (an add on to the browser) to download videos to his machine, then used Windows Media Player to burn a CD. I believe it’s okay to download these videos and make a CD because they are videos of live performances, usually at weddings or other events. They don’t seem to be copyrighted. I think my brother downloaded whole videos to his machine, but then burned them using just an audio CD and so got just the music. He intended this just for our private use, just to share with our mother and me. She is very elderly and has some cognition difficulties, and I believe he was hoping to brighten her spirits and jog her deep memories. It seemed to have worked, and we plan on playing this for her often.
        God bless.

  3. Ahh, what a nice prayer, May The LORD bless and keep Obama and the government as far away from us. Hahaha! Sorry, Monsignor, please forgive me, I cannot stop myself. What a nice piece to start the year, Tradition. The three things that guide each of us Catholics, the Scriptures, the Magisterium and the Traditions handed down by the apostles to our bishops. Those comprise the Church with its people, sanctuaries and the inverted hierarchy to serve, know and love GOD. Thank you Monsignor. GOD Bless you more this 2015 Anno DOMINI.

  4. It’s not just the Church.

    All American Culture is also disappearing. See this excerpt from the Dec 17, 1944 NY Times, which discusses what to look forward to on the radio which was then the principal home entertainment vehicle. Compare it to what passes for the popular culture today.


    (I’m Jewish BTW.)

  5. Msgr. Pope, Your post struck such a cord with me. I’ve been lurking for a year or so and find your posts insightful. I was told by my sister that I was born too late since I am drawn to older things. I love the older houses and bought one (1916) with the large baseboards and oak columns and newel posts, old oak bedroom furniture with dove tail fittings, treadle sewing machines, a 100 year old stove for wood or coal. And after being away for 30 years I’ve reverted back to the Catholic Church through a TLM mass. When I go to Mass or any service there I’m transported out of the world “outside” for that hour. I’m so grateful for that opportunity.

    Bless you and your service.

  6. Msgr. Pope was really stylin’ with those “bell bottoms, wide ties and crazy plaids”. Ahhhh…the 70’s.
    Have a Happy New Year, Everyone!

  7. Thank you, Monsignor, for another fine lesson on the importance of honoring traditions in our lives, especially sacred Traditions. How sad it is that our American society has lost so much of our traditions that once defined us as a nation. I am happy that the church seems to be returning to its beautiful and timeless traditions in the celebration of the Mass, and also in the design and construction of our places of worship. Like yourself, I love the beauty of the old churches, and value the preservation of sacred space and sacred objects. Let us not forget the meanings behind the traditions of which we practice, and to teach the younger generations to do likewise. St Paul reminded us so well in 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “Therefore brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by oral statement or by letter of ours”.

  8. “. . . 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) . . .”–Pope Francis?

    Traditions have been replaced by traffic laws. Justice doesn’t demand that we all drive on the right-hand side of the road, but we would be like a fiddler falling off of the roof if we didn’t, but, perhaps, I jest.

    Sometimes, traditions are forgotten, such as when the Book of the Law was found lost in the temple. Sometimes, traditions are overthrown by force, such as in 1 Maccabees, when the Jews are forced to cast off their traditions in favor of Greek ways. Or when the chess-playing commies in the video took power and discarded Russian religion and traditions. Weren’t they both forgotten and overthrown in the 1960’s?

  9. Tevye is one of my favorite (almost Catholic) theologians…seriously! And Tevye proves that we can recover memory for tradition–or remake its meaning in a new time–when he reflects “maybe that’s why we always wear our hats…” Wonderful post.

  10. Traditional Catholic practices also bring authenticity to the table and this is one of the things that attracts Gen-Xers and Millennials. Our society is inundated with advertising and false promises and most of the 20th Century reforms were nothing more than a cheap, misguided appeal to Protestants and secularists. Now, instead of Protestants becoming Catholic, you have Catholics acting like Protestants. Bring back real, authentic Catholicism and you’ll have more people acting like Catholics. Sure, some of the chaff will leave but you’ll be better positioned to evangelize the world when you have something real and solid to offer.

  11. In “A Canticle for Liebowitz”, somewhere in the last half of the book, there is a line where one of the Abbots notices a particular small statue, and how at first it seems ugly, and upon later reflection, holy. He thinks of the slow sift of the centuries and how any artwork to survive innovators and iconoclasts is sure to be the pure metal.

    As we pass out of a time of iconoclasm, (sort of like a cataclysm, only man-made) the treasures are being brought down from the attic and up from the sub-basement. Until next time.

  12. Here’s to 2015: wherein we can celebrate the end of dumb traditions like requiring Latin Mass, women covering their heads – and the-soon-to-be-yesteryear tradition of banning divorced people from the Lord’s supper. Praise be to Papa Francsico!

    1. Paul, everything that you desire already exists. Latin mass is rare in the sense that you can go to many parishes where Latin is not used. Women covering their heads at mass for the lay members of the congregation is a personal choice and divorced Catholics can receive communion.

    2. “wherein we can celebrate the end of dumb traditions” Paul

      “Therefore, brethren, stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word, or by our epistle.” 2 Thessalonians 2:14

      “And we charge you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw yourselves from every brother walking disorderly, and not according to the tradition which they have received of us.” 2 Thessalonians 3:6

      “banning divorced people from the Lord’s supper.” Paul

      The notion that divorced Catholics are banned from receiving Communion is an urban legend. Divorced Catholics who remarry without a decree of nullity, and thus engage in the mortal sin of adultery, may not receive Communion.

      Let us pray that 2015 will resurrect the notion that the vast majority of cafeteria Catholics and those who utter poorly thought out, off the cuff prudential remarks; re Pope Francis, will put forth the effort to engage in some serious catechesis and become true defenders of the faith rather than ignorant critics.

      “And unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required:” 12th chapter of the Gospel of Luke

    3. Paul, first a factual point. Divorced people are not necessarily banned from Holy Communion. As the Catechism points out, there can be grave reasons wherein the separation of spouses is permissible. What is always not permissible is remarriage (while one’s spouse is still alive). This is the grave sin of adultery, and, like all grave sins, precludes Holy Communion until sacramental confession. If you are looking forward to Pope Francis making a exception for adultery, you are going to be disappointed. The Church cannot change the moral law, nor can the Pope. This is not a matter of tradition (with a lower case t).

      When someone suggests that wearing veils or having the Mass in Latin is “dumb” (without qualification…just “dumb”) it suggests to me that the person does not understand what the symbolism of these traditions is. Concerning having the Mass in Latin, did you know that Latin is still the official language of the Mass (even the ordinary form)? Yes, I know in practice, the vernacular is used more frequently, but that does not make vernacular the official language.

      In any case, why have the Mass in Latin at all, when people do not understand it? (This is probably the reason you say requiring the Latin Mass is “dumb”). Consider that English (for us) is the language in which we perform all of our mundane, secular tasks. It is even the language in which we curse; it is the language in which we sin. At Mass, however, we speak to God, the Holy of Holies. We especially speak to God through the person of the priest, who offers sacrifice. Even as the Jews spoke Hebrew in their liturgy (even when the common tongues of the day were Aramaic and Greek), the Church has a language set apart (holy) for the greater liturgy of the Pascal Sacrifice. It is because of the One we are talking to, that we choose to use a language set apart for this specific purpose. On a practical level, just because the priest speaks Latin at Mass, that does not mean we all must pray mentally in Latin. Further, at this time in history, books are ubiquitous–it is not difficult to obtain a Latin-English missal, should one desire to follow a translation of the Latin.

      At the heart of liturgical traditions is our relationship to God. In Latin, our focus tends to be on God. In English, there is a tendency for our focus to be on ourselves. Consider that in the Canon of the Mass, the first Latin word spoken is “Te” (you, addressing God). In English, the first word of the Canon is “We”. This is an artifact of the way in which English sentences are formed, with the subject generally at the beginning of the sentence, but nevertheless, it is a striking difference.

  13. Tevye had traditions, but the Rabbi could improvise a little: Is there a proper blessing for the Tsar?
    “May God bless and keep the Tsar… far away from us!”

  14. Monsignor, you write:
    “…I wonder what would happen if I were to get into a time machine and go back to 1940 in this parish and ask people some questions: Why do women wear hats and veils while 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 answers like “I dunno, we just do it that way. Why don’t you ask the priest?”

    That is rather unfair, Father, considering yours is just a guess that would indicate that Catholics were ill informed – as ill informed as they are today with what the Church teaches and why. I’d venture to say that you’re wrong in this assumption. Why? Because, on the whole, people were better educated. Not perfectly educated,but certainly not tossed upon the waves of the gross 40-50 years of non-catechesis. Even non-Catholics had a better handle on what Catholics actually believe.

    So whereas you may assume you’d get the the “I dunno,” that is surely what we get today, you kid yourself by assuming that that was the temperature of Catholics of days gone by. What you’d likely be surprised by is the fact that not only adults would be able to answer your questions – but children. Of which my father was one, born in 1919. Rampant cluelessness and happiness at being so is rather a new epidemic, Father. The folks may not have ‘liked’ what they were to believe and not care for the ‘why’ behind it, but a far greater portion than today actually did know the whys and wherefores.

    Ingrained laziness – to include academic sloth and indifference – is taught in this modern age, Father. So please, especially when referring to those who lived through the Great Depression and fought in the great wars,do not fall into the trap of believing that the ‘character’ of those people then was similar to what it is today. By God’s grace, it wasn’t or else we’d be in far worse straights than we are today.

    1. I wonder if you missed the words “wonder” and “suspect” ?? Of course it is a guest, but also based on some older folks I talked to years ago who were hail and hearty in the 40s. No need to be so sensitive. I wonder if you were alive as a adult or teenager in in the 1940s? Also you seem to think I don’t have this critique of our age in general. That is not so, I think most pew sitters today are quite clueless, however, those of us who have gone back to reclaim the traditions are not so clueless since we usually have to account for our “strange and antiquated” tastes. Things do opposition grow. So, Anne, if the shoe fits for you, wear it, otherwise, let it pass over you. Do not take personally what is meant as a general speculation of an age. Also you seem to be engaged in reather pointed battles with a lot of commenters here Ann. What is that all about?

    2. Maybe it depends on the Parish. I remember my Dad telling of his childhood where his questions were met with “ask the priest”. Later, in the ’40s, singing Gregorian chant in boy’s choir and being an ‘altar boy’ his questions found some answers. However, and I’m paraphrasing, he said ‘most parishioners thumbed through their Missal, prayed on their own but did not understand most of what was happening’ during Mass. He also lamented that many did not know Sacred Scripture. On the other end, Protestant neighbors and relatives were not averse to warning of our damnable acts of ‘idol worship’, etc. Again, maybe geographical location has some bearing, I don’t know. I only know my family encountered an awful lot of ignorance and prejudice.

  15. Sacred Tradition is the means by which the Holy Spirit guides the Catholic Church, from Age to Age. All the rest is straw – and we’ve seen a whole lot of straw over the past 50 years or so.

  16. *wail* now “Sons of God” is stuck in my head!!! Surely imposing an earworm on someone is at least a venial sin…

    I completely agree with your statement “The first sign a tradition is in trouble is forgetfulness.” When we can’t articulate the “why” how can we defend the traditions themselves? Maryland voters’ approval of same-sex marriage is a prime example.

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