Under the headline “Russian Orthodox prelate welcomes return of Latin Mass,” Catholic World News ran a report on Patriarch Alexei II’s positive reception on Pope Benedict’s motu proprio giving more freedom to the ceremonies of the Classical Roman Rite. Summorum Pontificum goes into effect as law on September 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

The Patriarch’s statement is of major moment, coming as it does from the head of an ecclesiastical body known to be sparing in favorable comments concerning the Holy See and the papacy.

Notably, the feast chosen for the law to go into effect is kept alike by Latin Rite Catholics, their Uniate Byzantine brethren, and the Orthodox. The feast is celebrated by all on the same date (though the actual day varies because some from the above groups use the Gregorian Calendar, while others use the Julian). The triumphal theme of the liturgy seems apt for the occasion.

“We strongly adhere to tradition,” Patriarch Alexei said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Il Giornale. “The recovery and honoring of an ancient liturgical tradition is a development that we can welcome.”

These words of the Russian Orthodox prelate, which are a tribute to tradition, are certainly welcome to traditional Latin Rite Catholics. The Orthodox are well-known for their liturgical traditionalism. Though the dialect may be different, Alexei speaks the same language of liturgical tradition as his occidental counterparts, the Roman Rite traditionalists.

The Patriarch’s comments serve as a refutation of what is passing lately for reasoned argumentation against a return to our Latin Catholic traditions. I would like to consider some of these in light of the Patriarch’s statement.

Recently, I have reviewed a couple of smug writeups from Roman clergy of the liberal sort. They did not want to criticize the traditional rite itself, or the Holy Father’s generosity in liberating its use. Rather, they chose to dismiss the real significance of the development, to assert that it is a pastoral accommodation to a few eccentrics and aesthetes, and to emphasize that it will certainly not generate much of an interest. What they do mount by way of actual objections are criticisms of the way the Mass was offered “in the old days,” i.e., the childhood years of the author of the argument.

The inadequate participation of the faithful at the Mass, and the often sloppy way the priests celebrated the rite, were cited, apparently in the hope that this information would put a wet blanket on any enthusiasm surrounding the revival of the traditional rite.

The problems cited with the traditional rite included these: The faithful said their Rosaries or wandered around the Church praying the Stations during Mass. For their part, the priests often mumbled the Latin quickly, said the much shorter Requiem Mass when the ordo allowed it, and assisting priests would often say their breviaries (rather than focus on the altar) on those rare occasions that clergy assisted in choir, e.g., at a funeral.

These objections are not new. Assuming for a moment their complete validity as objections (a debatable point), I note that, because they are not objections to the traditional Rite as such, they are not relevant. As St. Augustine would say, abusus non tollit usus , that is, the abuse of a thing does not take away its rightful use. Otherwise, corrupt government would prove the validity of anarchy, or a single car accident would make us want to outlaw cars altogether (pace Al Gore). This is very basic logic.

But let us not forget the Muscovite Patriarch. What might he think of the following liberal occidental’s argument against tradition? A priest-commentator I read objected to the fact that, in the old days, the altar rail divided the lay people from the celebrant of the Mass, thus implying that what was on the sanctuary side was somehow holier than what was on the other side. This constitutes, so the argument went, an offense against the holiness of the laity. After Vatican II, we learned that we are all holy; the distinction between the priest’s role and the people’s was deliberately blurred (though not done away with), so that we could all function as a holy people.

Without going into the numerous errors of fact or doctrine in the argument, for my present purposes, I note that there are some very bad “ecumenical” dimensions to this objection. If we consider ecclesiastical union with the Orthodox as a goal of real ecumenism, we need to acknowledge that such arguments are not only bad theology and untrue to our own tradition, but are also offensive to our separated Byzantine brethren.

Like their Uniate Catholic counterparts, the Orthodox to this day retain their beloved and traditional iconostasis . This marvelously decorated icon screen, separates the sanctuary, where most of the Divine Liturgy actually takes place, from the nave of the church, where the laity assist at the divine mysteries. The priest goes in and out of the “Royal Doors ” at various points of the Divine Liturgy (e.g., to communicate the faithful), but most of the sacred actions he performs are concealed. Despite that, the Church is filled with beautiful chant and incense, the overflow, as it were, of the holy action taking place at the altar.

In other words, as the altar rail separates sanctuary from nave in a Latin Rite church, so the icon screen separates the two in a Byzantine church.

The Byzantine Catholics and the Byzantine Orthodox are not the only ones, in addition to the traditionalist Latins, who partition their sacred space. All of the traditional rites of the Catholic Church — East and West — have some sort of separation of this nature, either an altar rail, an iconostasis, or something similar. The Armenians, for instance, use a curtain at certain times in their Holy Sacrifice. All of them have also retained liturgical orientation, that is, the priest’s facing the altar (east), not the people.

The non-Catholic Christians of the East have retained these beautiful customs, and so many others. Why offend them by jettisoning our common tradition?

This same writer who made the above objection regarding the the altar rail also took exception to those who ignored the sacred action taking place on the altar while they focused on their private devotions. (The lay people didn’t know what was going on. They prayed their Rosaries….) That objection struck me as a serious contradiction. If what happens on the altar — inside the sanctuary — is not the holiest thing going on in the Church, what’s wrong with focusing on one’s private devotions? But if what is going on in the sanctuary is — as the word sanctuary implies — more holy than what is outside, then the sanctuary should be regarded as holier than the rest of the Church. The liberal polemicist can’t have it both ways.

There are more distant roots to these traditions than even the Roman and Byzantine liturgy. If we go back to the Old Testament to consider the Temple of Solomon, we see that there is the “Holy Place” where only the priests could go, and the “Holy of Holies” where only the High Priest could go, and only on Yom Kippur . The Temple was built in such a way that concentric rings separated one “more holy” region from the one before it, the outermost being the court of the gentiles, where anyone could go. In short, the Temple was holy, but the temple itself had “more holy” and “less holy” places. This was a powerful architectural catechesis that taught the people something of the mystery of God’s holiness in relation to the created universe.

St. Paul would use the formation that the Jews had in this sacred cosmology as the basis of his Epistle to the Hebrews, explaining how Christ fulfilled all these things.

Amid their diabolical errors, even the pagans of Rome preserved similar notions concerning holy places. This has even come into our language. The space outside the temple was literally “profane” (pro-fanum — “before the temple”). Profane originally meant “secular,” or “non-sacred.” So, for instance, J.S. Bach wrote “sacred” and “profane” music.

The liberal argument against tradition is that, after the changes, we learned that the sacred is to enter into the profane and make it holy . This sounds good, but the evidence suggests that the distinction between the two has been lost. What was sacred — the sanctuary — has been profaned with all manner of silliness, banality, scandal, and sacrilege, with dancing girls to boot. Tearing out partitions has produced a leveling along the lines of the least common denominator, not the highest.

Yes, we must strive to sanctify all aspects of life — absolutely! But to do that — to make everything and everyone holy — we have to separate ourselves from the world, approach the divine Mysteries with fear and trembling, receive Them in faith, love, and gratitude, and carry the precious treasure of grace wherever we go. Ignorant peasants in the Middle Ages knew this implicitly; it was their world. Just as the Jews of the Old Law learned their religious cosmology from the Temple’s architecture, so the Faithful of the New Law learned the sacred order in the universe from their churches. The medieval cathedral wasn’t only beautiful, it was also an elaborate catechesis in stone and glass. This is to touch upon what we commonly call the “sense of the sacred.”

It is this sense, this awe in the divine presence , that the Orthodox have retained in their worship. If we hope and pray for their reunion with Rome, we cannot unreasonably hope for them to embrace our own jettisoning of sacred tradition. Like Saint Josaphat of Polotsk (who shed his blood for the cause of unity), Blessed Clement Sheptytsky , Blessed Gomidas Keumurjian , Venerable Mekhitar of Sivas and so many other saints of the Christian Orient, they ought to retain their beautiful, Catholic Eastern traditions, which are safeguards, not only of liturgical sanity, but also of doctrinal orthodoxy.

For our part we ought to retain our beautiful and Catholic Western traditions, which also safeguard the faith. We can and must respect each other’s authentic traditions, which provide a platform for any purposeful “dialogue” that transcends the merely superficial and political.

I by no means want to relegate the causes of division to secondary importance. We must hold our ground on such doctrinal questions as the papacy, the Filioque , and other areas of disagreement. That said, we cannot reasonably expect to get a hearing from the Orthodox if we appear to have cast off our own traditions. In short, if the priest who comes to the table to discuss theology with the Orthodox is “smilin’ Father Bob,” who just “did liturgy” with guitars, lay Eucharistic ministers, and a troupe of minstrels dancing around the altar, the talks will probably, as they say, break down.

According to Il Giornale , t he patriarch opined that the pope’s decision to revive the traditional Mass might contribute to establishing closer links with the Orthodox Churches. Will the patriarch himself ever embrace Roman unity? Let us pray to Our Lady of Fatima for him. She promised that Russia would convert. And let us beseech the divine clemency for all Russia: “Savior of the world, save Russia” (An indulgence of 300 days, S.P. Ap., Nov. 24, 1924 ).

Meanwhile, the Russians themselves will take us a bit more seriously as we pray according to our revived traditions.

Send forth thy light and thy truth: they have conducted me, and brought me unto thy holy hill, and into thy tabernacles. And I will go in to the altar of God: to God who giveth joy to my youth. ” (Ps. 42:3-4, used in the prayers at the foot of the altar.)

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