The gloom which hangs over our society with its social injustice, abortion and the campaign for euthanasia, can easily fill us with fear and turn us to flight into ourselves.
For traditional Catholics, perhaps more than for others, the temptation to adopt a laager mentality is strong. It is one which we should stoutly resist. Our trust in the Catholic tradition should rather make us eager to take the Gospel into the world, to bear the light of Christ into the surrounding darkness: to be, in a word, evangelical.
“Evangelical” is not a term that one easily applies to the traditional Mass. One normally associates “evangelical” with clean-cut young men in dark suits, wide-eyed television preachers or dour Westminster-confession north-enders. At first thought many traditionally minded Catholics would even perhaps reject the description “evangelical” for themselves, as more suited to beardy guitar strummers. Deeper reflection, however, suggests that the evangelical facet of the Church’s life is not one that we can ignore. Each of us is meant to be an evangelist, an apostle, a missionary. Each of us is meant to be imbued with a love for the holy scriptures and a deep love for the Gospel of our Lord. “Evangelical” is a word that we ought to treat both as an honourable title as well as a challenge to live up to. Indeed, there is a sense in which the phrase “evangelical Catholic” is as much a tautology as “traditional Catholic.”
Traditional Catholics are concerned with right worship and right belief as the twin pillars of a good christian life. All the sacraments, ceremonies, dogmas, prayers and customs that we wish to preserve, we wish to preserve precisely because they speak so eloquently of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. They might be old. They might be beautiful. They might (conceivably) arouse nostalgia in people old enough to remember better times. But why we really want them, why we preserve and promote them, is because they show to us the face of Christ and make Him present in our lives. We enter into the life of the living Lord when we enter into the sacred realm of christian worship. This worship transforms us into the likeness of the One whom we worship. Because of this transforming power of the sacraments – in our lives, in our speech, and in our actions – we are able to reveal Christ our Saviour present in and to the world.
The stern transcendentalism of the traditional rites of the Church, moreover, serves to present us with a clear choice by the unambiguous proclamation of the presence of the Triune God. In the jargon of the twentieth century scripture scholars, the traditional Mass is essentially kerygmatic. That is, it proclaims Christ and seeks conversion. It does not cajole, or persuade by degrees. It has no soft edges. It takes no prisoners. It does not try to “meet us where we are at.” The response that it seeks, and frequently accomplishes, is conversion of heart, change of mind, transformation of life. The liturgy is thus the sacramental embodiment of the Church’s teaching, especially that foundational proclamation “Christ died for our sins and is now risen from the dead!” In the liturgy this apostolic kerygma takes flesh and gives us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.
Recently, at the traditional celebration of the Easter Vigil at Lewisham (Sydney), there were several baptisms and confirmations of adults and older children. Commenting on the long and elaborate liturgy, the mother of three of the children, an aboriginal Australian, put it this way: “Tonight I knew that there is a God, and that He was here with us.” One can think of no better basis for a real evangelical outreach than a liturgy which can elicit such a response. The challenge for traditional Catholics is to take seriously their duty to spread the Gospel, not to be inward turning and tempted to hoard the riches of the liturgy to ourselves, but intent on the salvation of souls. This does not necessarily mean taking to the streets like Mormons, or becoming fanatical God-botherers, or dissipating our energies in a whirl of apostolic activity. It does mean, however, always keeping one eye open for opportunities to bring people to our Lord. Being “evangelical” is not merely an option for the terminally pious, but something which is a necessary part of our christian calling.
Traditional Catholics cannot afford to sit on their hands when it comes to the great issues of our day. The response which we give must be animated, however, by our encounter with Christ in the Holy Liturgy, not simply by a new form of political activism. Of course, we cannot do without the work of political engagement and detailed ethical argumentation on these questions. What is more important, however, is allowing those to whom we speak to hear the liberating voice of the Risen Christ. Just as St Patrick so long ago lit the first Easter fire in Ireland on the Hill of Slane to challenge the darkness of the heathen priests, so too we are summoned by Christ to bring His light to a nation of darkened conscience. As the Holy Father has so often said, when confronted by a culture of death, our response can only be to bring the life of the Risen Christ into the lives of all whom we meet.