Emma McGowan says we should be wary of abandoning the Church’s past.
Over the past few decades critics and friends of the Catholic Church have argued it must get with the times.
In Catholic magazines, social media outlets and synodal reports we hear that the traditions of the Church is holding us back from engaging with the world around us and potentially winning back those who have long left their pews empty.
If only it were so easy! Catholic tradition is not a custom or a cultural expression. It is not simply a list of ways of doing things which has been made up along the way. It has a defining role in articulating the message of Jesus Christ and identifying what it is to be a Christian.
Catholic tradition, or better called, sacred tradition is the continued life of Christ in the Church expressed by the common life, worship and teaching of the Catholic Faith.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read: “This living transmission, accomplished by the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from the Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it.
“Through Tradition, the Church in her doctrine, life, and worship perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.
“The sayings of the holy Fathers are witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church in her belief and prayer.”
This simple definition offers us a most profound truth; the sacred tradition of the Church is not a dead expression of how things are but the expression of the living God who continues to guide the Church and its leaders to know and serve God in this life and the next.
When the Church establishes a practice or a belief it is not simply because a few people have decided that’s how it should be done but because the Holy Spirit guides the Church and guards the truths which Christ gave to the Apostles who in turn guard those truths in the succession of Apostolic leaders.
Sacred tradition and all it teaches is not a dead thing that must be dispensed with in order to engage contemporary society. Rather it is the living voice of Christ who continues to use the Church to minister to all peoples and nations.
Not only does sacred tradition give voice to the teachings of Christ Himself, it expresses the reality of the Catholic Faith. The Faithful Catholic does not believe a set of bare minimum principles which guides his or her life, rather the faithful Catholic is invited to be embraced by a mystery which innervates every facet of his or her life.
The Catholic Faith is not just a list of ‘I believe’ statements, though it includes those. It is a transcendent experience with the divine that changes how we do everything.
Such a mystery of love demands from us complete and total adoration, obedience, and commitment. Sacred tradition, expressed in the liturgies, practices, and prayers of the Church, instructs our hearts in how we can respond to divine love with that adoration, obedience, and commitment.
The ways sacred tradition tells us to express our love for God includes going to weekly Mass, practising abstinence to remember Christ’s death on the cross and praying at certain times of the day, etc.
These practices are the ways in which we instruct our own souls to know and love Christ more fervently every day.
It is for this reason that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said: “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.
“It behoves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s Faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.”
It is the gift and the very identity of the Catholic Church to guard the sacred tradition through which Christ has spoken and continues to speak.
In so doing we not only uphold the truth and veracity of the Catholic faith, we hold onto those sacred practices through which human beings may become sons and daughters of God.
Let us not forego the riches of our Faith through which man and women have become saints.
Just as we hold to the truths of the Creed let us hold to sacred tradition and offer the world something truly unique; the unchanging and eternal love of God Himself.
Emma McGowan is a post-graduate student at the University of Edinburgh.