An Open Letter to Confused Catholics

His Grace Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre

5. "You're a Dinosaur!"

Catholics who feel that radical transformations are taking place have difficulty in standing up against the relentless propaganda they encounter (and which is common to all revolutions). They are told, “You can't accept change. Yet change is a part of life. You're static. What was good fifty years ago isn't suitable to today's mentality or way of  life. You're hung up on the past. You can't change your  ways!”  Many have given in to the reform to avoid this criticism, unable to find an argument against the sneering charge, “You're a reactionary, a dinosaur.  You can't move with the times!”

Cardinal Ottaviani said of the bishops, “They are afraid of looking old.”

But we have never refused certain changes, adaptations that bear witness to the vitality of the Church. In the liturgy, people my age have seen some of these. Shortly after I was born, St. Pius X made some improvements, especially in giving more importance to the temporal cycle in the missal, in lowering the age for First Communion for children and in restoring liturgical chant, which had fallen into disuse. Pius XII came along and reduced the length of the eucharistic fast because of difficulties inherent in modem life. For the same reason he authorized afternoon and evening Masses, put the Office of the Paschal Vigil on the evening of Holy Saturday and rearranged the services of Holy Week in general. John XXIII, before the Council, added his own touches to the so-called rite of St. Pius V.

But none of this came anywhere near to what happened in 1969, when a new concept of the Mass was introduced.

We are also criticized for being attached to external forms of secondary importance, like Latin.  This is a dead language, they tell us, which no one understands--as if Christians understood it in the sixteenth or nineteenth centuries. Such negligence on the part of the Church (in this view) in waiting so long to get rid of Latin! I think the Church had her reasons. Yet we should not be surprised that Catholics feel the need of a greater understanding of the sacred texts, from which they draw spiritual nourishment, and that they want to be more intimately involved in the action taking place in front of them.

It was not to satisfy these desires, however, that the vernacular was introduced from one end of the Holy Sacrifice to the other. Reading the Epistle and Gospel in the vernacular is an improvement and is practised at St. Nicholas du Chardonnet in Paris and in the priories of the Society which I founded. To go any further would mean losing far more than would be gained, because understanding the texts is not the ultimate purpose of prayer, nor even the only means of putting the soul in a state of prayer, i.e., in union with God. If too much attention is given to the meaning of the words, they can even be an obstacle.

I am surprised that this is not understood, especially when we hear so much talk these days about a religion of the heart, less intellectual and more spontaneous. Union with God can be achieved as much by beautiful, heavenly music as by the general ambiance of liturgical action: the sanctity and religious feel of the place, or its architectural beauty, or the fervor of the Christian community, or the dignity and devotion of the celebrant, or symbolic decorations, or the fragrance of the incense. Moving about is unimportant, as long as the soul is uplifted.  All you need to prove this is to go into a Benedictine monastery which has kept the divine worship in all its splendor.

But this does not lessen in the least the need to seek a better understanding of the prayers and hymns as well as a more perfect participation. But it is a mistake to try to reach the goal purely and simply by bringing in the vernacular and totally suppressing the universal language of the Church, as has unfortunately happened almost everywhere in the world.  We need only look at the success of Masses, even in the Novus Ordo rite, which have kept the chant for  the Credo, the Sanctus, or the Agnus Dei.

Latin is a universal language.  In using it, the liturgy  forms us into a universal, i.e., Catholic, communion. By contrast, localizing and individualizing the liturgy robs it of  this dimension which can make such a deep impression on  souls. To avoid making such a mistake, it should be enough to observe the Eastern rites, in which the liturgical action  has long been couched in the vernacular.  And there, an isolation can be seen--from which members of these communities suffer. When they scatter far and wide from their homelands, they need their own priests for the Mass, the sacraments and ceremonies of all kinds. They build special churches, which, in the nature of things, separate them from the rest of the Catholic population.

What do they gain from this? It is not entirely clear that  having their own liturgical language has made them more fervent in practising their faith than people benefitting from a universal language, not understood by man, perhaps, but easy enough to translate.

If we look outside the Church, we may ask how Islam has succeeded in keeping its cohesiveness while spreading over regions as different and among peoples of such diverse races as in Turkey, North Africa, Indonesia and black Africa. It has succeeded in imposing Arabic everywhere as the single language of the Koran. In Africa, I saw marabouts teachings children to recite the sacred texts by heart when they could not understand a single word of them. Islam goes so far as to forbid the translation of this holy book. It is fashionable these days to admire the religion of Mohammed: thousands of French people, it is said, are converting to it and taking up collections in the churches to build mosques in France. We would do well, however, simply to take note of one example which we should remember:  the sustaining power of a single language for prayer and worship.

The fact that Latin is a dead language is in its favor: it is the best means of protecting the expression of faith against linguistic changes which take place naturally in the course of time. The study of semantics has developed rapidly in the last ten years or so: it has even been introduced into French language courses in the schools. Semantics investigates changes in the meaning of words, the gradual shift of signification in the passage of time and often over very short periods. Let us make use of this branch of knowledge, therefore, to understand the danger of handing over the deposit of faith to changing ways of speaking. Do you believe that we could have kept intangible, eternal truths free of corruption for two thousand years if they were expressed in languages that are constantly evolving and which differ from one country and even from one region to another? Living languages change and fluctuate. If we put the liturgy into any one of them at any time, we will have to be continually adapting according to semantic requirements. So it is not surprising that there must be endless committees set up for this, and that priests no longer have time to say Mass.

When I went to see His Holiness Pope Paul VI at Castelgandolfo in 1976,  I said to him, “I do not know if you are aware, Your Holiness, that there are now officially thirteen Eucharistic prayers in France.” The Pope raised his arms heavenward and exclaimed, “More than that, Your Excellency, more than that!” This gives me the basis for asking, would there be so many if the liturgists were required to compose in Latin? Besides these formulas put into circulation--after being printed here, there or anywhere--we would have to mention also the canons improvised by the priest during the celebration and everything he introduces from the “penitential preparation” to the “dismissal of the assembly.” Do you think he could do this if he had to officiate in Latin?

Another external sign against which opinion has solidified is the wearing of the cassock--not so much in church or in visits to the Vatican as in everyday life. The question is not of the most fundamental importance, yet it has great symbolic value. Every time the Pope mentions this--and Pope John Paul II has done so repeatedly--howls of protest are heard from the ranks of the clergy. In this connection I read in a Paris newspaper this statement from an avant-garde priest: “This is childishness... in France, wearing a recognizable uniform is meaningless, because there is no need to recognize a priest on the street. Quite the contrary: the cassock or Roman collar creates a barrier... the priest is a man like anyone else. Of course he is president of the Eucharistic Assembly!”

This “president of the Eucharistic assembly” is here expressing ideas that are contrary to the Gospel and to clearly recognized social realities. In all religions, leaders wear distinctive signs.  Anthropology, which is now all the rage, is there to prove it.  Among Muslims you see differences in dress: collars and rings. Buddhist monks wear saffron-colored robes and shave their heads. Young people associated  with this religion can be seen on the streets of Paris and other large cities, and their appearance evokes no criticism.

The habit identifies the cleric or the religious, as a uniform identifies a soldier or a policeman. But with a difference: these latter, in representing the civil order, remain citizens like other people, whereas the priest is supposed to keep his distinctive habit in all phases of life. In fact, the sacred mark he received at ordination means that he is in the world but not of the world.  We know this from St. John: “You are not of the world; I chose you out of the world” (15:19). His habit should be distinctive and at the same time reflect the spirit of modesty, discretion and poverty.

Secondly, the priest has the duty to bear witness to Our Lord. “You are My witness... men do not put a lamp under a bushel.” Religion should not be confined to the sacristy--as the powers in Eastern European countries have long since declared it should be. Christ commanded us to spread our faith, to make it visible by a witness which should be seen and understood by all. The witness of the word, which is certainly more essential to the priest than the witness of the cassock, is nevertheless greatly facilitated by the unmistakable sign of the priesthood implicit in the wearing of the soutane.

Separation of Church and State, which is accepted and sometimes considered preferable, has helped the spirit of atheism to penetrate little by little into all the realms of activity, and we must admit that many Catholics and even priests no longer have a very clear idea of the place of the Catholic religion in civil society. Secularism is everywhere.

The priest who lives in a society of this type gets the ever increasing impression of being a stranger in this society, an embarrassment, and finally a symbol of a past age, doomed to disappear. His presence is barely tolerated.  At least that is the way he sees it. Hence his wish to identify with the secular world, to lose himself in the crowd. What is lacking in priests of this type is experience of less dechristianized countries than theirs. What is especially lacking in them is a profound sense of their priesthood.

It is therefore difficult to make judgments on the religious spirit of the day. It is unfair to assume that those whom we meet in business relations or in informal relations are not religious. The young priests who come out of Ecône and all who have not gone along with the fad of anonymity verify this every day.  Barrier? Quite the contrary.  People stop them on the street, in stations, to talk to them, often quite simply to say what a joy it is for them to see a priest. The great boast of the new Church is dialogue. But how can this begin if we hide from the eyes of our prospective dialogue partners? In Communist countries the first act of the dictators is to forbid the cassock; this is part of a program to stamp out religion.  And we must believe the reverse to be true too. The priest who declares his identity by his exterior appearance is a living sermon. The absence of recognizable priests in a large city is a serious step backward in the preaching of the Gospel. It is a continuation of the wicked work of the Revolution and the Laws of Separation.

It should be added that the soutane keeps the priest out of trouble for it imposes an attitude on him, it reminds him at every minute of his mission on earth. It protects him from temptations. A priest in a cassock has no identity crisis. As for the faithful, they know what they are dealing with; the cassock is a guarantee of the authenticity of the priesthood. Catholics have told me of the difficulty they feel in going to confession to a priest in a business suit; it gives them the impression they are confiding the secrets of their conscience to some sort of nobody. Confession is a judicial act; hence the civil law feels the need to put robes on its magistrates.


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