America is a melting pot of various cultures and traditions. As American Catholics, we have a unique perspective on both the benefits and the challenges that this can bring as we seek to evangelize in our schools and communities. Multiculturalism, as Pope Francis describes it in several different speeches and letters, can help to bring people together in a new, enriched harmony but Francis acknowledges that it very easily can create a feeling that one needs to protect what is one’s own, even to the point of shunning the other and keeping the one who is “different” on the outside.  

There’s no doubt that much of the angst toward this papacy is driven by the belief that the traditions that have unified certain Catholic communities are under attack by a “liberal” pope who is seeking to uproot them and throw them into the winds of change. There is no need to relitigate American political history here, but suffice it to say that this “melting pot” of cultures and traditions has not always worked out well for American Catholics. For various reasons over the course of the last couple centuries, American Catholics, of a wide array of heritages and ethnic backgrounds, have had their cultures and traditions suppressed by rabid anti-Catholic, xenophobic sentiments. At other times, American Catholics have also willingly ceded their culture and traditions in order to gain power, influence, and wealth. Authentic Catholic traditions are increasingly uncommon in our society.

Some of this angst is understandable. At times, Francis sounds like the “progressives” of the United States who see politics and the state as a unifying force that supersedes even religious attachments. For some progressives, religion is even an obstacle to the realization of the common good that must be dispensed with. But this progressive ideology directly conflicts with some of the most foundational principles of Catholic teaching, from the “Great Commission” (cf. Matthew 28:19) to Dignitatis Humanae, the Vatican II document on religious freedom. 

Can Francis be considered a “progressive” in this sense? Certainly not. Do so-called “traditionalist” Catholics in America have anything to fear from Francis with regard to their traditions? The answer is: it depends.

What Are Traditions?

While discussing the faith, Catholics often are careful to make the distinction between “big-T” Tradition and “little-t” traditions. Lest there be any confusion, however, the two are closely aligned with one another. Tradition, of course, is a source of Divine Revelation. Tradition is handed on by the Apostles to their successors “in full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known” (Dei Verbum 9). But the Council Fathers, in Dei Verbum, also make the connection between Tradition and traditions. As Dei Verbum quotes 2 Thes 2:15, the faithful are encouraged to hold fast to the traditions, which they have learned from the Apostles (and their successors). Dei Verbum continues,

Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes. Dei Verbum

In short, traditions, given to us by the successors of the Apostles, help to bind us to the living Tradition and by consequence to the teaching of the Gospel as handed by Christ himself to his Church.  Pope Benedict XVI said during a general audience in 2006, “Therefore, through the apostolic ministry it is Christ himself who reaches those who are called to the faith. The distance of the centuries is overcome and the Risen One offers himself alive and active for our sake, in the Church and in the world today.”

Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, also includes an extended discussion of Tradition in this sense. Francis points to the Sacraments as elements of our Tradition, especially Baptism and the Eucharist. Also essential for handing on the faith are the Our Father, the Ten Commandments, and the Profession of Faith. Francis also cites the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “a fundamental aid for that unitary act with which the Church communicates the entire content of her faith.” (Lumen Fidei 46). 

It is especially important to emphasize the point that the Church’s bishops, as apostolic successors, are themselves essential for the transmission of the faith. The faithful receive the faith through “hearing” the faith through preachers. Francis writes in Lumen Fidei, 

Faith is not a private matter, a completely individualistic notion or a personal opinion: it comes from hearing, and it is meant to find expression in words and to be proclaimed. For “how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?” (Rom 10:14).

These “preachers” are, at least in one indispensable way, the bishops and the pope. Francis continues:

[The Church] depends on the fidelity of witnesses chosen by the Lord for this task. For this reason, the magisterium always speaks in obedience to the prior word on which faith is based; it is reliable because of its trust in the word which it hears, preserves and expounds. In Saint Paul’s farewell discourse to the elders of Ephesus at Miletus, which Saint Luke recounts for us in the Acts of the Apostles, he testifies that he had carried out the task which the Lord had entrusted to him of “declaring the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Thanks to the Church’s magisterium, this counsel can come to us in its integrity, and with it the joy of being able to follow it fully. (Lumen Fidei 49)

Does Francis Value Traditions?

As mentioned above, superficially, Francis sounds at times like an American progressive, insofar as both he and the typical American progressive are especially concerned with ecology, with the treatment of immigrants, and uprooting poverty. But the belief that Francis is somehow a progressive in its more anti-religious, anti-traditional instantiations cannot be further from the truth. In addition to the above from Lumen Fidei (which although partly written by Pope Benedict was completed and promulgated by Francis during his own papacy), Francis has also written and discussed at length about the importance of “roots” and about shared histories and local cultures. 

Earlier this year, Pope Francis promulgated Christus Vivit, his exhortation following the synod on youth, young people and vocational discernment. This exhortation’s Chapter 6 is entitled “Young people with roots” and discusses the importance of history and traditions. Specifically, roots unite people into communities and families. Francis writes, “Roots are not anchors chaining us to past times and preventing us from facing the present and creating something new. Instead, they are a fixed point from which we can grow and meet new challenges.”

 But Francis also laments that young people often lose their roots. He writes at the beginning of this Chapter, 

[I]t pains me to see young people sometimes being encouraged to build a future without roots, as if the world were just starting now. For “it is impossible for us to grow unless we have strong roots to support us and to keep us firmly grounded. It is easy to drift off, when there is nothing to clutch onto, to hold onto”.

Francis has an important warning for those who wish to shun their traditions: 

That is how various ideologies operate: they destroy (or deconstruct) all differences so that they can reign unopposed. To do so, however, they need young people who have no use for history, who spurn the spiritual and human riches inherited from past generations, and are ignorant of everything that came before them.

On the one hand, Francis celebrates the authentic cultural diversity one finds in the Catholic Church. He writes in Evangelii Gaudium,

It is [the Spirit] who brings forth a rich variety of gifts, while at the same time creating a unity which is never uniformity but a multifaceted and inviting harmony. Evangelization joyfully acknowledges these varied treasures which the Holy Spirit pours out upon the Church. We would not do justice to the logic of the incarnation if we thought of Christianity as monocultural and monotonous.

When the Church is unified by the Spirit in her love of God and animated by her mission to evangelize, then God can bring a beautiful unity from a diverse array of cultures and traditions, which together reveal the Church as a “bride bedecked with her jewels.” 

On the other hand, Francis has especially harsh words for what he calls “globalization of hegemonic uniformity.”  In an exegesis on the first chapter of the Book of Maccabees, Francis says that the ancient Jewish people were “were misled into abandoning their traditions.” Francis said it was “one of the saddest pages in the Bible.” According to L’Osservatore Romano, “The Bishop of Rome likened their attitude to what he called the modern ‘spirit of adolescent progressivism’ which seductively suggests that it is always right, when faced with any decision, to move on rather than remaining faithful to one’s own traditions.” Finally, Francis is quoted as saying:

“We would do well to think about what happened in the Book of Maccabees”, he continued, “about what happened step by step, before we decide to follow an ‘adolescent progressivism’ and go along with what everyone is doing. We would also do well”, he said, “to ponder the consequences of their infidelity, to think about the ‘death sentences, the human sacrifices’ which followed thereafter”. He then asked those present: “Do you think there are no human sacrifices today? There are many, many of them. And there are laws that protect them”.

To summarize Francis above, it is necessary to hold onto our traditions, and we shouldn’t be afraid if they are different from the traditions of others. The essential criterion is whether they truly aid in evangelization, and how they do so can vary just as cultures and histories can vary dramatically. What is most regrettable is when one gives up one’s traditions to seek greater power, wealth, or influence. Faithfulness to the precepts of the Lord remain paramount. Francis writes, “Whenever a community receives the message of salvation, the Holy Spirit enriches its culture with the transforming power of the Gospel.”

On a lighter note, just this past Sunday, Francis also encouraged the faithful to practice setting up nativity scenes in their homes and also in the “workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares.” Francis wrote in the letter, Admirabile Signum, “As children, we learn from our parents and grandparents to carry on this joyful tradition, which encapsulates a wealth of popular piety. It is my hope that this custom will never be lost and that, wherever it has fallen into disuse, it can be rediscovered and revived.” 

In addition to being a beautiful letter to help Catholics have a richer Advent, I quote it here to drive home the point that Francis believes traditions and popular forms of piety remain a valuable form of transmitting the faith, especially to our youth. They help us to strengthen attachments to our shared history, our enduring Catholic faith, to the Church, and to each other. 

When Do Traditions Go Wrong?

Francis does not remain uncritical of traditions, however, and the traditions we practice today are not always valuable.  It may happen that a tradition, begun in a certain time and place, may lose its relevance to the transmission of the faith, or in other cases, may actually become an obstacle to growth in holiness.  

Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph 43, 

In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them. At the same time, the Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives.

The Bishops of the Church, who receive the faith “in full purity,” have the authority to alter certain traditions and change “rules and precepts” that are antithetical to the Gospel as it may apply to today’s circumstances. The danger ultimately is that with “too much emphasis on certain rules, customs or ways of acting” the Gospel “tends to be reduced and constricted, deprived of its simplicity, allure and savour.” (For readers who are interested, I would certainly encourage reading all of Gaudete et Exsultate, as it includes some further content on this point as well.)

Finally, Francis writes,

I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. (Evangelii Gaudium 27)

Jesus commissioned the faithful to make disciples of all nations. Francis has called the Church to be mindful of how our “customs” and “structures” are helping or hindering our efforts to evangelize our neighbors, our youth, and the whole world. If our customs or traditions are not “contributing to the holiness” of others, or if they are making it more difficult to evangelize the world today, then they must be re-examined. 

Traditions and customs are essential, as Francis points to in Christus Vivit and Evangelii Gaudium. That said, traditions and customs are not valuable in themselves but only insofar as they help the Church to grow in holiness and transmit the faith to others. Truly, many traditions are helpful, including many forms of popular piety, the prayers we say, the Sacraments, and the local and familial customs we have been raised in. All these are important as we seek to foster deep roots in the Gospel and enrich relationships within families, the Church and our communities. But even the traditions and customs we hold most dear may, over a period of time, lose their connection to the Gospel or become irrelevant to the Church’s mission. To dispense with long-held traditions, provided it is for the sake of evangelization and preaching the Gospel, may be necessary. If so-called traditionalists want to attach themselves above all to customs that are no longer practiced by the Church and are harmful to evangelization and the preaching of the Gospel, then they ought to feel afraid that Francis is seeking to disrupt their local communities. It is our Living Magisterium, the pope and the successors of the Apostles, who retain the Authority of Christ, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to hand on traditions for the benefit of the whole Church. 

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