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Tradition and traditions

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

Tradition is one of the sources of Christian living. As the Catechism explains, “the Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. the first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.

Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium.”

Since the apostolic times, the Church has always examined these traditions with lower case “t” and has abandoned those that did not contribute to the proclamation of the Gospel or even, because of the changes in society and customs, could even have become a true obstacle to Christian life. Sometimes this has been a source of controversies in the life of the Church as it can be readily seen in the first reading for this Sunday or in the letter to the Galatians.

The apostolic Tradition, on the other hand, much like the natural law or Divine law is unchangeable.

It is important to understand the difference and be clear about that. Otherwise, we throw away the baby with the water and we run the risk of falling into pitfalls that may even put our faith to the test either because we are very attached to customs and setting them aside seems to us to endanger the integrity of the Gospel message; or because we allow ourselves to be carried away by the culture of our times and end up thinking that even dogma and the natural law ought to be abandoned by the Church.

There is a famous saying attributed to Gustav Mahler that states: “tradition is the handing down of the flame and not the worshipping of ashes.” Or as Chesterton stated, tradition prevents those who are alive in these particular times to impose their ideas on all generations. That is why pope Benedict used to say that the Church is a diachronic democracy. Every generation of Christians participates in her life and decisions. Apostolic Tradition is the guarantee of fidelity to the Gospel. That does not mean that particular customs that appear in the life of the Church or some Church discipline that may be useful for the proclamation of the Gospel in a given moment at a certain place, are unchangeable and ought to be preserved at all costs.

Just a few days ago, pope Francis addressed this subject during an allocution to a group of Romanian students. With his characteristic poetic style, he explained that “without nourishing the roots, every religious tradition loses its fruitfulness. In fact, a dangerous process occurs as time goes by, one focuses more and more on oneself, on one’s own belonging, losing the dynamism of the origins. Then one focuses on institutional, external aspects, the defense of one’s own group, history and privileges, losing, perhaps without realizing it, the flavor of the gift. In keeping with the metaphor, it is like pausing to look at the trunk, the branches and the leaves, forgetting that everything is supported by the roots. But only if the roots are well watered does the tree continue to thrive; otherwise, it folds in on itself and dies. This happens when one becomes complacent and gets affected by the virus of spiritual worldliness, which is the worst evil that can happen in the Church: spiritual worldliness. Then one withers into a mediocre, self-referential life of careerism, climbing, seeking personal satisfaction and easy pleasures. The attitude of trying to climb, to have power, to have money, to have fame, to be comfortable, to get ahead. This is wanting to grow without roots. It is true that there are others who go to the roots to hide there, because they are afraid of growth. It is true. One goes to the roots for replenishment, get the sap and keep growing. You cannot live in the roots, and you cannot live in the tree without the roots. Tradition is to an extent the message that we receive from the roots: it is what gives you the strength to go on, today, without repeating the things of yesterday, but with the same strength of the first inspiration.

Here in Rome, besides deepening your roots, you have the opportunity to think about how to actualize them, so that your ministry is not a sterile repetition of the past or a maintenance of the present, but that it may be fruitful, that it may look ahead. And this is the secret of fruitfulness, the same as that of those bishops and priests: namely, the gift of life, the Gospel to be put into practice with a pastor’s heart. I think of Cardinal Mureşan, who in a few days will be 91 years old: years of service in the priesthood, which began almost sixty years ago in a humble basement, after the surviving bishops were released from prison. Pastors who were materially poor, but rich in the Gospel. Be like this, joyful apostles of the faith you have inherited, willing to keep nothing for yourselves and ready to reconcile with all, to forgive and to weave unity, overcoming all animosity and victimhood. Then your seed will also be evangelical and bear fruit. Without forgetting the past but living in the present, with fruitfulness.”

Rooted in Tradition, we Christians put out in the seas of history. We put out into the deep following the missionary mandate of the Lord Jesus so that we can transform reality and bring the Gospel to bear in our times.

As St. John Paul II said, this is the time to put out into the deep. “A new stage of the Church’s journey begins, our hearts ring out with the words of Jesus when one day, after speaking to the crowds from Simon’s boat, he invited the Apostle to “put out into the deep” for a catch: “Duc in altum”. Peter and his first companions trusted Christ’s words and cast the nets. “When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish”.

Duc in altum! These words ring out for us today, and they invite us to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm and to look forward to the future with confidence: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever””

Fr. Roberto M. Cid