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Can tradition be made relevant, or only re-discovered?

Jane O'Grady
1 October 2008

John Casey’s article Rediscovering Tradition is good at highlighting how in religion, as in education, the apologetic attempt to make the old and traditional ‘relevant’ has signally failed.

When the Second Vatican Council ordained that the Mass be said in the vernacular, it wasn’t that the Latin Mass was simply translated into English, Swahili, or whatever, but that a new rite was introduced, which had more Sciptural readings, more ‘active participation’ by the congregation, and encouraged a rearrangement of the church (often involving iconoclasm) so that the priest faced the congregation. The idea was to make the Mass more relevant, catering more to the subjective convictions of the individual, and making a ‘place for creativity or the expression of personality’. But as with similar moves in schooling, these reforms have failed. Trying to make the venerable in religion or culture ‘relevant’ usually results in demoting it, taking away the onus on the customers (as they have now become) to become relevant to it, and precisely denuding it of the sacredness that made it revered. And as with the endless use of handouts, and pre-digested, oversimplified information in schools, wooing the congregation has actually obviated the need for the individual’s own involvement -- the close following in prayer and reading the missal that the old rite demanded. Anyway, the main ‘expression of personality’ is that of the priest’s, who, rather than being almost an impersonal, objective vessel for the Mass, is now a sort of entertainer to be judged on his delivery and charisma.

What Casey’s article suggests above all is the mistakenness of assuming that it is possible to grasp the essence of a religious belief or a religious ritual, and then to transmit it clothed in modern garb. But is there such a separable essence? Is it a special content underlying forms that are somehow optional. Is tradition the sort of entity that can be lifted out of its clothes and regarbed so as to be more palatable to consumers? Is form and ritual ever just an external husk that can be cracked and discarded, leaving an easily-separable kernel?

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