Tradition That Inspires, Not Stifles Evangelization

Misunderstanding the Catholic meaning of “Tradition” can stifle inklings of innovation, creativity, and new design in our mental models as we seek to evangelize. Let’s start from the beginning…

What is Tradition in Catholicism?

Three powerful points on the meaning of “capital-T” Tradition in the Catholic faith:

Para. 78 This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition…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.”
Para. 79 The Father’s self-communication made through his Word in the Holy Spirit, remains present and active in the Church: “God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the Spouse of his beloved Son. And the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church – and through her in the world – leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness.”

Para. 83 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.

Insights from David Fagerberg

Through the lens of liturgy, Catholic theologian David Fagerberg offers insights with application to decision-making and planning in a ministry or parish. Three key points:

  1. Tradition is Something More than History.
  2. The love of tradition in Roman Catholicism came to be identified, as was natural, with conservatism, but conservatism proves itself to be inadequate.
  3. Tradition is a capacity, a faculty.

Fagerberg’s synopsis of Church teaching is, “The pure notion of Tradition can then be defined by saying that it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, communicating to each member of the Body of Christ the faculty of hearing, of receiving, of knowing the truth in the light which belongs to it and not according to the light of human reason” (Fagerberg, “The Cost of Understanding Schmemann in the West”).

Pondering Church teaching, he emphasizes that Tradition would therefore seem to be both how something is delivered, and what is delivered. By an action called tradition (a verb), a content called tradition (a noun) is delivered. A thin sense of tradition is merely precedence. By this definition anything can become traditional if given enough time. Do it more than once and it becomes a tradition. In this thin sense, everything was “untraditional” the first time it was done (Fagerberg, “Two Centuries”). 

Fagerberg continues:

Under a more complete grammar, the thick meaning for which I am searching, something could be said to be Traditional the first time it was done. A sacramentary in Latin, the iconostasis, Gothic architecture, the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, the term homoousios—all these were Traditional the first time they appeared.

Patristic theologian, Jarislov Pelican, captures this contrast between a Tradition alive in the Holy Spirit, and tradition as “dead,” unmoving custom or convention, writing:

Tradition is the living faith of the dead;
traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.

On Common Mental Errors in Evangelization

As evangelizers, how does this apply to us? Mistaking traditions for Tradition limits our openness to God’s spirit and curtails brainstorming before it even begins.

Pope Francis reflects:

 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. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. (Evangelii Gaudium27)

Without an accurate and deep appreciation for Tradition, we can find it difficult to imagine, dream, or renew–difficult to brainstorm about “transforming everything” when it comes to customs, schedules, structures, etc. for the sake of the Church’s preeminent evangelizing mission.

Phrases That Hint at Our Self-Imposed Limits

When our minds (or mouths!) say…

  • Tradition is something we stick to…
  • Tradition ignores changes in culture…
  • Tradition prevents us from ______________…

Or, when we generally scapegoat our own strategic choices or decisions on “Tradition”–in all of these cases we’re turning the Great Tradition into a dead traditionalism. When others hear us do this or see it in our actions, to put it bluntly, we are reflecting poorly on the beauty and fullness of what the Church proclaims Tradition to be, we’re not making the fullness of our Catholic faith seem very appealing. 

Typical versus Normal

In our modern use of English, “typical” and “normal” are often used as synonyms. But, when we examine them with more precision, they have different meanings.

Typical is what is characteristically most common. What’s usual. Happens the most. Normal, on the other hand, is what conforms to a particular, pre-determined standard. The baseline for deriving or assessing other related things.

For us in ministry and in the Church, what’s typical in our current, cultural/historical setting is not necessarily what’s normal in the richness of Church teaching. For example, in parts of the United States, it’s much more typical for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) to be used with baptized Christians seeking full communion with the Church. However, this is not normal based on what the RCIA tells us, the “standard” from which various Appendixes are derived for the baptized, is the un-baptized.

In the Church, what’s normal per Tradition as seen in liturgical rites, Church teaching documents, etc. may not be what’s the most popular, commonly done, or typical in one’s ministry setting.

Tradition Matters

Praying for wisdom in the Spirit and a deepening appreciation for the richness and living vitality of Tradition can prevent us from short-circuiting our mental models in ministry, stopping good ideas before we even begin to discern them. As evangelists, Tradition is never a scapegoat, but a Spirit-inspired richness that renews in and through us.

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Reiss Vermeulen, M.Div., M.N.A., blogs, ministers in parish life and lay/deacon formation, and serves as a U.S. Army Reserve officer. She and her husband, Luke, have been married since 2011 and live in Ypsilanti, MI with their two young sons.

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