There is a contemporary trend to view ‘tradition’ as an ugly word. In society, where many civil and political institutions are portrayed as backward and where the thought of being ‘establishment’ is deemed detrimental to popularity or success. And in the Church, where the ambient public culture has made inroads so as to polarize everything as either new or old, good or bad, exciting or dull, creating a seismic shift in the perceptions and expectations of many of our fellow citizens.
In fact, tradition properly understood is an essential element of the Christian life.. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that because Almighty God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, ‘Christ must be proclaimed to all nations and individuals, so that this revelation may reach to the ends of the earth’ (CCC 74). The transmission of divine revelation, the gospel of Christ, is thus constitutive of the Church’s mission, proclaimed as it is in the words of the profession of faith, and the actions of our lives. Our ‘I believe’ is the starting point of the Church’s proclamation of the gospel to the world, which is why it is those words that we first confess as we are fused to the life of Christ in the sacramental action of the font. Our personal but not individual proclamation of the apostolic faith is not an inconsequential or private act of devotion, but is supremely ecclesial, interrelated to the life and mission of the entire Church.
Tradition, from traditio meaning to ‘hand on’, indicates the acceptance and delivery of this given knowledge, this revealed truth. In the divine revelation of Christ presented to us in the scriptures and the Church’s magisterium, we are entrusted with a great treasure which is both the source of our own salvation and the task and focus of our missionary activity. If we are called to discipleship in the Lord, to follow him along the way of salvation, then we are called also to conform our lives to his truth, in order that we might share in his life (cf. Jn 14: 6).
Those of us who have come to the full communion of the Catholic Church from Anglicanism, and particularly by means of the personal ordinariates, know well the importance of this body of teaching. We have lived without a clearly defined deposit of faith, and we have suffered its consequences. What marks us all as Catholic Christians, then, is indicated in that very phrase. ‘Catholic’ or ‘universal’ means that we are guided by a faith which, in the words of Saint Vincent of Lerins, ‘has been believed everywhere, always, by all’ (Comm. 2. 6). It is in this context that we can read Saint Paul’s words in today’s epistle, ‘What you have learned and received and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you’ (Phil. 4: 9).
This week the third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will gather to begin its work in Vatican City. The Synod of Bishops (not the sort of synod many recall in Anglicanism) is an instrument for the bishops to assist the Roman Pontiff ‘in the preservation and growth of faith and morals and in the observance and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline, and to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world’ (c. 342). This meeting, the precursor to next year’s fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly, will discuss ‘The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization’.
An unfortunate and misleading media storm surrounds this sacred event, one which has already inflicted untold damage on the faith of not a few of the faithful. It is important for us to note, and to keep firmly in our minds, two salient points to which we may wish to refer back in the coming days.
First, it is important to note that there can be no contradiction between sacred scripture and the Church’s teaching. The Church, as the mystical body of Christ on earth, continues the mission of Christ in the world today, rooted in the faith of the apostles. Thus it cannot be said that the Church’s doctrinal teaching and the disciplines which flow directly from it are distinct from, still less opposed to, the message of the gospel. Nor can it be said that the scriptures, interpreted by the Church in a consistent and unambiguous way under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, or the Church’s doctrine that flows from them, is in some way opposed to reality of Christ’s actions or his message of hope and salvation to all.
Secondly, it is important to note that there can be no contradiction between justice and mercy. Any parallel between true justice and true mercy is a false parallel, at odds with the authentic person of Christ in whom, truly, ‘Mercy and truth are met together: righteousness and peace have kissed each other’ (Ps. 85: 10). Indeed, it is Christ who gives us both the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us in the opening words of his encyclical letter Caritas in veritate, ‘Charity in truth [. . .] is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity’ (CiV 1). True and pastoral care then, whatever situation befalls a person, is found not in avoiding the struggles of the cross but in embracing them in the life of Christ—in his passion and death—in order to share more fully in his resurrection and so to receive the balm of his mercy, and thus the fullness of life. As Pope Saint John Paul II teaches, ‘Human freedom and God’s law are not in opposition; on the contrary, they appeal one to the other’ (VS 17).
It is in this context that the third Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops meets this week. Not to discuss, as one newspaper put it, ‘whether the church can change its doctrines’, but to come to a deeper and more profound knowledge of Christ and the life he demands of those, of us, who have chosen to leave everything and to follow him (cf. Lk. 5: 11).
‘What you have learned and received and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you’, says Saint Paul. So let us pray for the grace to imitate Christ in our lives by receiving more fully and freely from his Heart, which is the singular fount of love and of mercy, of justice and of truth. Let us entrust the work of the meeting of the Synod of Bishops to that Heart, so that our beloved Holy Father and our bishops, ‘the faithful guardians of the catholic and apostolic faith’, might be evermore enfolded in the pure and undefiled love of the Lord. And let us pray for the gracious outpouring of the Holy Spirit, who brings us clarity and wisdom from on high, that the authentic teaching of Christ may be made known, that the world may be receptive to it, and that in meeting Christ in the symphony of truth, all may come to live in the harmony of his way, and so share in the beauty of his life (cf. Jn 14: 6).