How do we engage a Tradition that is living?


By Patrick Schmadeke

Pope Francis’ recent Motu Proprio regarding the Extraordinary Form, or the Latin Mass, has raised many questions and passions among Catholics who value and identify with various forms of faith expression. It is important to read the Motu Proprio and the letter that accompanied it. While the topic of the Extraordinary Form is not the subject of this article, the Motu Proprio raises an essential question: “how do we engage a living Tradition?”


A “tradition,” etymologically, has to do with something handed on from person to person, community to community, generation to generation. Tradition with a capital “T” refers to that which cannot change. Lower case “t” traditions are changeable. Most things are the latter. I will be addressing the former, Tradition with a capital “T.”

How does one engage with the living Tradition? Catholic Tradition is somewhat amorphous — even though there are vital elements of Tradition, such as love of God and neighbor, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the preferential option for the poor and the Trinity as a model for human relationships, Tradition has little definitive shape.


There is no document that says, “Tradition consists of X, Y and Z.” Here’s a contrast: with Scripture, we have a list which tells us the books that comprise it. However, when it comes to Tradition, the content is not limited in some permanent way as Scripture is. While no books will be added to Scripture, Tradition is developing.

We can engage Tradition through three basic paths: we can jettison Tradition, which inevitably results in throwing the baby out with the bath water; we can be a slave to Tradition, which inevitably results in inattention to the Holy Spirit calling us anew; or we can engage dynamically with Tradition. The first two paths are fundamentally a betrayal of the Christian Tradition. This leaves us with the third option of dynamic engagement.

Yet, dynamic engagement with Tradition needs further criteria to ensure that the dynamism is healthy. Do we engage in Tradition towards the preservation of an accumulation of personal preferences? Towards the evangelization of a secular population? Towards young adults who are increasingly disaffiliated from the church?

The church, the people of God, is a people on the move. The people of God have never been static because history is not static. To be “on the move” in a healthy way, we can keep a few guideposts in mind. A primary guidepost is the awareness that we are agents of handing on Tradition. We must live Tradition authentically in our own lives in order to hand on Tradition to future generations. Tradition is living precisely to the degree that it is alive in each of us.

As we are each custodians and colleagues in the authentic handing on of Tradition, some secondary guideposts are useful. If I might adapt the framework of Father Bernard Lonergan, S.J., here are five of them:

First, we must be attentive to our personal and communal experiences of Tradition. Having done so, we can more acutely recognize the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Second, we must be ever more intelligent in our understanding of the history of Tradition. Formed in this awareness, we are ready to see diverse manifestations of Tradition in various times and places. Third, we must be reasonable in our judgments related to Tradition, which has been interpreted with various meanings throughout history. We are responsible for critical and charitable judgment of the authenticity of these various interpretations. Fourth, we must be responsible in our decisions as we carry on Tradition. From an attentive, intelligent and reasonable viewpoint, we are equipped to renew Tradition by living it authentically. Finally, we move forward with love for our faith and one another. Tradition with a capital “T” is not something we serve. We are custodians and colleagues handing on Tradition. The future of the church depends on God, and it depends on our dynamic engagement with Tradition.

(Patrick Schmadeke is director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)

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