Life Illumined

Traditionis custodia

You can find Italian, Spanish, and French translations of the essay below through this link. A German version can be found here.

Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s splendid Constitution on the Church describes the office of a bishop by means of beautiful titles. If you happen to be a bishop, they are also pretty intimidating. You are then, you are told, to be a ‘shepherd of the Church’ (n. 18), a ‘successor of the Apostles’ (n. 18), ‘the visible principle and foundation of unity’ in your diocese (n. 23), ‘the steward of the grace of the supreme priesthood’ (n. 26) and much else besides. In a recent motu proprio, the Holy Father stressed a further epithet. He reminded us that a bishop is traditionis custos, ‘a custodian of tradition’. For that definition, I, a novice bishop, am grateful. 

It is tempting, when appointed to such an office, to think that much depends on you. Pope Francis reminds us that this is not the case. A bishop is but a link in a long, long chain which goes by by the name of ‘tradition’. This word is a noun of agency. In Latin, traditio indicates the act of passing something on. A bishop charged with custodianship of tradition must ensure that transmission continues. He looks back with attention, gratitude and grace to receive what is handed on to him; he looks forward expectantly, wishing to convey, undiminished, the treasure with which he has been momentarily entrusted. 

‘Undiminished’ is not a synonym for ‘unchanged’; still, caution is called for. I must not reduce universal patrimony to a product merely of my preference. When the Council urged us, with what I’d presume to call Cistercian emphasis, to return to the sources, it was with a view to restoring fullness where particular choices had issued in constraint and made broad places narrow. To live, work, and pray as the Council taught is to be like Isaac, that mysterious patriarch. He left few words for the record, worked few monumental acts. Still, his example is notable. Unconcerned to leave a mark of his own, ‘Isaac dug again the wells of water which had been dug in the days of Abraham his father; for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of Abraham; and he gave them the names which his father had given them’ (Genesis 26:18). Restoring access to paternal wells, he made sure his children could drink. 

I think often of an incident in the life of Giovanni Battista Montini, later Pope, now Saint, Paul VI. Having been appointed to the see of Milan, Montini had an audience with Pius XII. As the two men took leave, the ageing, ailing pope gave the new archbishop this counsel: ‘Depositum custodi’. It is a phrase of substance. The notion of the depositum fidei is ancient. It refers to the fullness of faith contained in both Scripture and Tradition; it stands for that without which Christianity would not be itself. It is not a static notion. The deposit will find ever new ways of expressing itself. It speaks many languages. It is able to assume different cultural forms. To find its most authentically christophorous articulation here and now is a challenge for each generation of believers. What matters is this: not to reduce it to less than itself. 

Montini succeeded Cardinal Schuster to the see of Milan in 1954. It was a time of turmoil and uncertainty. Of this Pius XII was more aware than most. He did not tell Montini to be a broken record—to keep mouthing old truths in old ways. He knew that searching intellect, that sensitive priest, too well. What he told him was: go and pastor your variegated, scattered flock; find words and gestures they are apt to understand, but do not compromise; have confidence that the deposit entrusted to you from of old will contain the germ of answers you need to address the questions of today; live out of that deposit, dig into it, and deeply. This was how Montini explained the pope’s words in his inaugural address, which pointed to the millennial tradition of the Church as a source of ever new relevance and originality.

These days there is a tendency abroad that seeks to reduce ‘tradition’ to a term of partisanship, something one can be either for or against. It makes no sense. The moment I look upon ‘tradition’ as an object, a possession within my grasp (whether to reject or jealously to preserve it), I reduce a living process to a thing. I assign myself the task of an antiquarian charged with granting or rejecting preservation orders. That is quite different from being a custodian. There is a beautiful line in the Church’s compline hymn. It asks the Maker of all things, ut solita clementia sis præsul ad custodiam. Custody is a function of constancy in clemency. To exercise it is no not to lag behind but to go ahead. The word ‘praesul’, often rendered ‘protector’, literally means ‘someone who leaps or dances in front’, like David before the Ark (2 Sam 6:14ff.). There must be humble energy in custodianship, and grateful joy. Careful of what lies behind, it makes us fit to move forward. 

It goes without saying that all will not always agree on how to negotiate tradition. There is room for respectful, constructive dispute. There always has been. Part of what makes the Church catholic is its capacity to sustain tension, to wait for apparent antitheses to be resolved — by grace, in charity, not by compromise — in synthesis. We struggle with this aspect of Catholicism today. Why? Partly because the pace of life has made us too impatient to give any process at all the time it needs to work. Partly because we fall prey to the peculiarly twenty-first-century, self-aggrandising delusion which assumes that our times are categorically different from all other times and so ever call for categorically new measures. We could do with re-reading Ecclesiastes. And with remembering a lesson or two from Church history. One such was offered us recently by the liturgical calendar.

On 13 August we had the option of keeping the memoria of Sts Pontian and Hippolytus. Not all Catholics will have a spontaneous devotion to these two. It is a pity. They have a great deal to teach us. Pontian was bishop of Rome 230-35. The Church’s outward position then was fragile, imperial tolerance intermittent. Within, it was riven by disagreements to do with Origen. That incomparable theologian had been condemned by two Alexandrian councils whose edicts Pontian approved. There was strife, too, about forgiveness of sin. Are there people irreparably beyond the pale on account of acts they have committed, whether of moral failing or connected with apostasy? The popes increasingly envisaged reconciliation to communion through penitence. This policy sparked strong responses. 

Chief among critics was the priest Hippolytus. Philippe Levillain’s distinguished dictionary of papal history refers to him as a ‘traditionalist’. Hippolytus was soaked in Greek thought. Origen, who heard him preach, admired him. Hippolytus deplored what he saw as lax, thoughtless attitudes on the part of the hierarchical Church. Gradually he mobilised an alternative communion. Whether he was in fact, as is sometimes claimed, an ‘antipope’ remains a moot point; but he was certainly a thorn in the side of Rome’s legitimate bishop. 

When, in March 235, Maximinus the Thracian acceded to the imperial throne, he wished to undermine the Christian presence in Rome. A convenient way to do so, he thought, would be to deprive the Church of its heads. He recognised two: Pontian and Hippolytus. So he had them both arrested and packed off to hard labour in the Sardinian mines. There, the two old opponents were reconciled. Both recognised the other’s Christian sincerity notwithstanding differing opinions on particular matters. Pontian, sensing he would not live long on account of the treatment meted out to him, abdicated his office, the first pope to do so. He died in October 235. Hippolytus died not long after. Within a year or two Pope Fabian had their bodies brought back to Rome. The Church honours both men as martyrs: we celebrate them with red vestments, within a single feast, as if the testimony of one would be incomplete without the other. The collect for the feast of Sts Pontian and Hippolytus offers wholesome food for meditation, perhaps also for self-examination:

Patientia pretiosa iustorum tuæ nobis, Domine, quæsumus, affectum dilectionis accumulet, et in cordibus nostris sacræ fidei semper exerceat firmitatem. 

May the precious patience [a word within which the Latin root ‘passio’ is embedded] of the righteous, Lord, increase in us a heartfelt attachment to your love; and may it at all times exercise our hearts to firmness in holy faith.

The abbot, says the Rule of St Benedict, must bring forth from his treasury ‘what is new and what is old’. Unexpected harmonies arise. Witness the Steinmeyer organ in Nidarsodomen, Trondheim. Photo by ©Jonas Höhmann.

This essay appeared in The Tablet 18 September 2021.