ROME – While Pope Francis was on his “penitential pilgrimage” in Canada last week, most of the focus was on his effort to heal historic wounds with Indigenous peoples related to Canada’s residential school system. The hope is that the Catholic Church can turn over a new leaf – rather than represent an assault on Indigenous cultures and traditions, it will help to defend and preserve them.

Now, only days after returning to Rome, attention has turned to the remarks the pope made in Canada out of the spotlight, about the church’s own tradition, especially the liturgy and the ongoing battle over the Traditional Latin Mass.

“It is important to have respect for tradition, the authentic one,” Francis said, speaking to members of the Jesuit order in Canada during a private conversation July 29. He described tradition as “the living memory of believers,” whereas “traditionalism” means “the dead life of our believers.”

Tradition, the pope said, “is the life of those who have gone before us and who go on. Traditionalism is their dead memory. From root to fruit, in short, that is the way.”

When looking to the origin of something, it must be seen as a point of reference, “not a particular historical experience taken as a perpetual model, as if we had to stop there,” he said.

Under this mentality, he said, “’Yesterday it was done like this’ becomes ‘it always has been done like this,’” and even necessary change becomes problematic. He called such a mindset “a paganism of thought.”

“Changes needed to be made, and they were made. Law cannot be kept in a refrigerator. Law accompanies life, and life goes on. Like morals, it is being perfected,” he said.

Both the church and society have made important changes over time on issues such as slavery and the possession of atomic weapons, he said, adding that the moral life is also “progressing along the same line.”

This slow development resulting in change is something taught by Saint Vincent of Lérins, he said, and quoted a phrase from the saint: “The dogma of the Christian religion must follow these laws. It progresses, consolidating over the years, developing with time, deepening with age.”

According to this concept, he said, human thought and development “grows and consolidates with the passage of time. Human understanding changes with time, and human consciousness deepens.”

Francis said it is “wrong” to view the church’s doctrine as “monolithic, to be defended without nuance.”

Asked about the importance of liturgy in priestly and religious formation, specifically for the Jesuits, Pope Francis said, “When there is conflict, the liturgy is always mistreated.”

The pope said the aim of his actions on the liturgy, including his decision to restrict the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass, has been “to follow the line taken by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who had allowed the ancient rite and asked for subsequent verification.”

“The most recent verification made it clear that there was a need to regulate the practice, and above all to avoid it becoming a matter, let us say, of ‘fashion’ and remaining instead a pastoral question,” he said.

Last year, Pope Francis tightened permissions for celebration of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, the use of which had been liberalized under his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

According to the decree Traditionis Custodes, priests who wish to celebrate the 1962 liturgy must now get permission from their bishop to continue doing so. Any priest ordained after the issuance of the new norms who wishes to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass must submit a formal request to their bishop, and the bishop in turn must consult with the Vatican before granting permission.

Francis also charged bishops with determining specific times and locations where the Traditional Latin Mass can be celebrated and prohibited the designation of new parishes exclusively dedicated to the Old Rite liturgy.

While exceptions have been made for communities and priestly societies with a special attachment to the traditional liturgy, the decision was met with intense blowback from so-called “traditionalist” communities in the church, who argued that the measure was “cruel” and divisive.

In his remarks to the Jesuits in Canada, Francis said he looks forward to further studies that will refine the church’s reflection on the topic, saying the liturgy “is the people of God’s public praise!

The topic of traditionalism also came up on Pope Francis’s return flight to Rome.

When responding to a question on whether the church would ever reconsider its position on the use of contraceptives by Catholic couples, he said, “A church that does not develop its thinking in an ecclesial sense is a church that goes backwards.”

“This is the problem today of many who say they are traditional,” he said, saying these people are not traditional, but “backward-looking.” Rather than going forward, he said, they move backward “with no roots: it has always been done like this; last century it was done this way.”

Francis called this backward movement “a shame,” and repeated his remarks to the Jesuits, saying, tradition itself “is the living faith of the dead,” this “backward-looking” gaze of those who profess themselves as traditionalists, “is the dead faith of the living.”

Tradition is the root and is the “inspiration for the church to move forward,” he said, saying this movement “is always vertical.”

“It is important to understand well the role of tradition, which is always open, like the roots of the tree, and the tree grows,” he said, calling tradition in this sense “the guarantee of the future.”

“It is not a museum piece,” he said. “If you conceive tradition as closed, this is not the Christian tradition. It is always the juice of the roots that carries you forward.”

Pope Francis praised the work done by the country’s bishops to prepare for his visit and their unity in their process of healing and reconciliation with Indigenous communities.

“When an episcopate is united, then it can deal with the challenges that arise,” he said, saying miracles can happen “when the church is united.”

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