15 September 2021, The Tablet

Liturgical reform and the custodians of tradition

Liturgical reform and the custodians of tradition

Steinmeyer organ in the medieval cathedral in Trondheim, the Lutheran church where Erik Varden was ordained as a bishop in the Catholic Church a year ago.
Photo: Jonas Höhmann


Pope Francis has declared that the liturgical books promulgated by Paul VI and John Paul II are the unique expression of the ‘lex orandi’ of the Roman Rite. The application of this principle is entrusted in every diocese to the local bishop, who will, at the same time, provide for the good of those who are rooted in the previous form of celebration. The role of the bishop is to be ‘traditionis custos’, ‘a custodian of tradition’. But what is ‘tradition’ and what does it mean to exercise ‘custodianship’? A recently ordained bishop suggests we see the Pope’s ‘motu proprio’ as an invitation to reflect on what it means to live, as Catholics, with tension

Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church, describes the office of a bishop by means of several beautiful titles. If you happen to be a bishop, they are also pretty intimidating. You are, you are told, 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 Traditionis Custodes, his motu proprio on the use of the Roman Liturgy prior to the reform of 1970, the Holy Father stressed a further epithet. He reminded us that a bishop is also traditionis custos, “a custodian of tradition”.
For that definition, I, a novice bishop, am grateful. It is tempting, when ordained as a bishop, 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 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.

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