One of the most misused words in our Catholic parlance is “tradition.” Genuine tradition has two components.
The first is time. Traditions happen over and over again for many years. Twenty years. Fifty years. Two millennia. “New tradition” is an oxymoron.
Traditions arise organically from communities; they cannot be created out of thin air.
The second component of tradition is meaning. There is a deep and profound purpose for doing what we do, which can be explained and understood generation after generation.
Practices that go on for many years but lack meaning are not traditions. We have another word for such things: habits. When the meaning is superficial and amounts to some version of “I like it,” this also is not tradition. This is called preference.
Many problems arise when we confuse habits, preferences and traditions.
For example, staff meetings are always on Tuesday mornings. No one recalls a time when it was done otherwise. When a new boss wants to have meetings on Wednesday afternoons and serve cookies instead of pastries, she might encounter protests: “But tradition!” It’s not a tradition; it’s a habit.
When I was a choir director at a new church, I quickly learned that the singers used “tradition” as a magic word to enshrine their favorite pieces in the parish repertoire. If something was sung a few times and someone liked it, it became “tradition.” It’s not a tradition; it’s a preference.
Another thing about traditions: because they are rooted in both time and meaning, they are relatively easy to resurrect. Consider the COVID-19 pandemic. In our parishes, we laid aside many liturgical traditions, parish picnics and the like for the better part of two years. Many families skipped cherished holiday traditions. In the city of Louisville, the Derby and related festivities went dormant. We need not worry about genuine traditions fading away. If they have meaning, they return.
One of these latent traditions of the Church is the Eucharistic procession, which I have noticed more and more coming out of its hibernation. Because this practice connects us to the Church throughout the centuries, and because it has a clear and deep meaning — bringing Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament to the world — it is ripe for a comeback.
On the other hand, it’s sometimes the case that we learn in a period of dormancy that something we thought was tradition was just habit in disguise.
When practices lack meaning, or their meanings are thin, or their meanings are not explained and understood to subsequent generations, they easily die. If they have depth of time and meaning, traditions easily spring back to life.
This little sermon on tradition is especially relevant in times of transition and new leadership, whether in a diocese or parish, a school, a workplace or a family. We must be flexible with changing habits and preferences. They come and go. We must be careful and deliberate about altering genuine tradition. And we must use the word “tradition” accurately and sparingly, not as a bludgeon to get our way. We do all of this by asking God to grant us wisdom to know the difference.