A very wise man once said, “Because of our traditions, every one of us know who he is, and what God expects him to do.” While no Chesterton, Tevye, the stubborn Jewish father from Fiddler on the Roof is on to something. He tells of traditions for working, eating and even sleeping. Had it not been for the rustic scenery and horses, I might think he was describing my beloved Notre Dame. I’ve done push-ups at football games, danced in the waters of “Stonehenge” and eagerly await the moment I can finally walk up the stairs under the Dome. Or maybe Tevye was describing my country; the reverence we show the Stars and Stripes, the fireworks on Independence Day and it’s just not a real American baseball game without the 7th inning stretch. No, no, he must have been describing my family, what with our obsession with the Charles Village Ruby Tuesday, getting new pajamas from Rudolph (yes, I still believe) every Christmas eve and our New Year’s Eve tradition of shrimp and Tostidos. Traditions are everywhere; they permeate institutions large and small and play a foundational role in defining who we are. Tevye continues, “How did these traditions get started? Well, I’ll tell you…I don’t know.”
Every institution, large or small, has a tradition of…well, traditions, so why should our Church be any different? The Catholic Church practically sweats tradition. In fact, one might consider the Church one great tradition all its own. Our apostolic succession, our devotion to the Word and our prayers to the saints all take part in the great Catholic tradition. But why?
There are those who see no value in the time honored practices of devotion to Mary and the Saints, sacred silence and the most Blessed Sacrament. In an instant-gratification generation traditions are easily cast aside for more stimulated, result-driven practices. I often hear people say that the Rosary and Adoration are boring or pointless. They say that they just don’t get anything out of it. The repetitive nature of the Rosary and the austere stillness of Adoration just don’t speak to the “there’s an app for that” mentality of today’s society.
As one who once thought that way, I can understand the hesitation. I’ve never finished praying through the Joyful mysteries to find the Blessed Mother appearing before me, nor have I knelt in silence before the Blessed Sacrament and heard God tell me exactly what He wanted me to do. The thing with traditions, though, is that they take time. There were probably few who marveled at the first brick that was laid above St. Peter’s tomb, and yet tens of thousands make pilgrimage to the hallowed ground of what has become Vatican City.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, the old saying goes, and neither are our lives of prayer. As each brick was laid in the building of St. Peter’s, so too does each decade of the Rosary, each novena and each hour in Adoration lay one more brick in the church of our prayer lives. True, this process is lengthy, arduous even, but we hear time and time again in the tradition of our Church that we must continue the journey even when the destination is beyond our sight. The Hebrew people travelled for 40 years in the desert before arriving at the Promised Land; surely a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament seems more inviting! Further, the true beauty in our Catholic prayer tradition is that these “bricks” are universal, yet diverse. They come in all colors and are found around the globe, yet each serves the same purpose. The Rosary is the Rosary in Spanish, English or even Chuukese.
Our traditions tell us who we are. A church without traditions would hardly be a church at all, just like a country without traditions would hardly be a country at all. There is a reason that traditions endure through the ages. They speak to a deep part of us that longs for this strong, unifying foundation. While we as Catholics come from all walks of life, we are unified by our tradition. “After all, without our traditions we’d be as shaky as…as…as a fiddler on the roof!”
Patrick J Sullivan is working on his MA in theology at the University of Notre Dame through the Echo Faith Formation Leadership Program and is currently serving in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
 Chuukese is the indigenous language spoken on the Micronesian island of Chuuk.