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A Lesson Learned

March 21, AD 2012 35 Comments

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I don’t usually think to support heresy, but this time, I owed a family member.

So on a weekend where I could have been celebrating, well, anything, I packed a bag and spent a “retreat experience” with a group of women who can only be rightly described as “stretch pants ladies” – elderly post-Vatican II holdovers who have a deeper commitment to elastic waistbands than they do to Catholic dogma – discussing the relative benefits of seeking God within, group confession, and the gender of the Holy Spirit.

You might think I’m joking – a Traditional Latin Mass girl who is more likely to debate her way into (controversially) wearing pants to Mass and engage in the relative benefits of different Natural Family Planning formats than to give a minute of her time to the thought of women priests – would undertake a full forty eight hours of meditation, prayer circles and bad clip-art and worse poetry, led by a woman with an extensive collection of pan-Asian trinkets purchased from those “fair trade” stores liberals tend to shop at to alleviate their own guilt, but there’s a lesson in everything. Even in the heresy.  Even when, at Mass in the morning, the woman behind you is, quite loudly, replacing “He” and “Him” with non-gender-specific pronouns.

And that lesson occurred to me as the room broke out in titillated laughter when a group leader referred to the Holy Spirit as “She.” How brave. How insolent.

How droll. How unoriginal. How unimaginative.


The stretch pants ladies mean well, but the road to Hell is paved with sinners who thought they were doing the right thing at the right time (and possibly with Haas and Haugen albums, but I’ll have to wait until I get there to see), and despite our 20/20 backwards vision on the 1970s, where nothing – be it the synthetic fabrics or the Masses in the Round – seemed to add to our collective cultural heritage, they’re caught up in a time when they, themselves, seemed anti-Establishment, even counter-cultural. The strict conformity of the 1950s was giving way to an era that made people free to make their own bad decisions, even if it also ushered in an era where government became the solution for failing consciences. To these ladies, who came of age during a time where liberalism was indeed overturning the mores of century that preceded it, thumbing their nose at even the most settled parts of the Catholic faith must seem scandalous, in the same way short skirts and bobbed haircuts seemed to Victorian-era debutantes.

Given enough time, however, they became, themselves, the Establishment – the status quo. Now, after years of evolution, their theology dominates – or dominated, depending on who you ask – and quick, dirty references to female pronouns and whispered discussions about birth control don’t seem quite as shocking. Now, as a new generation grows into the Church and discovers within it a rich history of spirit, tradition, even art and music, to be countercultural means to be the woman who leads her seven well-behaved children to Communion every Sunday. To be countercultural means to carry in your possession a chapel veil and a chaplet of Divine Mercy. To be countercultural means to stand up in the public square and be the voice speaking out for a generation who have experienced the trials of a world so focused on death and the absence of life, against the ever rising tide of voices who challenge your perceived anachronism. To be countercultural now is to stand up and refuse to accept cultural degradation and the sins of tolerance.

The lesson we – or I, maybe – can take from my experience is that a strong counterculture can mean a day when the counterculture no longer exists, but it can also mean a day when we become complacent in how we view our own goals and what we understand to be our moment of success. Stay here, at this moment, forever, thinking of ourselves on the outside, and risk a future like the stretch pants ladies’ substituting Maya Angelou poems for Gospel readings: a future where we’re not continuing to grow and develop, understand and communicate, fight and believe.

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  • Richard

    When I read the following: “To be countercultural means to stand up in the public square and be the voice speaking out for a generation who have experienced the trials of a world so focused on death and the absence of life, against the ever rising tide of voices who challenge your perceived anachronism. To be countercultural now is to stand up and refuse to accept cultural degradation and the sins of tolerance.” I could not help but think of the David Haas song “Voices that Challenge” Maybe from that song we could learn how to stand up and speak out. I need to go back and dig up something I started writting couple years ago following the lines of that song. As mentioned above, many women religious communities have become more moderized and secular in nature, losing much of their original idenity.

  • Jennifer

    Emily, I’m not sure what it means to be “rightly described as a stretch pants lady.” You might describe me in this way because I prefer to dress comfortably and am middle aged. Yet I am as faithful to the Magisterium of our Church as a broken human can be. I wonder if I am missing an element of your argument here, or if you perhaps you are engaging in a lack of charity that is not helpful to forwarding your argument.

  • Bain Wellington

    Jennifer, “stretch-pants ladies” is a defined term in the article:- “elderly post-Vatican II holdovers who have a deeper commitment to elastic waistbands than they do to Catholic dogma”. So, evidently – on your own self-description – you fall outside the term. Let’s not be too quick to assume a lack of charity, especially where the tone is light-hearted and Emily concedes that the SPL are well-meaning.

  • Dan

    This is funny and winsome, good job. I personally love to see stretch pants ladies lampooned. It makes me happy.

  • Carolyn

    Oh, to be young….and to be so sure of yourself…and to be so judgmental and critical of others as they attempt to live their faith. Keep this and read it to yourself in thirty years. I wonder what you’ll think.

  • Aaron

    Carolyn, the point isn’t that the author is “so sure” of herself. Rather, she is sure of her Church. There’s quite a difference. It is the people who are espousing women-priests, promoting birth control, and replacing the Gospel from the mass for some feel-good poetry that are “sure” of themselves. These people may be attempting to live “their” faith, as you say, but they are intentionally living a faith different from the Catholic faith.

  • Yes, Emily, you might be embarrassed about what you wrote here in a few years. But if you take my advice you might be able to avoid the full brunt of that pain.

    What I’m about to say, given the accidents of culture, might be easier for the guys to accept than for the ladies, but here goes:

    I am 56 years old, and I look absolutely ridiculous. “Shaved gorilla with glasses” would probably be an accurate description. I don’t have any stretch pants, but they wouldn’t make me look much more ridiculous than I do wearing anything else.

    It wasn’t always so. I see pictures of myself as a young man, and I didn’t look half bad as it turns out. But I sure look ridiculous now, especially when I wear suspenders. On a couple of occasions I have actually looked at myself in the mirror and started laughing.

    So, you’re right, Emily. Old people do look ridiculous. As you can tell, rather than lament this state of affairs, or try to ignore it, I have decided to embrace it. I bask in my ridiculous appearance, and have no problem with young people, who are all beautiful as it turns out, from enjoying a chuckle or two from it.

    But, Emily, the day will come, if you are fortunate enough to live so long, that you will look ridiculous too. You will become one of us: the ones who look ridiculous. You may well spend a good portion of your life in that state.

    When that day comes, I hope that you will embrace it as I have. That way, when you look back on this article and wince a little bit, and all of us who look ridiculous have those to look back on, the blow will be softened to the extent that you can say, “I was right then, and I’m still right.” Then you will be able to don your spandex pants and march proudly out into the world, knowing that, even if it is true that youth is wasted on the young, you wouldn’t take it from them for a million dollars.

  • it is very simple. Remain obedient and faithful to the Holy Father and Magisterium,know Church teaching.

  • Angelina Steiner

    I love your article. The old folks who hang on to the delusion of youth are truly ridiculous. These ladies are probably out of shape, yet they want to appear youthful by wearing stretch pants. Ha!Turning old and ugly is a good thing. Death is a good thing for it keeps us humble. It’s Divine comedy! You think you’re hot stretch pants ladies but you’re probably full of strech marks! I love making fun of prideful people!

  • Pamela J. Zimmer

    All I can say is that a skirt of modest length and girth covers a multitude of body woes.

  • Wayne T

    Emily, I’d have more respect for you as a Catholic if you reported that you had been honest with the group you were on retreat with; and described how you displayed your love and trust by discussing your perspective with your fellow retreatants; rather than evidently saying nothing to them about your faith, feeligns and observations, and then hurrying to ridicule them, and thier generation, on this blog “for the JP2 and B16 generation”. Remember, it has been the “Vatican II generation” that elected JP2 and B16!

  • Emily

    Oh, I did. As charitably as possible. 🙂

  • Wayne T

    Good to read that.
    How did your fellow retreatants respond?

  • Cerisse

    Whatever point you were trying to make was lost in your contempt, and you’ve wasted an opportunity to influence your readers.

  • Dan

    Of course she’s not saying that stretch pants are bad of themselves. It isn’t about fashion. She’s saying they’re an apt symbol for the dated 70s-era trends stamped all over the Catholic Church from Vatican II on that have made everything so so cheesy at the local level. And also made the stretch pants ladies feel entitled to get huffy and shrill when you question their own special deviations from the traditional things. i think charity should be rough and masculine somehow instead of the always apologetic worrying about offending 70s era kum-by-ya sharing circle kind, for a change. It would be more appealing for men and when men stay in the church everyone stays, statistically speaking. we should cater to men more often, our numbers will increase that way

  • J.R.

    Oh, Cerisse, I think she made her point perfectly well. In fact, the penultimate paragraph, the one that begins “given enough time” states it quite eloquently. Perhaps if you had not been so busy being offended, you wouldn’t have missed it.

  • Jay

    You can always tell where someone falls theologically by how they react to characterizations of the hippy nuns who hope for women priests and wear the funny clothes.

    Nothing sets off those into heresy (or tolerant of it) like:

    1) veils
    2) kneeling communicants
    3) knowledge that the church didn’t begin with V2

    They are also very quick to presume a lack of charity, which is impossible to know and an uncharitable act in and of itself

  • Michael

    Emily’s points are not “judgmental” – she spot on in her assessment. I’m 47. I’ve had a front-row seat since 1970 through guitar-slinging nuns, the introduction of altar girls, the “renovation” of my home Church where the beautiful high altar was ripped out and the entire sanctuary was stripped of all statues and anything devotional, Communion in the hand, college classes at my nominal catholic college where in my first mandatory religious studies class in 1982 I was taught by a young female assistant Yale trained professor who was a self-declared agnostic that (A) the Virgin Birth and the parting of the Red Sea were mythology, (B) thinking of the Blessed Trinity as masculine was to engage in sexist thinking (my prof. had us read her hero Mary Daly during that class) and (C) African American slaves had nothing on the misery and oppression heaped upon women by the oppressive male-only Catholic hierarchy. There were Masses in my dorm basement where we all sat on the carpet in a big circle – 20 feet from utilized washers and dryers and the idle ping-pong table. Many years later – and many retreats and hundreds of times playing guitar at Mass- I’ve come home to the Traditional Roman Mass in and Archdiocesan approved “Extraordinary Form” of the Mass. This 1962 Missal Mass is not people-centric but rather focuses exclusively on the Sacrificial Offering of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in atonement for our sins.

  • Jack & Wayne,

    Emily is charitable.

    If orthodoxy offends you, I might like to say that you would enjoy reading the National Catholic Reporter, where syncretism mixes well with modernism in the kool-ade.

  • Everett Bonds

    Orthodoxy includes the Inquisition, Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors.” Do they offend you.

  • Whoa, Tito, are you talking to me? I decline to defend myself against something so lacking in perceptiveness. Such a readiness to perceive hostility is going to embitter you. Such a willingness to exclude is going to isolate you.

  • Jack,

    Yes, I’m isolated in the arms of the Bride of Christ.

  • No, Tito, I don’t think that’s it.

  • M. K.

    Why call the other retreatants “women who can only be rightly described as “stretch pants ladies” – elderly post-Vatican II holdovers who have a deeper commitment to elastic waistbands than they do to Catholic dogma” ? If they didn’t have a commitment to Catholic dogma, they wouldn’t have gone on the retreat. Unless, like you, they owed somebody a favor.

    Seriously, these women are Catholics who stayed in the Church when thousands walked out and never came back. They stayed through all the craziness, having to deal with the changes, with no opportunity to attend a traditional Mass. They did the best they could to raise good Catholic kids and they did volunteer work for the parish. And you went there intending to judge them, to look down on them with all the wisdom of someone who wasn’t there and doesn’t know what it was like. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    Jesus loves the old ladies with elastic waist pants. Remember that.

    Jesus loves everybody and He told us we must do the same. No exceptions, no matter how unfashionable their clothes are.

  • Speaking of the elastic-waisted ladies, why not mention the men who revert back to their pre-pubescent stage wearing knickers(shorts)in church? Maybe they are just trying to one another! It would seem so by the volume of their annoying socializing in church before Mass.

  • Did Vatican II abolish reverence and respect in the House of God? Did Vatican II reverse the roles of whom we worship, God or our fellow man? A priest stated that to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength was on par with love of our neighbor. I thought it was in a category of its own. Isn’t love of neighbor was on par with the love we show ourselves? Could this possibly be the problem with the new mentality at Mass? That we are more important than our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier? The author of the article states the same problem in a clever way.

  • Criticism is never uncharitable if it helps another realize his errors. It’s called constructive criticism and some of the above commenters should make the distinction that the author is intending. The elderly were participants in the august majesty of the Tridentine Mass and they should be role models of reverence and respect in demeanor and dress to the younger generation who may not have had the privilege they had in attending it.

  • David

    MK — Think about what your’re saying:

    The ‘stretch-pants ladies’ stayed precisely because their personal tastes were not only being accomodated but promoted by many in the American branch of the Catholic Church (and I crafted that description carefully). There was a period of ‘craziness’, yes, but the main ideology of the prominent leaders, not just but, after Vatican II what we might call ‘periti’, was that Vatican II allowed for personal reconstruction of the faith, and corporate sponsorship of that same wackiness. They stayed because their expereince and personal styles were validated while those who sought a deeper, orthodox tradition Catholic faith and practieces were ridiculed as archaic.

    The “Spirit of Vatican II” crowd minunderstood RENEWAL and took it to mean REINTERPRETATION. The very same mistake was made by the protestation REFORMATION (so-called). A true re-form, and re-newal is ALWAYS conservative – in that it seeks to conserve the past, the truth, the tried-and-true traditions that have not only proved helpful but true, while at the same time finding new and understandable expressions of that tradition. Thus, BXIVs hermenuitic of continuity. Even the VII documetns EXPLICITLY state that all changes are to be ‘organic’ out of the tradition — as all changes and shaping of the Mass and traditions had always been (and yes, there were changes and adaptations,etc, long before and continually happening for centuries before VII). Thus, VII envisions true RENEWAL and REFORMATION — not invention and creation ‘ex nihilo’ as much of the ‘craziness’ accepted and promoted did.

    I must confess, I was one who did leave during those crazy days of the ’70s and ’80s. I regret it and, like the prodigal son, came back to my right mind and am home. I witnessed the radical dissent, changes, looniness and didn’t see a place to stand and fight (which I confess would have been the right course), and I sought the truth in protestantism (even spending nearly 15 years in ‘ordained’ ministry as a pastor), only the find that any truth protestantism still “officially” professed (whci there is some), was always and only preseved from CATHOLIC teaching and dogmas, even though they vehemently deny it.

    In the days before EWTN, and my own access to such journals as the Register, and certainly NO internet, I grew up thinking that what I saw in particular in the out-of-control dioceses in my area was the direction of the WHOLE Church, and the POPE himself was leading us in this direction. HOWEVER – we certainly know that wasn’t the case. I now have come to discover the teaching, mentoring, exhortation, and good, fatherly discipline and direction that came out of not only the Pope’s teachings but the magisterium as a whole, EVEN THOUGH IT WAS HIDDEN FROM OUR VIEW AND HEARING. The solid ground I sought to stand on (Christ’s Church and not “my” ground) was always here, though I, both through my own blindness and outside imposed ‘veils,’ couldn’t see it.

    Now, while these particular “stetch-pants ladies” we not likely the progenitors of the movement, they are, willfully or innocently ignorantly, perpetuating this false, divisive, self-indulgent narcissism which was for far too long tolerated, but, thankfully, is losing ground because of the great leadership of Benedict XVI, the magisterium, and, in growing number, our own US bishops. We’re coming up on 50 years since the beginning of Vatican II — most all major “renewal” coucnils took 50 – 100 years to really settle into the psyche and dna of the Church. Watch and wait on the Lord (for it).

    Oh, and to Mr. Bonds — be careful when trying to attribute too much accidents of history to a single source (i.e. orthodoxy) PEOPLE can often do horrific things with the best of intentions. Besides, the “Inquisition” you refer to (as do all those trying to impose their own aganda on the Church by throwing in such ‘red herrings’) is referncing particularly the Spanish Inquisition, which was in its practice and execution more an excercise of the state than Church. And what in the Syllabus do you object to?

  • Everett

    What I object to in the “Syllabus” is Pius’s condemnation of the freedoms of religion, conscience, speech, and the separation of church and state. He insisted the state should support the Catholic faith. His successor, Leo XIII, added one more heresy to Pius IX’s list….Americanism. At Vatican II, for the first time in the history of the Catholic Church, the freedoms of religion, conscience, speech, were granted to all, and the separation of church and state was considered necessary. The principle of “error has no rights,” an integral part of the Catholic Church since at least the fifteenth century, was tacitly repudiated.
    I wasn’t thinking merely of the Spanish Inquistion, but even that could not have operated without the pope’s permission. The Inquistion was established by Pope Innocent III in the early thirteenth century, and operated in nearly all European couintries; England was one of the few exceptions.

  • Wayne T.

    Thank you for commenting and responding here. You make me think, and give me hope that maybe I am not totally nuts.

    I was in high school during Vatican II. I guess I am one of those old people, or, as Emily would say, a “Vatican II holdover”, greatful for elastic waistbands. It’s clear that JP2 and B16 generation would like my kind to just die and go to hell; because we fell in love with what they consider a “bad”, unorthodox version of the Catholic Church; the Vatican II version.

    But, no matter what the young and “orthodox” generations may hope for, I still believe the Catholic Church is mine to claim, as much as it was Thomas Merton’s, Dorothy Day’s, and Pope John XXIII’s. May they rest in Peace, and their progeny carry on.

  • Everett

    tican admit error?). Vatican II effectively,but tacitly, ended the Catholic Church’s traditional opposition to civil freedoms. You decide his motives, but JPII canonized Pius IX.

    To those “Orthodox” who want to go back to the traditional mass should go all the way to the beginning. Read the fourteenth chapter of I Corinthians. There the Apostle Paul tells us how we are to conduct ou assemblies.

  • Everett

    Apparently, the first part of my post was cut off. I need to correct one error in my first post; Gregory IX started the Inquistion, not Innocent III, in the thirteenth century.
    Pius IX opposed nearly every form of civil liberty. When he issued his “Syllabus” in 1864, most Catholics, especially American Catholics, were outraged. Most westen nations were offended. The “Syllabus” was official Catholic teaching until Vatican II. At that time, the teaching was effectively, though tacitly, repudiated. Do the “Orthodox” want to go back to “error has no rights”? The Orthodox are offended by the post-V2 mass. They want to go back to the traditional Latin mass. Well, let’s go all the way back. Read First Corinthians 14. here, Paul tells us how to conduct our assemblies.

  • Jennifer

    For the record: I didn’t assume a lack of charity. I asked a question. I am still not clear from the article what the purpose of insulting their appearance is because in my mind it doesn’t seem related to the doctrinal issues the article raises. The reason I asked about charity is that it has seemed to me that Americans are quite free in making fun of others’ appearances. It has also seemed to me that this tendency does not help us to educate people in the faith. I also do not find such things “lighthearted” in their tone. I genuinely wanted to know what relationship she saw in her description of these ladies and their attitude toward the Church. I personally haven’t found a correlation between attractiveness/stylishness and strong faith.

    But as I said, I’m always open to misunderstanding someone else’s writing. I’ve been publishing my research and poetry for many years, and I know how easy it is to make incorrect inferences from this beautiful, complex thing we call English. But at the end of the day, I think this blog probably is not intended for me, so I’ll bow out. Thanks so everybody for your thoughts.

  • Cephas

    Em, you’re tlm!? I had no idea! Good stuff. Keep on keeping on, and let’s pray those who have left may come back. Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia.

  • Emily

    Hahah…yeah. Did you see my wedding? Kneeling for two hours!! 😉