The scene is a parish church.  A congregation has assembled for Sunday Mass. The opening hymn begins with a grand flourish.  The celebrant processes into the church amid alleluias and mighty blasts from the organ. We reach a mini-climax.  The music ends. Then, there is a moment of silence while the celebrant adjusts his microphone. He smiles.  And what are the first words out of his mouth? “Good morning, everybody” THUD! You can almost hear something collapsing . . . The church building, the music, and the celebrant in flowing robes all seem to to say, “This is a ritual,” an event out of the ordinary.  Then, the “Good morning” intrudes itself and indicates that this is really a business meeting and not a liturgy, after all. -Thomas Day, Why Catholics Can’t Sing

Church or file cabinet?

In Why Catholics Can’t Sing Thomas Day takes a close and often acerbic look at what is wrong with the liturgy as it is all too often celebrated in Catholic churches. A major theme, as we can see in the excerpt above, is that reformers and others (both clerical and lay) who are responsible for planning and conducting liturgical celebrations ignore the importance of ritual – of sights, sounds, scents, and actions – in fostering our relationship with God.  While there have been some marked improvements since Day’s book was first published in 1991 (most notably Pope Benedict  XVI’s Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum in 2007, about which more below), we’re nowhere near out of the woods yet.  

     This is not just a matter of aesthetics, by the way.  Yes, a poorly celebrated or even a lackadaisical Mass can still be valid, and the Eucharist confected by an irreverent priest is still the Body and Blood of Christ.  The Mass, however, is more than just a delivery system for the Eucharist.  It is also the highest form of prayer. It helps us to find communion with our Lord on a number of different levels, and prepares us, ideally, to be properly receptive to the Grace of the Eucharist.  And, if we truly believe that the Mass is bringing us the Real Presence of the Second Person of the Trinity, well, can we possibly be reverent enough?

     It might be helpful to consider the Ark of the Covenant, the receptacle for the Hebrews’ holiest objects.  The Book of Exodus takes three whole chapters (Exodus 35-37) to describe its construction in exacting detail.  Later, a man named Uzzah dies because he touches the outside of the Ark unworthily, and King David himself is afraid to take so holy an object into his home. (2 Samuel 6:6-10) Now, the Ark of the Covenant contained manna, the staff of Aaron, and the tablets containing the Ten Commandments.  Those are certainly very holy objects, but can they compare to the actual body and blood to the Divine Son of the Living God, for which every one of our churches, and the liturgy of the Mass itself, are the receptacles?  Shouldn’t we celebrate the Mass with at least the same reverence as the Hebrews showed when they approached the Ark of the Covenant?

“David Bearing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem” by Domenico Gargiulo, c. 1640

     Our failure to see the Mass for what it is can be called a lack of vision. Proverbs 29:18 is sometimes translated, “When there is no vision, the people will perish.”   Should we be surprised at what happens when our celebration of the Mass embodies a diminished or even altogether missing vision of the miracle at its center?

     I’ve had some very concrete experiences related to this issue just in the past week. The church my family regularly attends is not a Latin Mass parish, but it has been steadily moving in a more traditional direction over a number of years: there is plenty of incense; chant and polyphony were a regular feature before Covid and now are coming back; extraordinary ministers who were displaced because of Covid show no sign of returning, and the kneelers in front of the altar that encourage kneeling and receiving on tongue look like they’re staying.  Last year the free-standing altar in the attached chapel was removed, leaving only the original high altar against the back wall. Masses there (including all daily Masses) must be conducted ad orientem, with the priest and people together looking in the same direction, facing the Lord as one body [see my previous post, “Cardinal Sarah was Right: Darmok and Jalod Ad Orientem“, for the story of Cardinal Sarah’s sadly squelched attempt to encourage this venerable practice].

     Last Sunday I had occasion to attend a second Mass at a different parish, and it was a different parish indeed.  The church was filled with loud conversation before Mass, until a white-haired gentleman holding a guitar greeted the congregation with an explanation of the musical selections for the day’s Mass.  The music itself was the all-too-familiar selection of quasi-folk music concocted by Dan Schutte and company back in the 1970s. The atmosphere was casual, and (horribile dictu) the congregation clapped at the end of the liturgy.

Facing the Lord together: Mass ad orientem (NCR)

     Not that it was all bad.  The celebrant was a young, orthodox priest who had arrived in the parish just a couple years ago. He himself had a reverent demeanor, and delivered a very good homily that channeled St. Thomas Aquinas in the first half, and St. Ignatius of Loyola toward the end.  He did not start with a joke. The young pastor may be trying to move things in a more traditional direction (it was better than it had been the last time I was in that church before his arrival), but it’s hard to change the local culture of a parish in a short period of time.

     Another thing that jumped out at me: in contrast to Mass I had attended at my usual church earlier in the day, which had been attended by people of all ages, with plenty of young people and more than a few large families, the vast majority of the congregants here were over 65 years old.  There were only a handful of young people and children.  I found myself wondering if this parish would still exist in twenty or thirty years (without vision, the people will perish).   The young, enthusiastic, faithful pastor simply wasn’t enough: Catholics don’t go to church for the priest, they go for the Mass.

     I attended daily mass at yet another parish later in the week.  Yet again, the priest was fairly young, energetic, and orthodox, but again the music was trite, and again the congregation was casual and mostly elderly.  I was the only person who knelt for communion.  When I was back in my home church for weekday Mass Friday morning, Fr. offered up the sacrifice ad orientem, facing toward the Lord at the head of a congregation of all ages who filled the pews behind him. A line a dozen people long waited to go to confession after the liturgy was over. Again the contrast was stark. Proverbs 29:18 tells us the people need vision to survive; the next verse says “By mere words a servant is not disciplined, for though he understands, he will not give heed.” (Proverbs 29:19) We need more than words, we need to act.

    My experience of the past week was not out of the ordinary, not for me, and not for other people I know personally or who have recounted their experiences in public fora.  Since I returned to the practice of the faith three decades ago I have lived in four different states and have attended Mass in numerous churches, including Traditional Latin Masses in at least three different places. The more traditional the liturgy, the more committed and diverse the crowd.  What is especially striking is that young adults and young families, the future of the Church, are found in much greater numbers at the more old-fashioned Masses.

“[Young Catholics] felt its attraction and found in it a form of encounter with the mystery of the Eucharist particularly suited to them.”

Pope Benedict XVI, Summorum Pontificorum

     When it comes to the Mass, you can’t get more old-fashioned than the Mass of Pius V, commonly known as the Tridentine Mass or the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). The TLM is the liturgy as it was celebrated from the time of the Council of Trent (and in most respects much earlier) until the post-Vatican II reforms of fifty years ago or so. This ancient form of the liturgy was almost completely unavailable  to lay Catholics in the 1970s. Pope St. John Paul II responded to the desires of many Catholics by making it available with permission of the local bishop in 1984 (the Indult Mass).  The TLM continued it’s steady come-back, and Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2007 Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum, lifted most restrictions. In his letter Pope Benedict pointed out that the older form of the Mass “had never been abrogated.”  He also recognized is wasn’t simply older Catholics nostalgically asking for the Mass of their youth, but also younger people who have “felt its attraction and found in it a form of encounter with the mystery of the Eucharist particularly suited to them.”

     If you’ve been to a TLM Mass anywhere in the past twenty years you know that people in the the second of those two categories far outnumber the first.  In every Latin Mass I’ve attended the number of people old enough even to remember the pre-Vatican II Mass was tiny, about proportional to the meager handful of under-twenties I saw at the guitar Mass I described above.  Young families, I repeat, are the future of the Church, and they are powerfully attracted to, and sustained by, the Traditional Latin Mass.

     It’s not only the still relatively small number of Catholics who attend the TLM who benefit from its gradual revival.  When he issued Summorum Pontificum Pope Benedict expressed the wish that “the two Forms [i.e., the TLM and the new Mass of Paul VI] of the usage of the Roman Rite can be mutually enriching.”  I believe that the appeal and vitality of the older usage has indeed been a big influence on the return a more traditional celebration of the new usage in my home parish, and in many others like it.

     That, I think, is why ideologues imbued with the Spirit of Vatican II see the TLM and Summorum Pontificum as such a threat. The more Catholic worship returns to more traditional forms, the more their vision of a Church in the image and likeness of the secular world seems to be slipping away. It’s not simply the Latin Mass: the Mass represents the entire project of remaking the Church that is summed up in the “Spirit of Vatican II” label.  Predictably, when the Vatican published a few slight additions to the 1962 missal that governs the TLM last year, some of the ideologues published an “open letter” expressing shock and dismay that the Church would do the slightest thing to suggest that the Mass of the Ages was anything other than a dead letter: “it no longer makes sense to enact decrees to ‘reform’ a rite that is closed in the historical past, inert and crystallized, lifeless and without vigor. There can be no resuscitation for it.”  In other words, believe us, not your lyin’ eyes. Those faithful, devout, enthusiastic young Catholics you see flocking to the TLM are just a figment of your imagination; our real future lies with the dwindling crowd of geriatric guitarists.

     Given all of the above, the rumors that the partisans of the Spirit of Vatican II have prevailed upon the Pope to rescind Summorum Pontificum seem surreal.  In a time when church membership has reached a historic low and shows every sign of continuing to drop it seems near suicidal to try to throttle the one area of vibrant growth in the Catholic Church.

    Before we hit the panic button, however, there are a couple of things we should bear in mind.  First of all, the rumors, well-attested though they may be, are still only rumors until the Vatican actually publishes something.  It might be a false alarm; there might be a real document, but one substantially different from what we’ve been hearing; it might be just a trial balloon to see what the reaction to a future move might be.

     Or, on the other hand, it might all be true. Suppose the Pope does rescind Summorum Pontificum? Does that mean the TLM goes back underground, and we all need to learn to sing the harmony parts to “On Eagles Wings”?

The Battle of the Bulge

     By no means.  If the ideologues couldn’t crush the Traditional Mass fifty years ago when they were young, vigorous, and riding the crest of the Vatican II wave, they’re not going to do it now.  Their moment has passed.  This is their Battle of the Bulge, the last dying gasp of an already defeated and all but dead power. The sensus fidelium, the “sense of the faithful,” which never demanded the diminished liturgy of the 1970 missal in the first place, is now actively against them.

     I’m not saying the Battle of the Bulge was a joke, by the way: the Americans suffered an additional 90,000 casualties, the Germans a similar number, and it probably delayed the end of World War II in Europe by one to two months.  But it was futile, doomed to fail.  If in fact the expected blow against the TLM comes, there will be bad consequences, and spiritual casualties, but like all worldly enterprises, it will eventually fail and pass away.

. . .  now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7)

The most fervent Catholics are the ones most attracted to more traditional expressions of liturgy, including the Traditional Latin Mass. As we see Joseph Ratzinger’s prediction of a smaller but more committed Church become more of a reality, it’ pretty clear where the core of that future Church is coming from. The Traditional Mass is not going away.

4 Responses

  1. Thank you – I am hoping there will be no suppression of the Latin Mass. I read that one of the ideas being floated is to segregate Latin Mass communities to a parish where only the Latin Mass is offered. That’s what the previous bishop of a diocese in Florida did – he moved the Latin Mass community to a parish church that was run down and in a rough neighborhood: In addition to the TLM, that parish still offer Novus Ordo Masses three weekday mornings and on Saturday evening. Many parishioners travel long distances to attend Latin Mass at that parish. The pastor works very hard and is a good and faithful priest who takes good care of his flock.
    I would appreciate comments from you or any reader of this blog on this article from Latin Mass Magazine; the article makes me think it would be a good idea to have multiple parishes devoted to the Latin Mass for any of the faithful who want to avoid parishes that distribute communion in the hand:

    1. Interesting article – you have probably gathered from my blog that I’m an advocate of receiving on the tongue (which is still officially the norm, by the way – receiving in the hand is an exception granted by indult). I plan to discuss this at greater length in my weekend post. Plurimas gratias ago for your thoughtful comments!

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