Church Life Journal Insults Eastern Liturgies with Amateur Scholarship

Above: a Coptic iconostasis in the diaspora showing the liturgical curtains which veil the altar from the laity.

Note: the following open letter was written by a regular reader of Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal, in response to an article, published there on November 1st, that was guilty of egregious errors and insulting characterizations. The author, who is not able to attach his name to the article for circumstantial reasons, has shared it with OnePeterFive so that it may help others to see some of the many flaws in the article under critique.—Dr. Kwasniewski


To Whom It May Concern:

I have been a reader of the Church Life Journal in the past, and have enjoyed particular articles I have read there, enjoying the journal’s tone of “dynamic orthodoxy.” When I came across a recent article by Dr. Cavadini, Dr. Healey, and Fr. Weinandy, however, on “Papal Responses to the Emergence of the TLM Movement,” I was taken aback by how grossly inaccurate and insulting the essay was.

Not only were several factual errors made throughout the author’s commentary, but as a Catholic who enjoys both the Usus Antiquior of the Latin Rite, as well as being a descendant of Ukrainian-Greek Catholics of the Byzantine Rite, I found myself flummoxed by how the authors of the essay seem to completely dismiss the good fruit that comes from the “Tridentine Latin Mass.” I am equally appalled that the authors paint those who find spiritual solace, and find themselves sanctified by the grace of this ancient rite, as mere “silent spectators.” I would like to make a few comments in response to such an essay that would’ve benefitted from more diligent scholarship, even though I do not know who will be reading these comments. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to share some of my thoughts so as to set the record straight on some of the egregious errors and assumptions that have been made within this essay.

First, let me begin by saying I don’t begrudge anyone wanting to worship in the “Ordinary Form” according to the Missal of St. Paul VI. As a millennial cradle Catholic, I worship regularly in both the Extraordinary Form and Ordinary Form, as well as the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in the Byzantine Rite. I also enjoy visiting the other Eastern Rites including the Ge’ez Rite, West Syrian Rite, and East Syrian Rite. However, I am typically at a parish run by the FSSP, so most Sundays I participate in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass in the Latin Rite. But for someone to say, as the authors of this essay do, that I’m not participating in the Mass when I go to the Usus Antiquior, that’s a step too far. It is difficult for me to fathom how someone can tell me the Mass I worship at is limited in its ecclesiology and that this ancient Rite was not inspired by the Holy Spirit for our sanctification. If this form of the sacred liturgy was uninspired, then Catholics of the Latin Rite were led astray for well over 1,000 years by the Church herself!

I’m astonished at what the authors have written, and especially so because I’ve held all three in such high esteem. In one breath they affirm how the Holy Spirit worked in “renewing the liturgy,” yet tear down the Usus Antiquior as being incapable of uniting priest and people to offer the Holy Sacrifice together, and therefore not owing its inspiration to the Holy Spirit. The authors say, “The Church’s tradition, of which the liturgy is a constitutive element, is not frozen in time but is a living tradition that develops with the help of the Holy Spirit, in fidelity to the deposit of faith.” Do the authors truly believe the Extraordinary Form (the Usus Antiquior) is frozen in time?

The Latin Mass is Not a Museum Piece

They cite an old and irrelevant 1974 document (Conferentiarum Episcopalium) that had no way of anticipating that the Extraordinary Form would continue to have an active part in the life of the Church, leading up to the peaceful coexistence of both the Ordinary Form and Extraordinary Form, not to mention other uses like the Anglican Use, Zaire Use, Ambrosian Rite, etc. To try and claim as the authors do that “the Council Fathers” envisioned the “‘ordinary form’ would become the sole form of the liturgy celebrated in the Roman rite of the Church,’ is absolutely preposterous. Again, the various uses within the Roman Rite show this is view is simply false. Even in this 1974 document, it was acknowledged that the Extraordinary Form could be salutary and beneficial to the life of the Church.

But to further dismiss this notion the authors apparently hold, regarding the Extraordinary Form not being a part of “the living tradition that develops with the help of the Holy Spirit,” one need only look to two recent decrees by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 2020. The first, Quo magisallows several new prefaces to be used during Mass in the Extraordinary Form. As the note for the presentation of the decree says, the decree itself “constitutes the completion of the work previously initiated by the [Ecclesia Dei] Pontifical Commission in order to carry out the mandate given by Pope Benedict XVI to add some additional Prefaces to the Missal of the forma extraordinaria.” What’s more, the note makes clear that

Four of the newly approved texts, namely the Prefaces de Angelis, de Sancto Ioanne Baptista, de Martyribus and de Nuptiis, are taken from the Missal of the forma ordinaria… From now on, these may be used wherever Mass is celebrated in the forma extraordinaria. Two of the seven Prefaces will allow to aptly give more prominence to liturgical celebrations in honor of certain leading figures in God’s design, as manifested in the history of Salvation, namely the Angels and St. John the Baptist, which hitherto both lacked a proper Eucharistic Preface in the Usus Antiquior.

What we see is not an ossified liturgical rite, only being good enough for a “museum piece” as other commentators have opined, but instead we see that there is organic development and growth in a living liturgical rite of the Church.

The second decree, Cum sanctissma, was promulgated “to facilitate the celebration of more recently canonized Saints according to the forma extraordinaria of the Roman Rite.” 1960 was the last updating of the Roman Martyrology, before the 1962 Missal of Pope St. John XXIII was issued. This means it is now possible to celebrate the feast days of recently canonized saints after 1960 in the Extraordinary Form, and on the dates designated for them on the Ordinary Form’s calendar. While these permissions are optional and not obligatory, the note for the presentation of the decree observes that, “The new Decree also opens a further possibility for cases in which, whilst following the existing calendar, one wishes at the same time to honor eventual other occurring Saints. Specifically, according to n. 6 of the Decree, an ad libitum commemoration of an occurring Saint may be made, if said Saint appears in the Proprium pro aliquibus locis or in the future special Supplement.” So not only may saints be commemorated in the Mass that were canonized before this decree, but even newer saints like the St. Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, who was canonized on October 9th, 2022.

A concrete example of these commemorations being used can be seen in the post of one priest who decided to celebrate the feast of St. Gianna Beretta Molla. She was commemorated on her feast day of April 28th with the “common of Holy Women.” Even though St. Paul of the Cross is commemorated this day on the Extraordinary Form’s calendar, priests now have the option to instead celebrate Mass in honor of St. Gianna on April 28th if they so wish. In light of these two decrees, it’s unclear how the authors of the essay can possibly hold that the Usus Antiquior is “frozen in time.”

The Holy Spirit Inspired the Ancient Roman Rite

But to return to the notion that the Church’s Tradition (including the sacred liturgy) “develops with the help of the Holy Spirit,” I agree with the authors that this is true. What doesn’t make sense, though, is how the authors can seriously imply that the Holy Spirit did not help the sacred liturgy develop in a way that would be beneficial and salubrious for the faithful of the Roman Rite in the centuries prior to the Second Vatican Council. How is it that the Holy Spirit could allow a “less adequate ecclesiology,” as they put it, and “a rite [which] undermines the doctrine that the ordained priesthood is ordered to the service of the baptismal priesthood of the faithful” develop and be utilized for over a millennium? To hold such an opinion of the supposed deleterious effects of the Usus Antiquior upon the faithful is in direct contradiction of the orthodox teaching of Pope Pius XII. In his 1947 encyclical, Mediator Deithe Holy Father states the following:

The more recent liturgical rites [i.e., the Gregorian/Tridentine Rite] likewise deserve reverence and respect. They, too, owe their inspiration to the Holy Spirit, who assists the Church in every age even to the consummation of the world. They are equally the resources used by the majestic Spouse of Jesus Christ to promote and procure the sanctity of man (61).

So instead of “the Holy Spirit [assisting] the Church in every in every age,” as Pius XII rightfully observed, the authors would have us believe that the Usus Antiquior is a rite that is basically only “position[ing] the faithful as ‘silent spectators’” and is a rite which also possesses “a more limited and less adequate ecclesiology, one that makes it appear that the Mass is essentially the provenance and activity of the priest,” and apparently not the people.

This is simply false.

Again, such an opinion, as the three authors seem to hold, is in contradiction of not just of Pope Pius XII, but it is in contradiction of the Church herself which teaches that the Holy Spirit guides us age to age. This includes the time before the promulgation of the 1969 Roman Missal. How this essay “rise[s] above the controversy that besets many Catholic conversations in the public sphere” is unclear. Unfortunately, it only seems to attack the liturgical life of many Catholics, both living on Earth and among the Church Triumphant, including, but not limited to, great men and women like St. Padre Pio, Sts. Louis and Zelle Martin, St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Therese of Avila, St. Bonaventure, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Francis of Assisi and countless others!

Nobody is saying that the “Tridentine Mass” was in need of no reform around the time of the 1950s. There were abuses that needed to be corrected, as there were in every age. What is erroneous is even the implication that the Holy Spirit did not guide the Church and her development of the sacred liturgy during the ages prior to the Second Vatican Council.

Editor’s note: we must also observe lamentably, that the article’s authors, by dismissing Summorum Pontificum as a “pastorally motivated,” unwise decision which “undercut the fundamental liturgical principle of liturgical renewal,” substantially misunderstand and misrepresent the Ratzigerian corpus on liturgical theology to such an extent as to question the depth of their study of the latter’s New Liturgical Movement – its origins, aims and methods. Even a cursory reading of Ratzinger’s thought (for example, here and here) immediately reveals the inaccuracy of this straw man and historically falsifiable claim, which the Pope Emeritus himself preemptively called “just absolutely false!” before the Holy Father made this argument in Traditionis Custodes, which this article repeats. -TSF

The Tridentine Rite is Much Older than Trent

What is also erroneous, bearing in mind the list of saints above spanning centuries, is the authors’ claim that the “Tridentine Mass” has only been around for “400 years” and that “the Tridentine Mass was itself a reform” on a scale similar to the reform enacted by Pope St. Paul VI. First, the Usus Antiquior has seen only very slight changes since late antiquity, solidifying in the 6th and 7th centuries to look essentially as the Extraordinary Form of the Mass does today in the 21st century. Michael Fiedrowicz observes the following (citing Fortescue’s comprehensive 1917 work on the Mass) in his book, The Traditional Mass, after laying out the form of the Mass in this time period:

[T]his structure of the Roman-Latin liturgy of the Mass has only seen slight changes. All further modifications were incorporated into the existing structure in such a way that it’s most important parts remained undisturbed. Since the time of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), the text, in particular the Canon, as well as the Ordo Missae, survive as a holy tradition that, with the exception of insignificant details, none dared to touch. In this respect, the classical celebration of the Mass can be rightfully referred to as the Rite of St. Gregory (p. 12).

But even if some are squeamish to call the Extraordinary Form “the Rite of St. Gregory,” the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments basically confirmed what Fiedrowicz lays out above in a decree promulgated in 2003 on the occasion of a new translation of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. In this decree, we find the following:

In a difficult period when the Catholic faith on the sacrificial nature of the Mass, the ministerial priesthood, and the real and permanent presence of Christ under the Eucharistic species were placed at risk, St. Pius V was especially concerned with preserving the more recent tradition, then unjustly being assailed, introducing only very slight changes into the sacred rite. In fact, the Missal of 1570 differs very little from the very first printed edition of 1474, which in turn faithfully follows the Missal used at the time of Pope Innocent III (section 7).

Pope Innocent III reigned from 1198-1216. Even just taking this into consideration, the pedigree of the Usus Antiquior is at the very least double the length of time indicated by the authors of the essay. Virtually nothing changed in the missal used by Innocent III, to that of Pope St. Pius V’s Missal, to that of Pope St. John XXIII’s missal; a period of at least 800 years. If one were to look farther back than Innocent III, as Fiedrowicz, Fortescue, and other scholars of liturgy show, it will be clear that direct continuity of these missals goes back even further to the time of St. Gregory the Great.

Insulting Eastern Catholic Liturgies

I could say much more regarding the errors in this essay, but I will leave here a final observation. I find it ironic that this essay is an indictment not just on the people who have an affection for the Usus Antiquior of the Latin Rite, but also the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in the Byzantine Rite, the Holy Qurbono of the West Syrian Rite, and all other traditional rites of the Eastern Churches. All these “problems” and “deficiencies” the authors point out about the Usus Antiquior stare them right in the face in liturgies of their very own Eastern Catholic brethren. How can they not be aware of what they’re doing, and how insulting their words are to Eastern Catholics?

The authors state that, “Moreover, in the extraordinary form, the faithful are deprived of the incomparably fuller lectionary promulgated after Vatican II. This deficiency is a great loss…” In the Byzantine liturgical year, not to mention that of other Eastern liturgical rites, there is no two or three year cycle. It is an annual cycle every year. Not to mention, typically there is only one reading, the Epistle, before the Gospel.

Just as it is in the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite.

Would the authors dare say that the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is “deficient” and has “deprived” the faithful by not having a larger lectionary? As the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh observes,

The liturgical year is a system of yearly church celebrations by which the faithful repeatedly relive the salutary mysteries of their salvation. In the liturgical year Our Lord Jesus Christ continues to live with us, to teach us, and to lead us to our heavenly destination.

Each year, Catholics within these particular Churches of the Byzantine Rite relive the same mysteries and read the same Gospel readings each year, just as all Latin Catholics used to. Even their Sundays are named after the specific readings, such as “The Sunday of the Man Born Blind”, “The Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee”, “The Sunday of the Prodigal Son.” One cannot simply say that one Lectionary is inferior to the other. Byzantine Catholics, just as Latin Catholics, had a reason for keeping the one year lectionary, mainly, that it helps to more easily remember, recall, and commemorate the moments of our Lord’s life in the Gospels, and other specific moments in the history of salvation throughout the rest of Scripture.

More Insults Against the East

Another charge the authors level against the Usus Antiquior which unintentionally indicts the Byzantine Rite as well, is seen here: “To return to the unreformed rite is to return to a rite that… makes it appear that the Mass is essentially the provenance and activity of the priest. He alone celebrates, at a distance from the onlooking faithful as though the offering were not theirs too.” What would the authors say if they walked into a Ukrainian Catholic parish, saw the towering iconostasis separating the clergy from the laity, or the doors in that same iconostasis that only open from the inside by the hand of the deacon or priest? The laity surely look on from a distance as no one except the ordained ministers and male acolytes may even enter into the sanctuary beyond the iconostasis. Since the authors apparently believe that the laity don’t offer the Holy Sacrifice along with the priest in the Usus Antiquior, isn’t the same then also true in the Byzantine Rite? Sometimes, depending where the laity are sitting or standing, they can’t even see the priest celebrant during the Holy Sacrifice because their vision is blocked by the iconostasis! They aren’t even “onlookers” at this point, I suppose.

Or what would the authors say if they visited a Syro-Malabar Catholic or Syro-Malankara Catholic parish, or any of the particular Churches that make up the East and West Syrian Rites? At certain times of the liturgy, a curtain is pulled to completely obscure the view of the laity, having a literal barrier between the clergy and lay faithful. Would the authors still say that the offering is no longer the faithful’s as well?

I do hope that in the future, the Journal and its authors will do more research on liturgical topics before posting such essays as this again. Their essay does great harm in propagating easily dismissed errors, and it serves to drive a further wedge not only between Catholics of the Latin Rite, but between our Eastern Catholic brethren as well. When we start casting doubt on whether the Holy Spirit was at work in the Sacred Liturgy of years and centuries past, we find ourselves in an untenable position when we then turn around and claim that the Holy Spirit now, and not then, is at work in the liturgy; and at that, by implication, only in the reformed liturgy of the Latin Rite, since the liturgies of the Eastern Rites (particularly the Byzantine Rite) have remained largely untouched. I thank you for your consideration in reading this, and may God bless you.



A Concerned Reader and Brother in Christ


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