Recently, my grandson Thomas received his first Holy Communion at a parish I have visited only a few times. My wife and I assist at Mass at a different parish, in part because it offers the traditional Latin Mass. The day after Thomas’s first Holy Communion at the Novus Ordo church, some children at our parish received their first Holy Communion at the Latin Mass. Among the differences between the two Masses were these:
- Entering the Novus Ordo (N.O.) parish, one was struck by the banter — the sheer noise of loud conversation. At the traditional Latin Mass (TLM) parish, one was struck by the quiet reverence in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
- The first announcement at the N.O. parish was an admonition against parents taking photographs during the Mass. A professional photographer had been hired to do that. At the TLM parish, by contrast, pictures were permitted before and after Mass, and there were no professional photographers. The Mass was not a “photo op” for anyone.
- Most of the people at the N.O. were dressed casually; most of the people at the TLM were dressed much more formally (coats and ties, etc.).
- The music at the N.O. parish came from the Gather hymnal, offering a heavy dose of horizontal theology, meaning we celebrate ourselves. The first sung hymn was Marty Haugen’s “Gather Us In.” At the TLM, the schola sang beautiful hymns, praising God.
- The reading (not the Gospel, which the deacon read) at the N.O. was done by one of the children who would receive Holy Communion that day. At the TLM, the priest read the Epistle and the Gospel in Latin, and he gave the translations before his sermon.
- At the N.O. Mass, the priest’s homily — given to the children (in the nave of the Church) — amounted to saying that (1) God is good, (2) the children should be good, and (3) the parents would be very happy — laugh line — to have such good children. These three ideas were repeated to the children for about twenty minutes. Occasionally, the priest would “interrupt himself” to ask questions of the children: “Who is very good all the time?” And “All the time, who is very good?” At the TLM, the sermon from the ambo — offered to all — was a well prepared reflection on the Good Shepherd.
- The N.O. children received our Lord standing, in the hands. Children at the TLM received our Lord kneeling, on the tongue. See Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s comments here.
- Before the final blessing at the N.O. Mass, the priest called for rounds of applause for the parents, for visitors, and for everyone who had helped to prepare the children for the sacrament they had just received. At the TLM, the final blessing and the “Last Gospel” (John 1:1–14, as always) marked the conclusion of holy Mass. There was no applause.
- After the final blessing at the N.O. Mass, the loud banter resumed, more loudly than before Mass. As the TLM concluded, most of the people knelt to offer a prayer of thanksgiving.
What, then, may we conclude? We might read Bishop Schneider’s Dominus Est, in which he makes the case for reception of Holy Communion only on the tongue. We might read Cardinal Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy, in which he warns us against applause at Mass, signaling the danger of “a kind of religious entertainment.” We might read Cardinal Sarah’s God or Nothing, which teaches us that a liturgy made for ourselves “becomes a ridiculous, vulgar, boring theatrical game.” These analyses, and so many others, are, in their own way, merely repeating the prophetic admonition of Jacques Maritain more than fifty years ago in The Peasant of the Garonne: “That a good many Christians kneel before the world is a fact perfectly clear.” When the Mass “kneels before the world,” we have sinned grievously against the First Commandment, putting ourselves and our profane societal actions and artifacts before the sacred words and actions of the divine liturgy.
I do not mean to argue from an academic base; that has been well done many times in the past half-century. What has perhaps not been considered as thoughtfully as it ought to be is the religious impact upon ordinary parishioners of the practices I saw at the N.O. Mass I have described here. The ordinary parishioner, after all, does not read Schneider, or Ratzinger, or Sarah, or Maritain. The ordinary parishioner is, however, routinely influenced by the liturgy in which he prayerfully participates (please God). When that liturgy is consumed by worldly affections, customs, and interests, the liturgy then teaches that Christ and His Church are matters of taste, not truth; that the sacraments are enjoyable and periodic rituals, not vessels of grace; that our divine responsibilities are optional, not mandatory for our salvation (cf. John 12:25–26).
When the liturgy intends to make us “feel good” rather than inspire us to holiness; when the liturgy is a celebration of our community rather than an expression of our love for God and our humble acknowledgment of our need for His grace; when the liturgy implicitly advises us to listen to secular counsel rather than to God’s revealed will — then human appetites and urges are elevated to the level of piety, and catastrophic moral confusion is sure to follow (cf. CCC #387, 398, 409,1783-1785, 2526).
Does all that evil flow directly from seemingly innocuous hymns, from banter before Mass, from relatively minor liturgical irregularities? No — but every Mass helps to create a cast of mind according to which we learn to seek God and His Kingdom, or, instead, devote ourselves to apotheosizing the mundane — and to the perennial heresy of trying to make ourselves gods (which is the essence of modern liberalism). Not for nothing are we instructed to be faithful in small things that, in time, we might be trusted with greater ones (Luke 16:10). The liturgy prayed poorly or personally (meaning innovatively) or perfunctorily helps to create in parishioners the habit of a self-indulgence that will grow, in time, to the point that we place our subjective wills and wishes ahead of moral truth.
Years ago, I had a seventh-grade mathematics teacher who used to say, “Habit is a cable, and we weave a thread of it every day.” Profaning the liturgy — making it a banal matter of everyday routine — teaches us that we can bend rules, modify teachings, or change commandments to fit the fads, fashions, and fancies of the day. In short, we incrementally (innovative Mass by innovative Mass) learn to kneel before the world.
I am grateful that my grandson received his first Holy Communion, the liceity and validity of which I do not doubt. Nor do I mean, in any way, to cast aspersions upon the character of the N.O. priest, who was doing the best he could at a parish mired in 1970s-era “church culture.” To the parishioners of the N.O. parish, though, I want to say that it is indeed good that they desire for themselves and their children the higher gifts, but “I shew unto you yet a more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31). Come to the traditional Latin Mass!
Deacon James H. Toner (M.A., William & Mary; Ph.D., Notre Dame) is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has contributed numerous columns to The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, One Peter Five, and the Wanderer. He and his wife Rebecca have three sons and eleven grandchildren.