“Clericalism has a direct consequence in rigidity. Have you never seen young priests all stiff in black cassocks and hats in the shape of the planet Saturn on their heads? Behind all the rigid clericalism there are serious problems.”
—Pope Francis, September 5, 2019 address to Jesuits in Mozambique
Though it is one of the more prominent themes in the Holy Father’s preaching, “clericalism” can come across as a word without a clear definition. But with the recent address of Pope Francis to Jesuits in Mozambique, we begin to see where it comes from. It is “rigidity,” stiffness, that is a defining feature of clericalism. This rigidity with which clericalism is bound up is nothing new. Pope Francis has frequently spoken out against it, describing it as an obstacle to bringing the Gospel to different cultures in 2018’s Gaudete et Exsultate:
It is not a matter of applying rules or repeating what was done in the past, since the same solutions are not valid in all circumstances and what was useful in one context may not prove so in another. The discernment of spirits liberates us from rigidity, which has no place before the perennial ‘today’ of the risen Lord. The Spirit alone can penetrate what is obscure and hidden in every situation, and grasp its every nuance, so that the newness of the Gospel can emerge in another light” (§173, emphasis mine)
As with clericalism, the meaning of rigidity is nebulous. Based on the pope’s descriptions, though, he might be thinking of your average Latin Mass priest who dons a freshly starched cassock and preaches about the fashionable sins of the day and the hard sayings of Christ. To those who oppose rigidity, this priest will look out of touch and uncompassionate, chained to centuries gone by to the point that he cannot possibly appeal to the modern world. How can he expect to repeat ancient rules in the modern era? How can he understand “modern man,” trapped as he is in his imperialist mindset, shackled to his restrictive ideology?
What is missed here is that these rigid priests have become more and more appealing. They follow Christ passionately, even uncompromisingly, knowing that He makes specific and perennial demands of us. Many priests bend the teaching of the Church in the name of compassion, flexibility, or accompaniment (another nebulous term).
Of course we all want compassion. Of course we all want to be accompanied on our journey to our heavenly homeland. But as they are now used by clergy, these terms are ambiguous. This ambiguity can be and often is co-opted to push a radical agenda. Christ accompanied His people, but He rebuked them when they attempted to lighten the strict demands of the Gospel. Peter is a prime example (cf. Mt. 16:22–23). His effort to preserve Jesus from the Cross is met with a sharp rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan!” And let us not forget Our Lord’s diatribe against the scribes and Pharisees: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (Mt. 23:23).
The apostles recognized that Christ wanted rigid adherence to His precepts. Though they stumbled along the way, they ended their lives confident that they were planted in the truth, which would set them free. They stood rigid and uncompromising before the threat of martyrdom, ready to give their lives rather than accommodate the rulers of this world. They lived and died by the maxim “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Many dying communities focus on social outreach and have an active pastoral council, giving them a semblance of life. Built as they are on the desire for comfort and accommodation, these same parishes are bending under the pressure of the modern world. This leads to liturgical compromise and an identity that is increasingly secular. By contrast, priests who know what they are about and will not compromise with the modern world draw attention. The number of parishes offering the Latin Mass continues to grow. In their ardent defense of the perennial truths of the Faith, they have become safe harbors for the disillusioned and confused.
These communities look rigid and austere on the surface, yet the priests who watch over them are not distant. They may wear cassocks and hats in the shape of Saturn, but this does not prevent them from vigorously fostering the initiatives of their parishioners. Their rosary groups, potlucks, devotions, and homeschooling co-ops are not the substance of Catholicism, but they point to a community who knows how to live its demands joyfully. The rigid demands of the Catholic faith, expressed in unequivocal rubrics and precepts, present a challenge to the faithful. This is precisely what they are looking for. When given a challenge that seeks to honor God whatever the cost, Catholics flock toward the source and go out to meet the demands proposed to them. This is the same response that the apostles had.
The attraction to the Latin Mass is growing not because priests are accommodating or sentimental, but because they are ardent in their efforts to serve our Lord well. Their parishioners realize that there is something in those austere rubrics that allows for true, palpable worship of God. The Novus Ordo can lead to this, but its built-in customization means that it often does not. When the Mass can be customized, the priest can choose to set his own will or the will of his parishioners against the will of God. A priest who follows the rubrics of the Latin Mass does not have as much room to do this. The sacred liturgy, based on the precepts of Christ and His Church, shapes the priest, not the other way around.
What many priests and bishops fail to understand is that it is the very rigidity of the Latin Mass that makes it effective. We know that God set down certain guidelines for how He ought to be worshiped. From the specific dimensions of the tabernacle in Exodus to the words of Christ at the Last Supper, there are a variety of inflexible liturgical precepts. Jesus, Saint Paul, and the ecumenical councils of the Church lay down doctrinal propositions that have no room for ambiguity, anathematizing those who would oppose them. When we hear in Mark 16:16 that whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but the one that does not believe will be condemned, the message is clear: Jesus wanted all of His disciples to be baptized and to believe in Him. If not, they will be condemned.
The liturgical and doctrinal precepts of Christ and His Church are clear and unambiguous, even rigid. They promise abundant blessings for those who follow them and threaten excruciating punishments for those who would set them aside. When a Catholic knows that God makes these demands and knows the consequences of following them, he seeks a community that assiduously keeps them. He seeks priests who are stewards of Tradition, not arbiters of the liturgy.
God has shown us how He ought to be worshiped and has given us the path to life. He does not give us many options: there is one Way, one Truth, and one Life (Jn. 14:6). When this Way, Truth, and Life is followed in His person, precepts, and rubrics, great things result. We know this not only from the blessings promised in Scripture to those who follow the Lord, but also from the draw of the Latin Mass. The candles, incense, silence, chant, structure, and lectionary all contribute to an otherworldly atmosphere, to an insertion into the mystery of the Passion of Jesus Christ.
It is the rigidity of the rubrics that makes this possible. Christ and His Church have laid down specific precepts. If these are not adhered to, neither Christ nor His Church is adhered to. The Mass becomes focused on man to the degree that it becomes flexible, able to depart a little from what Christ requires. When the Mass ceases to be rigid, the priest can more easily shift its focal point. Its focus can shift to a variety of objects, but none of them will be Christ. Once worship loses its center, faith is not far behind.
Lex orandi, lex credendi. The attractiveness of a community that refuses to put God and His precepts second to the demands of modernity is palpable. Rigidity, understood as a firm adherence to what Christ has handed on to us, is what makes this possible.
David Dashiell is the associate director of liturgy for a group of parishes in the Pittsburgh area, where he lives with his wife and child. After growing up in Maryland, he earned his Master of Arts degree in theology from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. He continues to read and study theology and the liturgy in his spare time. His other interests include music and philosophy.