Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

Ethnic Diversity and the Latin Mass

In a recent article in the Illinois Times, Massimo Faggioli, a theology professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia, is quoted as follows, of a specific Traditional Mass location:

It’s not an accident that all of these Catholics at the old Mass are white, because one of the things that happened after Vatican II was an ‘inculturation’ of the liturgy. …The Latin Mass is white and European by its definition, because it’s a product of the Catholic Church of the 16th century. So, this is creating serious problems because it is never limited to the liturgy only, but it is always the first step to saying Vatican II was a disaster.

I would far rather ignore these childish accusations, but I fear that if they are repeated frequently enough without rebuttal they will become established as part of the liberal narrative about the Traditional Latin Mass. But in order to shoe-horn the movement for the ancient Mass into the role of the bad guys in some racially-charged political confrontation, Faggioli needs to distort the past and ignore the present. Let’s start with the past.

Faggioli claims that the Mass as experienced in celebrations of the pre-Vatican II liturgical books is the “product” of 16th century Europe. Were it so, it would come from a milieu with completely different cultural and political concerns from those of current American politics, but let that pass, because the claim is false, as Faggioli must be aware. Readers can compare the first printed missal, of 1474, with 16th-century and later examples right up to 1962 to satisfy themselves that no major changes were made in the 16th century. Nor was it new in 1474: that was simply a printed version of what the Franciscans had been using since the 13th century, a version of the Roman Missal for use outside Rome. The last significant changes to the Roman Missal took place between 9th and the 12th century—things like the Preparatory Prayers and Last Gospel, and the development of Low Mass—but it was substantially complete in the 8th century, and its central components were in place long before that. The Canon of the Mass dates, scholars tell us, from the 4th century.

The 4th century is not even Medieval: it is late Antiquity. Before the Muslims conquered North Africa three centuries later it would be anachronistic to contrast “European” with “non-European” culture, since the Mediterranean was not the dividing line between different cultures, but a conduit connecting a region of strongly interconnected cultures, which contrasted with the more remote hinterland in any direction: Germany in the north, Persia to the east, and the Sahara to the south. The ancient Roman Mass was a product of Jewish and Roman religious culture in this Mediterranean world, and it was closely aligned with the liturgical tradition of what the Romans called North Africa (as opposed to Egypt). The liturgy of other parts of the Roman Empire—Greece, Egypt, the Levant, France and Spain—had their own lines of development, but each influenced and were influenced by the others.

When the reformers started pulling things out of the Missal in the 1960s, they sometimes claimed that these things were “late” or “medieval.” They lacked the brass neck to claim they were “16th century”: they had more intellectual self-respect than Faggioli. In some cases they were correct, but in other cases what they removed went back much earlier. The ancient cycle of Sunday Gospels, for example, entirely lost in 1969, provided the subject matter of sermons by Pope Gregory the Great in the year 590. The ancient orations, which the reformers of the 1960s didn’t like because they talked about penance, sin, and grace, reflect the world of the Church’s great African theologians, St Augustine of Hippo and St Cyprian of Carthage.

What of the reformed Mass? When, and by whom, was this created? It may come as a shock to Faggioli to discover this, but it was produced overwhelmingly by a small group of European liturgical experts, closely aligned in age, education, and attitudes. Notoriously, only a few of them were pastors; even fewer had experience of pastoral work outside Europe and North America. What they destroyed was something which had formed the Catholic culture, not just of Europe, but of Latin America, Africa, India, and China.

To a Catholic in Shanghai, in Goa, in Mexico City, or in Cape Town, the ancient Mass is their ancient Mass. It is the Mass which marked the life events of their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. It is the Mass which evangelised their countries, often in the distant past, just as it evangelised England, Germany and Ireland in the early Middle Ages. It is this Mass which inspired their native saints and martyrs. It is this Mass which formed the backdrop to the authentic Catholic customs and art of which they are justly proud, from the wonderful baroque architecture of Catholic Latin America, to the exquisite devotional art of Catholic China.

Faggioli and his gang are determined to deprive them of this Mass, on the basis that he, and a handful of white American and European self-appointed liturgical experts, know better than they what is good for them. Sadly, since bishops all over the world are educated in Rome, a tiny clique of European liberals have outsized influence over what happens in other continents.

The International Una Voce Federation has members and contacts in the Philippines, in Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, all over Latin America, and in a number of locations in Africa, and I know, because I have corresponded with them, that the reason that the ancient Mass is more available in the good ol’ USA than in these places is not because no one wants it there, but because getting permission for it there has been extremely difficult, even under Summorum Pontificum. The bishops have been given the idea, by the likes of Andrea Grillo from his perch in Rome’s Sant’Anselmo university, that the traditional Mass is not part of the officially approved programme. Sometimes from ambition, sometimes from loyalty to the Holy See, and frequently from a feeling that this is the path of least resistance, many bishops in Africa, Asia, and Latin America stifle the traditional Mass in an exercise of clerical power which in any other context Faggioli would be the first to condemn as clericalism. Traditionis Custodes has encouraged them to go even further, as we have seen with the complete suppression of the Traditional Mass in Costa Rica.

To be fair, there are also practical constraints to the development of the Traditional Mass in those places, similar to those in America but biting more sharply. The limited education in Latin of many of the clergy (contrary, be it noted, to the requirements of Canon Law); limitations on resources of time and places where the Mass can be said; lack of money for the support of dedicated clergy, from (for example) the Traditional priestly institutes. Like Americans, Africans are willing to travel for up to two hours, if necessary, to get to Church: but if you are doing that on foot, this gives you a range of about ten miles, rather than more than 100 in a comfortable American car. Making provision for the Traditional Mass in this context is an entirely different ball-game from making provision for it in the rich world.

Despite all these difficulties, however, there are many points of light in the gloom: places where the faithful flock to attend the ancient Mass, and where they experience the same increases in personal devotion and vocations associated with the Traditional Mass in Europe and America. The Traditional Priestly institutes have apostolates in several African countries, and in parts of Latin America. The Apostolic Administration of Campos, an entire parallel traditional diocese in communion with the Holy See, is located in Brazil. The SSPX, thanks no doubt to the extensive missionary experience of Archbishop Lefebvre, have made Africa a priority in their work and have been present in multiple countries for up to fifty years.

This wide appeal of the Traditional Mass is also reflected in congregations in Europe and America which are consistently more diverse in race, sex, and age than local Novus Ordo celebrations. This is a widely noted phenomenon yet I notice that it finds no mention in the Illinois article. If Faggioli wants to make a claim to the contrary, he needs to provide some proper research to overturn the anecdotal evidence provided by traditionalists.

I could leave it there, but I would like to take this brief analysis a little deeper. What exactly is it about the Traditional Mass which made it such a successful tool in the evangelisation of such contrasting cultures as Confucian China, Animist Africa, and the very varied cultures of Latin America? And where does the alternative model of worship, found in the Novus Ordo Missae, come from?

The contrast between the two Missals can be described in many ways, but a useful one in this context is between a rite focused on symbol and ritual, and one which, though it still retains these, shifts the emphasis towards verbal communication and spontaneity. A liturgy celebrated in a language most of the congregation does not understand, and partly silently, is clearly not relying very heavily on verbal communication to get its point across. It uses instead symbols and ritual, dramatic and repeated representations of the truths of faith and of the specific meaning of the rites through dramatic images: washing, genuflecting, incensing, kissing, and so on. The reform of the liturgy drastically cut down on these symbols, and compensated by giving the worshipper a great quantity of information through words, spoken aloud, in a vernacular language, some of it made up on the spot by the celebrant.

Now consider the religious culture of the countries outside Europe which the Church has evangelised in recent centuries, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. These are, in their own ways, ritual cultures. Their native, non-Christian spirituality is expressed through symbols and ceremonies. The people who wanted to shift Catholic worship from a ritual to a verbal event certainly weren’t inspired by native American or African shamans, Japanese Shintoism, or the sacred texts and rituals of Hinduism.

Instead, they were responding to something quite different: a critique of the traditional Catholic liturgy mounted by modern Europeans. The thinkers of the Enlightenment and their intellectual successors liked to pour scorn on elaborate ritual, silent prayer and the use of sacred languages, as obscurantist. They wanted things to be aloud, visible, simple, and easy to understand: a set of propositions which could be set out, analysed, and if necessary defended. They looked at the Catholic liturgy and saw something primitive and barbarous. When they encountered the religious traditions of non-European cultures, they thought these were even worse.

The reform of the Catholic liturgy was done as a concession to this critique. This is not controversial: in saying this I am not making a hurtful accusation, but simply stating a fact which was acknowledged by the reformers themselves. At the time, and since, many Catholics have defended this concession as absolutely required if the Church is to gain a hearing in the modern world, by which they mean the world of European culture influenced decisively by Enlightenment ideas. I leave that argument to others to make. What is undeniable is that this project produced a liturgy not at all desired by Europeans less influenced by the Enlightenment, both by those without a modern, rationalist education, and by those critical of the Enlightenment project, such as the many intellectuals, writers, musicians, and artists, who signed petitions to save the traditional Mass.

It should be even more obvious that this new liturgy was light-years more distant from the authentic spiritual traditions of non-European cultures than the old liturgy had been. Yes, it is true that the reformed Mass is more flexible, and allows the insertion of non-Christian religious elements, and this has created the endless debate about syncretism (bad) vs. inculturation (good) which no-one seems able to resolve. This does not change the reality that the reformed Mass is in itself something completely alien to the religious instincts of almost all non-Christian religions, which are able to find specifically Christian expression in the ancient Mass.

I have written about the relationship between the ancient Mass and the Enlightenment here; and on the affinities of the ancient Mass with the religious culture of Africa, of China, and of the Islamic world. I have done a podcast interview with an anthropologist on the relationship between the ancient Catholic liturgy and the spirituality of the native people of the Amazon region. I have also written about its connection with the spirituality of the post-Enlightenment West: the New Age. We are now living in a time when Enlightenment thinkers and their ideas are being increasingly criticised for being euro-centric, for prioritising a specific model of rationality over all others, and even for being implicitly racist. And you know what? There is a grain of truth in this critique. But Faggioli needs to beware: if you try to use it against the Traditional Mass, it is going to blow up in your face.

Painting: “The First Mass in Wyoming” by Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs. 2020 oil on canvas. Used with permission. 

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...