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The Gift of Liturgical Tradition Cannot Be Dismissed

On January 18, 2020, Homiletic & Pastoral Review published an article by Dr. Mary Healy entitled “The Gift of the Liturgical Reform.” The author seems oddly unaware of what is known about the history of the liturgy and its governing principles, the genesis of the Novus Ordo Missae, and the scholarly considerations of those who maintain that it does not effect the reforms requested by Vatican II and that it is a seriously flawed invention rather than a legitimate liturgical development. She does not even mention Annibale Bugnini, the Novus Ordo’s architect, who manipulated both his own committees and Pope Paul VI, as Yves Chiron documents with a historian’s acumen. Her failure to acknowledge the highly problematic institution of the Novus Ordo and the tragic, unjust suppression of the traditional Latin Mass is astonishing.

Bugnini’s massive reform project, conducted along simultaneously antiquarian and modernizing lines, has borne highly mixed fruits, some of them rotten and still plentifully in our midst. (To her credit, Dr. Healy seems to concede this.) The reform has been subjected to extensive and penetrating scholarly critique by, among others, Klaus Gamber, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Stratford Caldecott, Thomas Kocik, Martin Mosebach, Lauren Pristas, Aidan Nichols, Alcuin Reid, Andrew Wadsworth, Uwe Michael Lang, William Mahrt, Daniel van Slyke, Joseph Shaw, and — perhaps the name will be familiar — Joseph Ratzinger.

Any article defending the Novus Ordo should surely take into account the shared concerns of such a distinguished group of liturgists and scholars. Of all this ferment, Dr. Healy’s article shows little to no awareness. The content and tone are not at all different from what can be read in any issue of Notitiae or Worship from ca. 1965 to 1975. Her piece is composed of bold assertions rather than careful and precise considerations of the reasons many today advocate for a return of the traditional Latin Mass.

Since the claims Dr. Healy presents have been answered in articles readily available online, my goal here is to furnish an annotated guide to helpful resources, organized under the headings in her article that indicate “improvements” or “gains” the Novus Ordo is said to have brought to us. For starters, these two articles at OnePeterFive briefly respond to nearly all of her arguments:

Those who wish to probe further can follow up the other links below.

The fatal premise of antiquarianism

Before delving into particulars, I want to respond to a major claim of proponents of the Novus Ordo — namely (in Dr. Healy’s words), “[t]he revised liturgy … is in some respects closer to the liturgy as celebrated in the first millennium than is the Tridentine Mass.”

One hears this stated frequently, but it is false on almost every ground, as Gregory DiPippo, editor of the New Liturgical Movement blog, recently explained in a series of posts on Facebook.

Depending on how you define “early Church,” nearly all of the common claims about its liturgical practice — the claims upon which the reformed missal is based — are unsubstantiated. Just to give two easy examples, there is not a single shred of hard evidence that the Christian liturgy was ever celebrated versus populum, or that the Roman Rite originally had three readings at all Masses. We have a decent amount of useful and indirect information about the liturgy in the Patristic era, but we have no liturgical books before roughly 700 AD. (The so-called Leonine Sacramentary, which is over 100 years older, is now known not to be a sacramentary.) But once we get to the actual books, what we see in them is essentially and unmistakably very similar to what we have in the later medieval missals and the rite codified by St Pius V. The only substantial development of any real theological importance is the emergence of the Offertory prayers, which begins in the later 9th century, and which carries its own justification as an organic development (in the correct sense expounded by St Vincent of Lérins and St John Henry Newman).

What we do not find any kind of evidence for in the early Church, whether in the early liturgical books, or things that can be reasonably inferred from other stuff, is any of the practices that make the Novus Ordo uniquely itself: multiple canons available ad libitum; the mixing of the rites of read and sung Mass; lots of places where the celebrant and/or his chosen collaborators must make choices about what to say or sing, how to say or sing it, whether to say or sing it — not excluding even the very heart of the rite, the Eucharistic prayer. The list of novelties without ancient parallel, and pseudo-ancient reconstructions, is lengthy.

It was never the policy or intention of the more radical reformers to return to the “original rule of the Fathers” as Vatican II asked, once they got control of the Central Committee. It was always their policy to decide ahead of time what they were going to change, and then fish around in the liturgical books of other rites, or historical iterations of the Roman Rite, for justifications, or putative justifications, for the changes they had already made. This is why the more honest among them — people like Cardinal Antonelli, Fr Bouyer, Msgr Martimort, Dom Bernard Botte — expressed such grave reservations about both the dishonesty of the procedure, and the deleterious results.

We should also note that the earliest Masses of the Church were said in private homes because of civil persecution from the pagan Roman Empire. When, later on, Christians were free to celebrate Mass in large assembles in basilicas, suitable developments occurred in ceremonial and fine art, expressing with splendor the faith of the Church in the sublime mysteries of her God and Lord.

Indeed, the Church has condemned (as “false antiquarianism”) the view that later developments in liturgy are corruptions to be overcome by reaching back to “pristine origins.” Ironically for a proponent of the Charismatic Movement, Dr. Healy’s position amounts to a rejection of the Holy Spirit’s work in leading the Church “into the fullness of truth,” as I explain in my lecture “Beyond ‘Smells and Bells’: Why We Need the Objective Content of the Usus Antiquior.” If Dr. Healy’s arguments were correct, the Church would have been profoundly mistaken or misguided — for periods of 500, 1000, 1,500, or even 2,000 years — about many important aspects of how to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy. This seems difficult to reconcile with the guidance of the Church by Divine Providence.

To read more about this pivotal problem, see:

The remainder of the headings are taken from Dr. Healy’s article.

A Rich Banquet of the Word

Dr. Healy heaps praises upon the new lectionary and faults the old Mass for giving insufficient attention to Scripture. This is hard to sustain in light of the fact that the sacrifice of the Mass was never understood to be the primary place for extended Scripture lessons or catechesis; rather, the readings were chosen above all for their universal moral, dogmatic, and Eucharistic resonances. Their purpose was to prepare the congregation, ascetically, doctrinally, and mystically, for communion with the Lord in adoration and in sacrament. The old approach is also deeply integrated with the cult of the saints, which sees in the saints themselves the living icons to which the letter of the Bible points us. The limited, artful, and memorable selection of biblical pericopes in the ancient one-year recurring lectionary is admirable and much appreciated by those who attend the classical Roman rite. Moreover, the liturgy as a whole is permeated with scriptural citations and allusions in a way foreign to the Novus Ordo, as a side-by-side textual comparison readily demonstrates.

If a need was perceived to incorporate additional Scripture readings into the Mass, there was no need to create a whole new Mass or lectionary; it would have sufficed to enrich the existing lectionary, even drawing upon extant historical models from periods when the missal had more readings than later on.

For detailed critiques of the new lectionary, including its rationalistic principles of composition and its surprising lacunae as compared with the old lectionary that served the Western Church for over 1,000 years:

The Language of the People

Dr. Healy speaks of vernacularization as a great gain. What she can’t say is that it was mandated by Vatican II, which stated that it would be beneficial were some of the Mass to be in the vernacular, with Latin retained for the unchanging parts. The suggestion that Mass be said exclusively in the vernacular was not on the Council’s agenda.

Whatever limited place it deserved, the vernacular’s total hegemony, and with it, the loss of the Roman rite’s ancient language, has been disastrous for the Church’s identity and catholicity and the sacredness and stability of her worship. In addition, there are many ways in which the consequent collapse of Latinity among the clergy and laity has introduced an unprecedented break in access to much of our (untranslated) heritage in theology, spirituality, liturgy, music, and canon law. While various articles mentioned in this response touch on Latin, the following are the most specific:

Dr. Healy says: “The fact that this practice [of using the vernacular] was quickly adopted by bishops’ conferences around the world, with approval from Rome, is not a sign of infidelity to tradition but rather of an instinct of faith.” Janet Smith commented on Facebook: “I think that is to misstate things. The TLM was suppressed. Bishops ‘accepted’ the N.O. because it was imposed. The reason most Catholics now have had no experience of the TLM is because it was forbidden for decades.”

The international organization Paix Liturgique has been conducting professional surveys in many Western nations, and, to everyone’s surprise, has discovered that, of Catholics who still attend church, a consistent 25–35% say they would attend the Latin Mass if it were available near where they live. This hardly sounds like an absolute preference for the vernacular among worshipers (even if preference were the main thing to look at — which it isn’t). Moreover, since the Latin Mass is still so difficult to find, it is reasonable to suppose that greater availability would prompt, in turn, a faster growth of that demographic.

Banquet and Sacrifice

Dr. Healy speaks in a confusing manner about the relationship between sacrifice and meal, as if these are parallel or equal. Christ’s death on the Cross was first and foremost an atonement for the sin of mankind and an act of redemptive love, which is applied to us through all seven sacraments for our salvation. As the Council of Trent teaches, the Mass is above all the re-presentation of this holy sacrifice on the Cross, by which perfect adoration, thanks, and praise are offered to the Most Holy Trinity and we are reconciled to God. Those who are in a state of grace may then partake of the very flesh of the crucified and glorified Savior in Holy Communion. Sacrifice, then, has definitive priority over the meal aspect, not only in grasping what the Mass is, but in grasping how we are drawn up into its reality. The traditional Latin Mass embodies and proclaims this correct understanding.

The following articles address the correct relationship between sacrifice and meal:

Nor does Dr. Healy acknowledge that an insistence on Communion under both kinds has led, in practice, to the ordinary use of “extraordinary” ministers of Holy Communion, frequently (but ineffectively) condemned by the Vatican. She also does not mention the scandal of Communion in the hand, which, though only an “option,” has become practically de rigueur at the Novus Ordo:

One Loaf, One Body

Dr. Healy criticizes the Tridentine Mass for being too “vertical” or theocentric and for neglecting the “horizontal” or communal dimension. This is a frequent assertion that masks a profound misunderstanding of how liturgy works. We are ordered to one another and joined together by being properly ordered to God in worship centered on Him. When we make a secondary goal primary, or make it equal to the primary, we introduce disorder and inevitable decadence, even as we have seen with the inversion or equalization of the ends of marriage.

A Sacrifice of Thanksgiving

Dr. Healy says it is fitting for the people to sing at Mass, and that is correct; the question is what music, when. Although traditional Catholics do hold different points of view among themselves about the extent to which congregational singing is advisable or practicable, it is by no means unusual today to find congregations at High or Solemn Mass singing the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) and the frequent responses (Et cum spiritu tuo, Amen, Habemus ad Dominum, Dignum et justum est, Sed libera nos a malo, Deo gratias) with the melodies of Gregorian chant, the music “specially suited to the Roman Rite,” which “should be given chief place [principem locum] in liturgical services,” as Vatican II stated, consistent with what all the preconciliar popes encouraged.

This practice was catching on throughout the twentieth century until the liturgical reformers threw a wrench into the works by encouraging emotive, communitarian pseudo-folk and pseudo-pop styles of religious music that do not reflect the essence of the liturgy as a sacrifice offered to God rather than an expression of our own feelings. Dr. Healy decided not to go into the question of sacred music, but it is a key question with ramifications in every area raised by the author.

Facing the People

Dr. Healy admits that there are symbolic reasons for ad orientem worship but fails to note that it was the norm for almost 2,000 years among all Christians who practiced a sacramental-liturgical life based on apostolic succession. Its replacement with versus populum was never even mentioned during Vatican II. It remains to this day the only way Eastern Christians offer the Holy Oblation. The Fathers of the Church whom she quotes selectively on other topics bear unanimous witness to ad orientem as an apostolic norm (e.g., St. Basil, St. John Damascene). It would be surprising indeed if it turned out that versus populum would have been the better way to worship all along and that everybody — you know, Fathers, Doctors, popes, monks, nuns, mystics, theologians, liturgists, etc. — had all somehow overlooked it.

Dr. Healy cavalierly dismisses the wisdom of the ages, the “images of Christ and the Church” preferred by our predecessors, by saying they are “not what most aptly brings to light the deepest meaning of the Mass.” Does not a view like this make a mockery out of Catholic tradition? If tradition does not have an honored place at the table, as something to be revered and treasured, and “developed” only in accord with the best of liturgical principles, we would have, as in fact we have had, a proliferation of “innovative” liturgies that have woefully little in common with each other, let alone with the tradition practiced by countless hosts of ancestors and thousands of canonized saints.

This section of Healy’s article makes it clear that her approach to liturgy begins from different first principles from those that have been operative hitherto. For a Catholic, what the Church has done for most or all of her history is to be trusted as part of an inheritance of wisdom, a coherent patrimony of prayer we reverently receive. For Dr. Healy, most of what the Church has done in her liturgical history has been problematic or inferior to what was invented or reconstructed in the 1960s. (On the face of it, that we should have stumbled upon a superior liturgy at just the time when the Church was being ravaged by dissent and the culture valued rebellion over order is highly implausible.) Rather than receiving the liturgy from our forebears and allowing it to habituate us to its priorities, moderns stand in judgment over it and revise it according to our lights, disassembling and reassembling its pieces like Lego bricks.

In the end, there are only two possible directions for the soul: either the liturgy shapes one’s personality, or one’s personality shapes the liturgy. The first is true formation in the monastic sense, whereas the second is reformation in the Protestant sense. I once heard a Greek bishop express a similar sentiment: “In the East, we think what we pray. In the West, you pray what you think. So, our theology doesn’t change because our liturgy doesn’t change, whereas when you began to change your theology, you also changed your liturgy.” This is a true judgment, but it is true only about the modern West, for what the good bishop described was the Enlightenment-inspired project of the reductionistic (and eventually victorious) faction of the liturgical movement, as distinct from its dogmatic-mystical mainstream represented by figures like Dom Guéranger. (Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis, 154–55)

At one point Dr. Healy complains that the ad orientem stance, where the priest together with the people faces geographical or “liturgical” east, makes the consecration invisible. Yet the supreme miracle of transubstantiation, the very heart of the Mass, is necessarily invisible: we do not see the bread changed into flesh, but accept it on faith in the word of Jesus Christ. Nor can we hear with bodily ears the innermost truth of the Word-made-flesh. What is needed above all, then, is help in building and expressing our faith in the mystery. This help comes through the only thing that is sensible in the liturgy: the signs of adoration we offer, the palpable reverence with which we surround the miracle. In its unmistakable focus on the moment of sacramental sacrifice, visually accentuated and veiled in silence, the Roman Canon as prayed in the traditional Latin Mass gives the mysterium fidei its due prominence. This, truly, is the font and apex of the Christian life.

Dr. Healy also makes the common claim that since Jesus was facing the apostles at the Last Supper, so too should the priest face the congregation. In antiquity, however, diners sat or reclined on one side of the table and were served from the other. More to the point, the Mass was seen never as a re-enactment of the Last Supper, but as a memorial of the saving death of Christ, as St. Paul teaches and as the Council of Trent defined with utmost clarity. The Mass should orient everyone to the Father in union with Christ the Savior, whose advent Scripture teaches us to anticipate from the East.

In any case, for substantive arguments on why versus populum is inherently erroneous and unfitting for divine worship, see:

Reverence and Intimacy

Dr. Healy’s willingness to make radical breaks with tradition continues in her claim that the liturgy must facilitate “intimacy,” forcing her to write off centuries of Catholic understanding of the harmony between anticipatory Old Testament worship and sacramental New Testament worship — a continuity lavishly evident in all traditional liturgical rites, Eastern and Western, and beautifully expounded by the Church Fathers and more recently by St. John Henry Newman — in favor of a supposed “intimacy” that allows us to walk right up into the sanctuary and handle the Blessed Sacrament. After so many long ages of human history in which men feared the gods and tried to placate them, post–Vatican II Catholicism has effectively domesticated God. Aslan is now a tame lion.

In the traditional Latin Mass, there is no mistaking that God came among us out of love to save us; it is a caricature to suggest otherwise. Yet Catholicism has always held the poles of mystery together: God’s transcendence and His immanence, His inaccessibility and His immediacy, His severity and His tenderness, His remoteness and His intimacy, His awesomeness that reduces us to dust and His compassion for our dust. He is, after all, “higher than the highest in me, and yet more intimate than the innermost in me,” as St. Augustine said.

The Epistle to the Hebrews exemplifies this both-and approach: Christ has indeed penetrated through the veil, but we are not yet “arrived” in Heaven, even if we are participating from afar in its resplendent reality. It was precisely this theology of the “already and not yet” in Hebrews that inspired traditional church architecture and its symbolic separators, be they curtains, iconostases, rood screens, or altar rails; these separators articulated the “architecture” of the liturgy itself, which both displays and inculcates the stages of our relationship to the Lord. Were we to take Dr. Healy at her word, the upshot — as with her remarks about ad orientem — would be the dismissal of all Catholic churches built from the time of the Emperor Constantine to the Second Vatican Council as embodiments of a primitive Jewish mentality.

Liturgy, sacred music, and architecture are closely intertwined, and all have suffered from modernizing tendencies in the Church. Few would maintain that the churches built since the 1960s are an improvement on the architecture of traditional churches designed to house and facilitate the traditional Latin Mass. Thankfully, the movement to restore this form of the Mass parallels and reciprocates a growing thirst for authentic sacred music and noble architecture. We are looking at the recovery of a worship ecosystem in which spiritual life can flourish.

The following articles present a more Catholic way of thinking about reverence and intimacy:

Full Participation of the Laity

Dr. Healy correctly claims that Vatican II made the promotion of “active participation” a major motive of reform, but fails to engage the question of what participatio actuosa actually means and the chorus of critique that has risen over the past decades against the manner in which the reform interpreted and implemented it. Most commentators, including Pope John Paul II, acknowledge that contemplative prayer, engaged in silently, is a worthy form of “active participation.” One of the many ways to participate fruitfully in Mass is to “soak in” the profundity of what is happening during the Mass.

The following articles address these issues in a realistic and nuanced way, and argue to perhaps surprising conclusions:

Just a few notes for future reference:

  1. The Offertory procession in the manner in which it now exists, like Communion in the hand in the manner in which it now exists, is a fabrication of mid-20th-century liturgists, not the revival of a known ancient custom.
  2. Dr. Healy’s theology of the epiclesis is suspect, to say the least: we do not “become Christ’s very flesh, his presence” by an operation of the Holy Spirit equivalent to that by which the gifts of bread and wine are transubstantiated into the true flesh and blood of Christ. Obviously there is an analogy, but imprecision should be avoided.
  3. The Roman Canon — the sole Eucharistic Prayer of the Western Church, prayed by every Latin-rite priest from at least the 5th century until a committee created a bunch more in 1967 — is so ancient that it predated the controversy in the East over the divinity of the Holy Spirit in the fourth and fifth centuries that led to the epiclesis being inserted in Eastern anaphoras. No such controversy shook the West, therefore the Roman Canon does not have an epiclesis. But it does not need one, either.
  4. While we’re at it: St. Hippolytus’s prayer may not have been written by Hippolytus, it was certainly not Roman, and it was probably not used as a real Eucharistic prayer — and the story of its final redaction into Eucharistic Prayer II does not inspire confidence [i].
  5. Finally, although my own thoughts about Vatican II have developed since the time I wrote the following pair of articles, I include them here to counter Dr. Healy’s claim that what we have in the Novus Ordo is what Vatican II requested. Anyone familiar with the speeches of the Council Fathers in the aula, the program outlined in the Constitution they signed, and the updates bishops were giving to their flocks in the 1960s would need to acknowledge that the architects of the Novus Ordo went well beyond, beneath, and behind the directives laid out for them.


Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger famously called for a “new liturgical movement” and a “reform of the reform,” by which he meant that the postconciliar liturgical reform needed to be revisited and rethought. (Benedict XVI’s declaration of freedom to celebrate the Tridentine Mass, and his intention that it would be readily available everywhere, was part of that process.) At the end of her article, Dr. Healy implies that Ratzinger was mistaken in his understanding:

The reform that is most needed is a profound conversion of the hearts of the faithful through a deeper understanding and more intense spiritual participation in the liturgy. The revisions to the Mass following Vatican II have more fully brought to light the treasures of the Eucharistic mystery in all its dimensions, but, sadly, many Catholics have yet to experience those depths.

The claim that “the primary problem … is not the reformed rite itself but its flawed implementation” — a line that used to have traction — looks today as forced and unconvincing as a smile on a government photo ID. Early in her article Healy acknowledges some of the outrageous “abuses” that have occurred in the Novus Ordo but does not speculate about why those happened or even demand that they be eliminated. In this way she ignores, all along, the objective problems with precisely the “revisions to the Mass following Vatican II” that, so far from “more fully [bringing] to light the treasures of the Eucharistic mystery in all its dimensions,” have on the contrary obscured and diluted the mysterium fidei. Frequently those who have known only the Novus Ordo and discover the traditional Latin Mass remark on how it has tremendously deepened their appreciation of the sacrifice Jesus made for us and has forcibly brought home the ineffable sacredness of the Eucharist.

Janet Smith noted: “I sense that Prof. Healy has some sense of what the devotees of the TLM are fleeing, but has little appreciation of what it is that we believe we have found.” Even if liturgical abuses may be the thing that initially prompts people to try out the TLM, what makes them stay is the superabundant wealth of its prayers, ceremonies, music, calendar, customs, and associated rites and sacramentals, which together constitute an unsurpassed synthesis of the Catholic Faith at the height of its expression.

What is needed in this discussion, then, is not merely the rigor of good scholarship, but the humility of immersive experience, a willingness to learn patiently from two millennia of Catholic tradition. To talk authoritatively about Catholicism, one needs to live it. In just the same way, to talk intelligently about traditional liturgy, one has to become immersed in it, and get to know its treasures from within. Nothing can substitute for familiarity with the Catholic Church’s immemorial Roman rite — especially in its sung or solemn form that does, in fact, take us right back to the first millennium and the Ordines Romani.

Since so few Catholics have had any, let alone a prolonged, experience of the traditional Latin Mass, testing it out one or two times won’t be enough for many — though, not really surprisingly, it does instantly convert some.

If I were a doctor of souls and the medicines were within my clients’ reach, I would prescribe for every adherent of the Novus Ordo attendance for six months at a Byzantine Catholic liturgy, followed by six months at traditional Latin High Masses. The Byzantine experience by its very differentness helps Latin rite Catholics appreciate what is essential to liturgy, while the TLM shows them what their own Roman rite looks like in its fullness: at once both very different from and yet profoundly in tune with the ancient East. This double exposure makes it apparent that the Novus Ordo, be it ever so valid as a sacramental delivery system, is not one of the liturgical rites of Christendom. After one year of this treatment, “Novus Ordoitis” would be completely cured. It might even take less time. Again, some people experience almost instantaneous cures.


A rewritten version of this article has become chapter 11 in my book Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico Press, 2020).

[i] As Louis Bouyer, one of the most eminent 20th-century theologians and a member of the Consilium, relates: “You’ll have some idea of the deplorable conditions in which this hasty [liturgical] reform was expedited when I recount how the second Eucharistic prayer was cobbled together. Between the indiscriminately archeologizing fanatics who wanted to banish the Sanctus and the intercessions from the Eucharistic prayer by taking Hippolytus’s [sic] Eucharist as is, and those others who couldn’t have cared less about his alleged Apostolic Tradition and wanted a slapdash Mass, Dom Botte and I were commissioned to patch up its text with a view to inserting these elements, which are certainly quite ancient — by the next morning! Luckily, I discovered, if not in a text by Hippolytus himself certainly in one in his style, a felicitous formula on the Holy Ghost that could provide a transition of the Vere Sanctus type to the short epiclesis. For his part Botte produced an intercession worthier of Paul Reboux’s “In the manner of…” than of his actual scholarship. Still, I cannot reread that improbable composition without recalling the Trastevere café terrace where we had to put the finishing touches to our assignment in order to show up with it at the Bronze Gate by the time our masters had set!” (The Memoirs of Louis Bouyer [Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015], 221–22).

Image: Franciscans of the Immaculate via Flickr (cropped).

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