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The “Latin Novus Ordo” Is Not the Solution

In the wake of Traditionis Custodes, some have made the good-faith suggestion that a “solution” for a future depleted of traditional Latin Masses is “doing the Novus Ordo in Latin.”

This is an absolute non-starter for several reasons.

First, the missals are notably different. All you have to do is compare them to see that the Order of Mass and the Propers of the Mass are largely divergent. The classic article here is Matthew Hazell’s, demonstrating that only 13% of the orations of the old missal are found intact in the new one (and not 17%, the already-low figure at which Fr. Anthony Cekada had arrived, but which turns out on closer inspection to be too generous).

As I demonstrate in my book The Once and Future Roman Rite: Returning to the Traditional Latin Liturgy after Seventy Years of Exile (due out from TAN Books early October 2022), we are dealing here not with two versions of the Roman Rite but with two rites: the Roman Rite and whatever one must call the other one: the “modern rite” or “Vatican rite” or “Pauline rite” of Paul VI. If someone happens to enjoy the modern rite in Latin, by all means let him have it; but that’s not a substitute for the TLM, and no one who is even a little bit familiar with the TLM would be able to perceive it to be such.

Second, the new liturgy was never designed by its architects and implementers to be said in Latin. Pope Paul VI bade adieu to Latin (and Gregorian chant along with it) in his infamous general audiences of March 1965 and November 1969, as I discuss in a lecture that has become one of the chapters of the aforementioned book. On November 19, 1969, he declared:

The introduction of the vernacular will certainly be a great sacrifice for those who know the beauty, the power, and the expressive sacrality of Latin. We are parting with the speech of the Christian centuries; we are becoming like profane intruders in the literary preserve of sacred utterance. We will lose a great part of that stupendous and incomparable artistic and spiritual thing, the Gregorian chant. We have reason indeed for regret, reason almost for bewilderment. What can we put in the place of that language of the angels? We are giving up something of priceless worth. But why? What is more precious than these loftiest of our Church’s values?

The answer will seem banal, prosaic. Yet it is a good answer, because it is human, because it is apostolic. Understanding of prayer is worth more than the silken garments in which it is royally dressed. Participation by the people is worth more—particularly participation by modern people, so fond of plain language which is easily understood and converted into everyday speech.

This is the same pope who noted only five years later, in a moment of melancholy and unintentional self-criticism: “Modern man is sated by talk; he is obviously tired of listening, and what is worse, impervious to words.”[1]

In the giant doorstopper of a book Documents on the Liturgy 1963–1979, one can find hundreds of references to Mass in the vernacular, and scarcely any reference to Mass in Latin. The Latin editio typica of Paul VI’s Missale Romanum [sic] was understood by all, except perhaps Opus Dei clergy, as a launching-point for the multitudinous vernacular versions. One can tell because the Latin itself is clunky and clumsy throughout; it’s a committee product intended for practical extrapolations.

Third, and moving more deeply into the heart of the matter, the Novus Ordo is in fact built for a kind of immediate rational comprehension and active engagement that is foreign to traditional liturgy conducted in an archaic sacral language, where much that is said and done is not being said and done for or towards the congregation at all, and where being caught up in the larger liturgical action is the main point: the “creation of a presence.”[2]

No one has analyzed the stark differences between the rites, as far as language goes, better than Dr. Joseph Shaw of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and my fellow contributing editor at OnePeterFive. In a masterful five-part series at his blog LMS Chairman, Dr. Shaw explains why the “Reform of the Reform” (ROTR) was dead in the water even before it started (and before it was euthanized for good effect by Pope Francis). Here I would like to take up a few of the major points he makes.

In Part 1, “The death of the Reform of the Reform?,” Shaw introduces his main argument:

While I am in favour of Latin, worship ad orientem and pretty well everything the RotR promotes, it is clear to me that the difficulty of imposing them on the Novus Ordo is not just a matter of parochial habits. The problem with the texts and ceremonies, in terms of bringing them closer to the Traditional Mass, is not just a matter of how many changes you would need to make. The problem is that the Novus Ordo has its own ethos, rationale and spirituality. It encapsulates its own distinct understanding of what liturgical participation is. It is to promote this kind of participation that its various texts and ceremonies have been done as they are. If you put it in Latin, ad orientem, and especially if you start having things not currently allowed, like the silent Canon, then you undermine the kind of participation for which the Novus Ordo was designed. This means that there is a danger, in promoting something which amounts to a compromise between the two Missals, of falling between two stools.

In Part 2, “The Liturgical Movement,” Shaw notes that the movers and shakers of the Liturgical Movement were frustrated that the people before the Council were not more “into” the liturgy (according to presumably enlightened notions of what such “into-ness” should look like). The poor folks did not understand its content as well as the experts themselves did, being fluent in Latin as they were and having lots of time to study and so forth. Having grown impatient with educational approaches, they tried a blunter method:

Some liturgists made a final effort to get the wonderful texts of the ancient liturgical tradition across to the Faithful. They experimented with having Mass facing the people, so everyone could see what was going on. Then they realised that, if you want people to understand the texts, you really are a lot better off having the texts read aloud, and in the vernacular. It stands to reason! But things were moving on. Even aloud, and in English, the texts were too long, too complicated. In fact, putting them into the vernacular simply served to emphasise that these texts were unsuitable for repetitive use in the congregation’s mother tongue. Furthermore, the order in which things happened was confusing and (apparently) illogical. And then there were other theological fashions which disliked the emphasis on sin, penance, and the saints. It all had to go.

What we got instead was a Missal which the Faithful could follow word by word, without the need (after a while) of hand-missals. The prayers were simple, the ceremonies short and cut down to the bone, and (apparently) logical. It was in the vernacular. It faced the people. The translation used words of one syllable wherever possible. It all fitted together.

Now, when the ROTR folks look at the result, they sense that there’s a great lack:

Something is missing from the Mass, the sacrality has gone. So they want to put some sacrality back. They see the things which seem most associated with it in the Traditional Mass, and they want to put them back. So they propose, and actually practice, the use of Latin, celebration ad orientem, Gregorian Chant and so on. These are all good things. But when the reformers said that they had to be sacrificed for the sake of comprehensibility, they weren’t entirely wrong. Thinking about word-by-word understanding, verbal communication, it is perfectly true that, unless you are a superhuman Latinist, it is harder to follow the Canon in Latin than it is in English. Unless you are lip-reader, it is harder still if it is silent. Unless you have X-Ray eyes, it is harder still if the priest has his back to you.

Pope Paul VI famously said, using a phrase of Jungmann’s, that Latin was a ‘curtain’ which obscured the liturgy, it had to be drawn back. Yes: if you have a very narrow understanding of participation. But that is the understanding of participation upon which the entire reform was based.

In Part 3, “Falling Between Two Stools,” Shaw makes explicit the assumptions of the reformers and why they are mistaken.[3] He then explains what happens when you try to “mix n’ match”:

The Novus Ordo is geared towards verbal comprehension. It may be lacking in other things—certainly the Reform of the Reform people tell us so—but in terms of understanding the liturgical texts it must be said it is pretty successful. They are read nice and clearly, usually amplified, in one’s mother tongue (at least for those of us who have a major language as a mother tongue, and live where it is an official language); the vocabulary (at least until the new translation) is not challenging. Yes, we get the message, at the intellectual, word-by-word level.

To say the Vetus Ordo operates at another level is to state the obvious. You can’t even hear the most important bits—they are said silently. If you could hear them, they’d be in Latin. And yet, somehow, it has its supporters. It communicates something, not in spite of these barriers to verbal communication, but by means of the very things which are clearly barriers to verbal communication. The silence and the Latin are indeed among the most effective means the Vetus Ordo employs to communicate what it communicates: the mysterium tremendum, the amazing reality of God made present in the liturgy.

If you take the Novus Ordo and make it verbally incomprehensible, or take the Vetus Ordo and take away the Latin and the silence, you are not creating the ideal liturgy. You are in grave danger of creating something that is neither fish nor fowl: that doesn’t work at either level.

Please go and read the rest of the article, which I refrain from quoting here only to prevent my own article from ballooning past all readability.

In Part 4, “Novus Ordo in Latin?,” Shaw ties together his various points:

[A] compromise missal, with ‘the best’ of the Ordinary Form and of the Extraordinary Form, could turn out to be something which doesn’t allow the Faithful to engage with it effectively, in either the typical Traditional fashion or the typical Novus Ordo fashion.

The idea that you can make the Traditional Latin Mass easier to participate in by making various changes—using the vernacular, having silent prayers aloud, having the priest face the people—is based on the idea that there is only one kind of meaningful participation, and that is an intellectual, verbal participation: a comprehension of the liturgy by a grasp of the liturgical texts word by word, as they are said. But, as I argued, this is not so….

I also warned that something similar can happen from the other direction. If you take the Novus Ordo and put it into Latin, for example, you instantly take away much of the intellectual, verbal engagement for which the 1970 Missal was designed. Will you create a sense of the sacred to compensate? Perhaps. But the whole rite has been set up wrong, from that point of view, and most Catholics in the pew will not find it at all obvious how to allow themselves to engage with it at the appropriate way, in the context of the mixed signals they are getting from the ceremonies and texts….

If we are going to talk about the future, of what there is some chance of really working with the bulk of ordinary Catholics, the Reform of the Reform is based on a terrible mistake. The mistake is to assume you can preserve what is attractive about one Form while combining it with what is attractive about the other. You can’t, because they are incompatible…. [I]n the EF it is precisely those things which impede verbal communication which facilitate non-verbal communication: Latin, silence, worship ad orientem and so on. An attempt to ramp up verbal communication in the EF will destroy what makes it attractive.

Similarly, an attempt to bring in more ‘sense of the sacred’ in the OF will radically reduce its big selling point: the ease of verbal communication. I’m not saying that it’s not a good idea to try, I’m just saying you need to be terribly careful.

(In Part 5, “1965?,” Shaw explains why the “interim missal” of 1965 also falls between two stools: it is neither what Sacrosanctum Concilium called for nor has it retained the subtle complexus of qualities of the usus antiquior. It is perhaps the worst of all: neither the old fish nor the new fowl. I would urge my readers, at their leisure, to go and read the full series by Shaw, since he makes many fine points in each of the five articles that I have had to skip over in the interests of space.)

Fourth and finally, it is often brought as a reproach against devotees of the TLM that we have too “aesthetic” a view of the liturgy, or conversely that we think too much in terms of “devotion” and “reverence” (as if these things were really a problem!). But the truth is, the TLM is inherently aesthetic and devotional, and the Latin language is an important component in its genetic makeup.

Those, on the other hand, who, knowing that the Novus Ordo was meant by Paul VI (et al.) to be in the vernacular, now seek for it to be in Latin, are indeed guilty of a kind of aestheticism and devotionalism. In this scenario, the Latin becomes a decoration and a mystificiation, like the other “smells and bells” that give the illusion of continuity in our liturgical worship and smudge the profound differences in content between old and new.

It’s that dragon of optionitis rearing its ugly head once more. The TLM basically has to be in Latin: the language is bone of its bone, flesh of its flesh. It is written on its birth certificate and its passport. Yes, I know, I know: the Iroquois ended up getting some of the old liturgy in their own language, and there’s a Glagolithic Mass, and the high-church Anglicans did up a Cranmerized Roman Missal, etc. But 99.9% of the time, the old Roman liturgy was in Latin, and the same thing is true today in thousands of Mass locations across a hundred countries. Whereas in the Novus Ordo, even the language used is an option, like so much else. As a result, somebody has to choose to do the new Mass in Latin. This choice, like other choices, instantly creates polarization, in a way that something inevitable, something simply given, does not do.[4]

In short, the Latin Novus Ordo is not a solution for our woes. It is an awkward illusion that will confuse some, disappoint others, and inspire no one. The one and only solution, in both the short term and the long term, is a principled, inflexible adherence to the great Latin liturgical tradition, which no one on earth has the authority to outlaw, and which it would be spiritual suicide to surrender.


Image credit: Cathopic. 

[1] Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, n. 42.

[2] Mosebach used this phrase to describe the traditional rite for reading the Gospel, but it lends itself as a description of the entire classical liturgy.

[3] “I described the historical process by which we ended up with a liturgy from which drama, gesture, mystery, awe, and beauty have been systematically removed. There is still some left, but less than before; the point is that their removal was not accidental, but deliberate and systematic. There was a principle at work: Mass should be readily comprehensible. Drama, poetry, anything which is hidden from sight or in a foreign language: these are inevitably harder to understand. And who can argue with the principle? What the reformers took for granted was the presupposition that we are talking about verbal communication. So let’s get this assumption out in the open: Mass should be readily comprehensible at the level of verbal communication.

“Suddenly it looks less obvious. Might it be possible that what is more readily comprehensible at the verbal level is actually less readily comprehensible, or, to use another term favoured by liturgists, meaningful, taking verbal and non-verbal forms of communication together? Listen to what Fr Aidan Nichols OP observed (Looking at the Liturgy, 59): ‘To the sociologist, it is by no means self-evident that brief, clear rites have greater transformative potential than complex, abundant, lavish, rich, long rites, furnished with elaborate ceremonial.’

“When you put it like that, it is clear enough. It is perfectly possible that the effort to make Mass more meaningful at a verbal level has had such a deleterious effect on its non-verbal aspect that we’ve ended up with something which is less meaningful all things considered.”

[4] Moreover, when anything traditional but optional in the Novus Ordo is done, it thereby becomes a personal accomplishment posited by the pastoral discretion, intellectual conviction, and good taste of the celebrant, and thus reflective of his personality or “ars celebrandi.” That is my own primary critique of the ROTR: see my pair of articles “Why the ‘Reform of the Reform’ is Doomed” and “Men Must Be Changed by Sacred Things, and Not Sacred Things by Men,” as well as “The Minor Options of the Old Rite and How They Avoid ‘Optionitis.’

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