I was riding in my boss’s car, absentmindedly staring out the window. He was taking my coworker and me to lunch, and he turned down a side street to take a shortcut to our destination. On a sketchy street, in a sketchy neighborhood, where most every house either is torn down or needs to be, we drove past a beautiful church holding its ground. There was a sign advertising the Latin Mass on Sundays and a youngish priest just standing out on the sidewalk, looking as though he was waiting for…something. As a newly married cradle Catholic who was just beginning to rediscover his faith, I thought back to an article I’d read not long before making the case for the Latin Mass and its preservation and promulgation.
It was the early ’90s, before the world’s knowledge was available to us all at the click of a mouse, and it’s difficult to convey how little I knew beyond vague callings. I knew that things had changed after Vatican II, but I didn’t really know how or why. I had no real liturgical vocabulary to get my bearings — just curiosity, attraction, and gentle promptings. I made a mental note that the Latin Mass seemed like something I should try, but a new baby and new routines put it on the back burner.
Several months later, the wife was out of town on business, and she had the baby with her! Now’s my chance! I couldn’t remember the name of the side street or the church (and again, this was before the internet), so it took some Yellow Pages and paper maps to figure out where I was going. I parked the car near the church, and now this sketchy street was full of cars. Families, big, beautiful, well dressed families, were filing into the church. I snagged a spot three quarters of the way back and off to the side. And then…that was pretty much it.
At the procession, I could look down the aisle to my right and see the priest and servers filing past, but not much after that — just the back of them as they did whatever it was they were doing. I certainly wouldn’t have understood them even if I could hear what they were saying. I knelt and sat and stood when everyone else knelt and sat and stood. I don’t remember much about the music. I thought of the couple of pictures I’d seen of the priest at the altar, taken up close and from the side. Somehow, I’d suspected it would look like that, and I realized (duh) that it would never look like that to any of the laity; we would never have that vantage point. I was definitely not having the visceral reaction that it was suggested I would have, and I kind of wanted to have a word with William F. Buckley. The homily was nice, I guess.
Again, at the time, I didn’t know how much I didn’t know, and I simply didn’t have the vocabulary even to be angry or disappointed. I just put it out of my mind and thought, “Well, that’s something that I did, and I guess it wasn’t what I expected.”
Fast-forward about twenty years. Everyone has the internet. Everyone is smarter and dumber and angrier. Sex scandals. Summorum Pontificum. You know the drill. The vague callings and gentle promptings never really went away and were in fact beginning to reach critical mass. I had a constant sense of unease at my weekly Novus Ordo Mass. I suppose that about 90% of it was just about the awful musical choices, but there was something more, and I couldn’t articulate it. I felt like Guinan in that “Best of Both Worlds” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Something was off.
A friend suggested trying the Latin Mass that had been set up by our then-archbishop, Raymond Burke, after Summorum Pontificum at a different church in another sketchy part of town. A few months later, I gave it another shot, this time making sure to sit up closer to the action. Maybe my interior disposition was different; maybe the seeds had been planted and were bearing fruit; maybe getting twenty years to read a little more about liturgical issues made me better prepared; maybe it was just the outrageously beautiful church and magnificent choir. I don’t know, but this time was different.
Within ten minutes, I was starting to tear up (just a bit) at the beauty of it. After that, I was surprised to be feeling something like shock and anger at the growing realization of what our Catholic heritage really was and is. What was beginning to come into focus was this: all this stuff — the beauty, the liturgy, the music, the orientation — all the deeper expressions and the superficial trappings — our culture and our patrimony — we didn’t just lose this. It’s not as though we misplaced it and couldn’t remember where we had left it. We didn’t even abandon it, as if we had just left it and walked away. We actively jettisoned it. We made every attempt to destroy it with extreme prejudice. We literally smashed statues and altar rails.
It was as if the whole of our ancient liturgy that had sustained the Church and most of her greatest saints, instantly recognizable across time and the world, whose changes over the centuries were organic and granular and gradual, just wasn’t good enough until we made wholesale changes and nailed it 50 years ago. (How’s that been working out for us?)
Whatever one’s personal reaction, positive or negative, to either form of liturgy, it’s probably one I’ve shared at some point. But this hubris, this open disdain, this idea that “we can’t go back to the bad old days” is something I simply cannot grasp.