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“The Hidden Treasure of the Church”: Major New Polish Film on the TLM

Above: Bishop Jan Paweł Lenga commenting on the Latin Mass.

On May 13, 2023, an organization called Trudno Być Katolikiem (It’s Hard to Be Catholic) released a Latin Mass documentary in Polish (with English subtitles) called The Hidden Treasure of the Church. Professionally produced, involving dozens of priests and laity, and clocking in at one hour and fifteen minutes, it certainly represents the most ambitious film on the TLM since Episodes 1 and 2 of Mass of the Ages. It has struck a chord with viewers: as of writing, the YouTube video has 230,000 views, with 11,000 likes and over 3,000 comments.

My purpose here is not to offer a detailed review, but rather, to draw attention to some highlights, share certain powerful quotations I transcribed while watching, and to conclude with several broader comments about the film’s significance. From the first moment I wish to make it clear that I positively recommend The Hidden Treasure, albeit with a few qualifications.

Abundant testimonials

Hidden Treasure’s greatest strength are the extensive testimonials gathered from Catholics of every state and walk of life.[1] We hear from many priests, young and old, and from laymen and laywomen, young adults to the elderly, talking about how they discovered (or rediscovered) the TLM and what impact it had on them, on their spiritual life, on their commitment to the Faith. Several say that while they didn’t understand the old Mass at first, it penetrated their souls as nothing else had done. “Only something really out of this world may attract in such a way.”

A young man says: “Sunday Mass was an obligation that I often neglected. Now [thanks to the TLM] it has become the essence of my life in some way.” Another young man exclaims: “I assisted at a solemn Mass, I hadn’t seen anything like that before. Is that what a Catholic Mass is?” A priest comments: “The faithful who come here say they discover things [about the Catholic Faith] that they had never heard in decades.”

There are many moving statements from priests about how (as one of them says) “the classical Mass allowed me to understand the meaning of the Holy Mass. It opened the unknown parts of my soul that I didn’t know existed.” A newly ordained priest says that all his life he never quite understood what Mass was about—that it was the sacrifice of Christ re-presented for our salvation. The film repeatedly and vividly evokes the link between the Sacrifice on the Cross and the sacrifice of the Mass by alternating between scenes of the crucifixion (including blood trickling down the wooden beam) and the consecrations and elevations of the Mass. This point is frequently stressed: the Cross, and thus the mystery of the Cross in the Mass, as a “pattern” for Catholic life.

The testimonials strongly confirm the view that the reason why the authorities in Rome are trying to destroy this Mass is because it is so powerful in leading people to Christ and in sustained the traditional Catholic Faith. The Modernists do not want the old religion, they want a new humanistic, anthropocentric one. Only someone with a heart of stone could watch this and not come away thinking: “Wow, what a glorious thing the TLM is, what a blessing from God to lead modern men back to Him!” In short: it intersects with the very purpose of the Incarnation and of the Church. Those who fight against it are fighting against God Himself, who is using it to draw souls to a life of sacrifice in imitation of the Mass.

The film ends with a marvelous quotation from the famous Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, who wrote in 1897: “All philosophical systems pass like shadows, but Holy Mass goes on in the old way, since it is the only thing that promises us undisturbed and uninterrupted continuity.”

The liturgical reform

Even as Episode 2 of Mass of the Ages talks about the Second Vatican Council, the Consilium, Bugnini, the Ottaviani Intervention, and other salient historical facts, so too does The Hidden Treasure of the Church. The emphasis in the Polish film seems to be interviewing individuals about what they have learned and experienced as they searched for the truth about what has happened in the Church and how they stumbled upon the traditionalist movement, which has perhaps been more “hidden” in the land of “John Paul the Great” than in the Anglosphere.

Famous Polish journalist Paweł Listecki puts it well: “The more you learn about something, the more questions arise… Are both liturgies as compatible as I had thought they were?” The question seems to answer itself as the film showcases current widespread liturgical abuses in the Novus Ordo, contrasted with stirring scenes of low and high Masses.

The viewer is treated to great historic footage of the Second Vatican Council and of moments in the 1960s, including solemn papal liturgy and the sedia gestatoria. We’ve all seen plenty of static photos of these things but watching the footage adds a new depth. John Paul II is shown speaking to an audience to whom he makes a comment in Latin, expecting the normal Latin response, and only one person can give it. Then he makes a joke about it… The footage collected in here all by itself makes the film worth watching for those with an interest in modern church history. The documentary makes a deft use of snippets from period talk shows and movies.

A priest reflects: “We had our own music, our language, our clothing, our rite… and what has happened to all of that?” Another statement seems to answer it: “Everything we know now is the result of riot and disobedience towards everything that was before.” Listecki puts his finger on the shift from theocentric to anthropocentric worship:

This [turning of the priest toward the people] is the first difference, which, in my opinion, is not small but huge. Facing people tells us something. It says that the core of the Mass has moved somewhere else, and now it is not glory to God or to Jesus Christ in the center of the Mass but the community.

Says a priest: “Unfortunately, the final effect of all those changes [in the liturgy]… apart from people led by naivety and false understanding of the contemporary Mass, there were also people who knew exactly what they were doing and who wanted to make use of it [the reform] to weaken the Church and destroy it from the inside.” With all that we know today, this conclusion is increasingly difficult to escape.

One scholar claims that Bugnini wrote in his memoirs that the Mass had undergone fewer changes during the time between Gregory the Great and Vatican II (i.e., from 600–1962) than in the time since Vatican II. I tried to locate this text but was unable to do so. It is, nevertheless, factually true, regardless of how exactly Bugnini may have formulated the point. I was glad to see that the film also acknowledges the numerous parallels between the ancient Byzantine rites and the classical Roman rite. A priest admits that his first introduction to tradition was from the East: “For the first time I saw what the real liturgy looked like—one with solid traditions.” Only later did he discover that the same existed (and still exists) in the West!

Modernism on full display

The documentary portrays Modernism as the fundamental enemy that has penetrated into the Church, with the liturgical reform as its poster-child. While a little simplistic as formulated, no one can reasonably dispute that opinions once condemned as Modernist were pushed heavily at and around and after the Council, theologians who were held in suspicion were rehabilitated and promoted, and the liturgical reforms were influenced by a peculiarly potent form of “presentism.”

A priest (around 45:40) correctly notes:

In the name of obedience towards the pope, Modernism is destroying the Catholic Church. In the name of commitment of Catholics, hierarchy, and laity to the pope, this mechanism is used as a weapon by hostile supporters of Modernism. After Vatican II they introduced reforms which were widely accepted in the name of obedience towards the Holy See. And that is a paradox and proof of how cunning the evil spirit is, since we know that all enemies of the Church are led by the devil, and this is what happened in the name of obedience towards the pope.

The only bishop interviewed in the film, Jan Paweł Lenga, Archbishop Emeritus of Karaganda, is as articulate and hard-hitting as Bishop Athanasius Schneider. He notes: “It will be a great punishment for all those who are destroying the Catholic Church… The hierarchy talk like politicians, corrupt politicians. They don’t talk like Catholics and thus the common people are confused.” The statistics shared about the decline of Catholic practice in Poland are horrifying; it looks as if, in a decade or two, Poland could be the next Ireland (the footage of Polish pro-abortion and LGBTQ activists is positively chilling), unless there is a considerable pushback and effort to re-evangelize the youth. That, again, is where the traditionalist movement comes in, since it has proved effective in advancing that “new evangelization” for real.

Coming to more recent events, The Hidden Treasure of the Church begins and ends with the Covid-19 debacle, in which scales fell from countless eyes. We see the Polish Archbishop and Primate Wojciech Polak say on TV that whoever insists on going to Mass in a time of pandemic should ask himself if he may not be committing a sin against the fifth commandment. A young man reports that he heard a priest say it was an “act of mercy” not to go to Mass, and mordantly remarks: “I don’t think that’s my Church anymore.”

Evidently, the same thing happened in Poland as in the USA and, it seems, across the globe: Catholics during Covid found refuge in traditional parishes and chapels, where the priests continued to celebrate the Sacraments, gave Communion on the tongue, and preached true doctrine—including the supremacy of the spiritual over the physical, and of the Church over the State, a doctrine now nearly unknown thanks to our Lockean indoctrination. A priest expresses well the feeling of an increasing number of “TLM refugees”: “At a time of complete chaos and ambiguity, many people are attracted by Tradition due to its stability, precision, and clarity. In traditional teachings we found answers to numerous bothering [vexing] questions.”

Rome’s assault on the Faith

The arrival of the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes is also taken up, and we see the pain in people’s faces as they are asked to comment on it. A young lady says: “It was weird to feel in my own Church, in my home, like I was some kind of bastard [i.e., illegitimate child].” A young diocesan priest says: “[TC brought] the feeling of getting rid of our roots and being banished from my home.”

It was comforting to hear that Poles, too, in keeping with their centuries-old bravery and unconquerable spirit, are building private chapels where the TLM will continue, despite any prohibitions to the contrary. A cleric utters these stirring words that all of us should take to heart:

You’re a pilgrim but also a warrior. It’s the Militant Church, Ecclesia Militans. You have to fight against your own weakness and sins, not AGAINST anyone, but FOR everyone. It happens a lot when you want to fight for someone, you need to fight with that person.

Most poignant for me is the young priest who, when asked what he feels about the present state of the Church (1:09:40), replies with considerable emotion:

I feel anger because I see so many souls which are suffering, which are heading for perdition. I see suffering and the fall of civilisation. I know that it could be easily changed by our Church. I see the potential and the power of the Church. If the hierarchy were faithful, the world would be completely different. So many people would know the truth,  crucial decisions within our civilisation would be different. The Church could do so much today. When I look at the present Church, I want to cry but also clench my fists. Jesus is letting it all happen and we have to do our best so I’m not giving up, I’m not crying, I’m not clenching my fists. I’m doing everything I can instead.

The filmmakers seem to be associated with the Society of St. Pius X; many of the priests interviewed—including the Polish district superior Fr. Karl Stehlin, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in person last time I visited Poland—belong to the Society. Archbishop Lefebvre is quoted once, together with quotations from Cardinals Bacci and Ottaviani. Many scenes take place in the Society chapel of which Fr. Stehlin gave me a tour (although the chapel’s name and location are not specifically mentioned). However, the filmmakers took pains to be as “tradumenical” as possible by including non-SSPX priests and laity and by expressly mentioning towards the end that all the societies dedicated to the traditional liturgy—the Society of St. Pius X, the Fraternity of St. Peter, the Institute of the Good Shepherd, etc.—are working together for the same ends. The overall tone is that of “broad-tent” traditionalism, stressing the need to work together to preserve and hand on the Catholic Faith in its integrity.

A few caveats

It is an unavoidable weakness in documentaries that they cannot provide original sources: the viewer is expected to take statements at face value and on trust. Normally this is not a problem in a well-made film that interviews credible people, but, as I know personally from giving interviews and doing Q&As, unavoidably people will occasionally say something inaccurate or incomplete.

Thus, at one point, a claim is uttered that popes made “no major changes to the TLM” from Pius V until Vatican II. This is manifestly not accurate when it comes to Holy Week and important calendaric features such as octaves and commemorations. Yet later in the film (33:03) a priest says that the changes in 1955 “signaled that something very bad was coming.” I was glad to see that the earlier unqualified opinion was qualified at least to that extent.

Another priest erroneously asserts that the Protestants helped to write the new liturgy to remove as much of its Catholic content as possible. This is an urban legend, as Yves Chiron shows in his biography of Annibale Bugnini. There were six Protestant observers who participated in discussions on the new lectionary, but that’s about it. Granted, there were Protestant theological influences and ecumenical aims throughout Vatican II and the liturgical reform; here I am just referring to the membership of the committee that actually wrote the new liturgical books.

Towards the beginning, we hear in a hushed voice a description of the Mass, which includes the sentiment: “He [Christ] humbles himself and leaves the Holy Kingdom [of heaven]” to come down to our altars. This is poor theology: Christ does not leave heaven when He becomes sacramentally present; as St. Thomas Aquinas explains, the earthly elements are transformed into the substance of his glorified Body and Blood. It is better to think of the Mass as opening a portal to heaven than to think of each Mass as a sort of “mini-second-coming.”

It could be just my own sedate sensibility but I found the film at times a bit sensationalistic in soundtrack and video effects. The translation is decent but not flawless; at times there are phrases that make little or no sense in English. There’s one unfortunate remark from a young fellow about how going to the TLM means you won’t have to deal with “Jews and Masons.” Masons, okay; but such an indiscriminate reference to “Jews” lacks both truth and charity.

Fortunately, these flaws amount to little compared with the many strengths of The Hidden Treasure of the Church. It occupies an honorable place among modern media presentations of the TLM and the faithful who have grown to love it and to rely on it.

How Francis’s campaign is backfiring

Overall, I greatly appreciate the “lay spirit” in the film: the people who made it talk about how they came to see the crisis in the Church and decided to make a movie about it. The immense respect for the clergy is evident, but the laity are shown as mobilizing, organizing, and supporting the movement. It is truly a Catholic phenomenon, in which the members of the body assist one another, as St. Paul exhorts us to do.

Indeed, this film suggests—or prompts a hope—that we may be seeing Mass of the Ages-style documentaries appearing in various languages and countries over time. When will the French, German, Spanish, Italian, etc., traditionalist documentaries appear? Let us take advantage of the technology available to us by tapping into the goodwill, the enthusiasm, the talent, the theological acumen, found among the staunch faithful in every country

In a recent review of my book The Once and Future Roman Rite, Theo Howard notes that the anti-traditional campaign has several critical weaknesses reflective of the period of history in which it is being attempted:

Pope Francis, Cardinal Arthur Roche, and the other soixante-huitard opponents of the Old Rite Mass have resorted to what many traditionalists say is the illegally-wielded, centralised, institutional tools of the ultramontane modern age to suppress the Traditional Latin Mass and the growing interest in it. However, we are not in the modern age with its systems and institutions; we are in the postmodern age, which is about information and narratives. Within this paradigm they have already decisively lost. The times they are a-changin’. In fact—as Kwasniewski seems to hint—one may speculate that Traditionis Custodes was a long-term victory for the Apostolic Roman Rite because it continues to draw the discourse’s centre of gravity in the Church towards the Old Rite and Tradition, further stimulating interest, attraction, and growth. Before Traditionis Custodes most Catholics weren’t even aware there was ‘another Mass.’ As the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Howard notes that the traditionalists seem to be able to generate abundant loaves and fishes out of any handful of dried fish and stale bread that is handed to them:

Many bishops across the world can, and have, suppressed Masses in the Old Rite. What often seems to follow is that tweets, blogs, and podcasts castigating them are viewed by far more people than ever attended the targeted, suppressed Mass in the first place! One may ask, how much engagement and how many views do traditionalists like Taylor Marshall’s podcasts receive compared to official curial “Synodal Journey” videos? Social media is a critical domain of the battlefield and one side can barely log in and show up. The lack of energy, the geriatric decrepitude, the general ‘un-coolness’ of liberal Catholicism (whereas a baffling kind of perverse ‘glamour’ had been its great strength during the revolutionary 1960s and ‘70s) is palpable. Word continues to spread and people tend to find ways to attend the Apostolic Roman Rite through these information networks. Kwasniewski is therefore right to view Traditionis Custodes as a desperate “kamikaze strike” and an indicator of the neo-modernist’s slow defeat rather than a decisive counter-attack from a position of strength.

Or rather, it is the Lord who multiplies the loaves and fishes: non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam. This Polish film is the latest instance of the multiplication, but it will not be the last. The more that modernist churchmen attack what is true, holy, good, right, beautiful, the more the Lord will raise up lovers, defenders, poets, rhetors, impresarios, warriors, and builders of Tradition. Thus it has been, and thus it will be, until the end of time.


[1] For the purposes of this article, I will slightly correct some of the awkward translations in the subtitles, but without changing the meaning of anything said.

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