The title of this article is taken from the words uttered by Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo in 1512 during the inaugural oration of the Fifth Lateran Council: “Homines per sacra immutari fas est, non sacra per homines.” Against that backdrop, imagine the following conversation between two seminarians, both studying for their dioceses. They have discovered and fallen in love with the traditional Latin Mass and want to embrace its riches, but they disagree over how to go about doing so.
Michael: It’s possible to bring tradition into the Novus Ordo Mass. We just choose better vestments, better music, a better ceremonial guidebook, we use incense, and so forth… We learn from the Latin Mass how things ought to be done.
John: Here’s my hesitation. Isn’t every attempt to make the new Mass more traditional a kind of innovation—at least compared to what bishops, other clergy, and most laity are expecting, and especially if one steps much beyond the available matrix of options? And, even in the best-case scenario, where a priest can “get away with it,” what happens interiorly to a priest who’s making his Mass “traditional” week after week, year after year—doesn’t that habituate him into thinking that he is the architect of his fine liturgies? That they are his, to traditionalize as he will?
Michael: Well, no, I think he’s trying to choose what is best from the past, and therefore it’s not something personally his own. He is looking to an external reference, not just an internal compass.
John: But it’s still a choice he has to make, and it’s a choice he makes against the known backdrop both of a half-century of mostly contrary choices and of the generally less traditional choices of his confreres and of most other dioceses. This is very different from how worship was understood and practiced in Catholicism before the reform.
Michael: What do you mean?
John: While “reverse-infiltrating” diocesan clergy are out there trying to conform the Novus Ordo to tradition, members of traditional institutes and communities are simply taking a backseat and letting tradition form them by its own power and perfection. The Novus Ordo restorationist, no matter how closely he adheres to tradition, is still subscribing to a self-contradictory project. For, in order to be genuinely traditional, a disciple has to become smaller and smaller; yet to make the Novus Ordo traditional, he has to become bigger and bigger. The former path is an evacuation of the ego: a layman can say “oh, any priest will do, as long as he says the old Mass.” The latter path is—an accomplishment! The celebrant becomes known for miles around as “the one who offers the reverent Novus Ordo.” As much as the one priest vanishes in the rite, the other priest, ironically, is magnified by it.
Michael: From that vantage, wouldn’t it be better—more conducive to sanctity—to be a layman in a traditional parish than a conservative priest in the Novus Ordo world?
John: It’s hard to escape that conclusion. The layman is free to conform himself to an objective tradition while the Novus Ordo priest is constantly conforming the liturgy to his own (probably better) ideas of what it should be but isn’t and need not be (and, for some bishops, must never be). And let’s not forget that even the freedom to accomplish his well-intentioned goal can by no means be guaranteed. More likely than not, he will be forced again and again to go against his conscience, against his knowledge of what is better.
Michael: It reminds me of a family I know about, where the dad became a traditional Catholic while the mom didn’t, and it led to all kinds of problems. It seems as if a tradition-loving diocesan seminarian is entering a sort of mixed marriage with a typical Novus Ordo diocese, even when everyone in the picture consents with a good will; and such a marriage can rapidly break down.
John: Right. If he had picked a better partner to begin with, the “marriage” would have a much higher likelihood of success.
Michael: (After a pause) What should we do, then? What’s the solution?
John: I don’t know if there’s only one solution. But I know what my solution is—to leave the diocesan seminary and start over again in a traditional institute or community.
Michael: What if the Vatican prohibits such groups from accepting new members, or even shuts down their seminaries, as rumors are saying may happen soon?
John: If that occurs, the superiors should have the clarity of mind to recognize that an assault is being made against the common good of the Church—against her faith, her tradition, her past, her heritage, the consensus of all earlier popes and councils, the most sacred realities, the good of families and especially of children, and the divine gift of vocations—and should have the courage to refuse to recognize any such prohibitions or closures. The seminaries should remain open and functional, carrying on calmly as before. They should continue accepting new members, regardless of their canonical status, and carry on with priestly or religious formation, regardless of threatened or delivered penalties, all of which would be null and void, as they emanate from those acting in hatred and contempt of the Faith and contrary to all normative principles of law. The lay faithful would generously support the personnel, facilities, and activities of all of these groups, sustaining them until a better day dawned when the inherent legitimacy of their position is once again recognized.
Michael: That’s a bold set of statements you just made!
John: Either we do this, or we let the modernists trample us and the traditional Faith to death. Which is what they want. Why should we let them have it? We could never have peace in our consciences if we turned our back on what the Lord has permitted us to see. We are changed men. And we must live as changed men. That is what God expects of us. We must not squander His graces. Besides, you know this as well as I do: a priest who has grown accustomed to the incomparable nourishment of the ancient Mass cannot simply cast it aside like an old rag at the command of a petty dictator. It would be a kind of spiritual euthanasia. And I think the same is true for us.
Michael: Yes… you are right. I can’t not see what I now see. Tradition is a grace. I mean—to see it, to fall in love with it, to let it shape your mind and heart… What a grace to have received! Domine, non sum dignus…
* * *
This conversation may help crystallize a truth that remains unclear for too many people. It is indeed a contradiction in terms to say that one has to become bigger and bigger (in the sense of exercising one’s own judgments and volitional force) to make the Novus Ordo “traditional” when the greatest benefit of tradition is that it allows one to become smaller and smaller, so as to let the wisdom and charity of the Church shine out through one’s iconic representation of Christ.
Strictly from that point of view, to be a layman living a fully traditional liturgical life would be superior to being a priest who must celebrate the Novus Ordo either exclusively or frequently. There is no question here of attributing blame to anyone; most priests who have discovered the blessings of tradition did so after their ordination, when it was too late (so to speak) to orient themselves exclusively by it. A priest who knew ahead of time that, by remaining within a diocese, he would be perpetually swimming against the current in his efforts to make the new rite something it was never intended to be would, on the other hand, have more reason to lie awake at night and wonder what in the world he is up to.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that Novus Ordo clergy who “wake up” later on to the full magnitude of the liturgical problem experience a huge crisis. Some of them try to leave the diocese to join a traditional community—itself no easy step to take, with all the permissions needed on both sides, and the challenge of temporary assignments during a probationary period, and no certain outcome. Others, like Fr. Bryan Houghton (author of the classics Judith’s Marriage and Mitre & Crook), realize that they must take an early retirement or find a different “line of work.” Fr. Houghton resigned his pastorship rather than celebrate the Novus Ordo, settled in southern France, and ended up a contented chaplain of a small and rather informal group of laity who assisted at his Latin Masses. Today, laity can be found who are entirely willing to pool resources to support “canceled clergy” who seek to offer the TLM because they know they must.
There is, of course, a very different future that could someday come into existence. Since prospective candidates for the priesthood are increasingly drawn to the Latin Mass, a forward-thinking diocese—even in the wake of Traditionis Custodes—could quietly create a “Latin Mass track,” in which seminarians who wish to offer exclusively the traditional liturgy would be assigned eventually to shrines, basilicas, oratories, and chapels (not parishes, mind you…) that would specialize in it, for the growing number of faithful who request it, and for their growing families. Dioceses that wish to survive will have to adapt to the changing needs of the faithful and the changing aspirations of actual or potential seminarians. A few wiser dioceses in pre-Traditionis Custodes days were already on to this and starting to plan ahead for the inevitable, as Fr. Zuhlsdorf reported.
But unless and until this happens, men who are among the “young persons [who] have discovered this liturgical form, felt its attraction, and found in it a form of encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist, particularly suited to them” (Letter to Bishops Accompanying the Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum) will find themselves in the position of Michael and John in my imaginary dialogue: needing to find a traditional order or community. That, too, is in God’s Providence, for He is raising up beacons of tradition to illuminate the darkness of ecclesial anarchy. And it is no less in God’s providential plan that enemy forces at the Vatican are being suffered to align themselves against the true guardians of tradition. The battle is on. There is great glory to be won, or the misery of desertion and surrender.
This much we know for sure: a person has an obligation to take himself out of situations in which he is continually bombarded with requirements or requests that strain or injure his conscience. Even if he could make a quick mental reservation to justify (or excuse) some act of complicity, it’s like living on the edge of a sharp and unforgiving razor. It’s not a healthy way to live. We are supposed to be able to yield ourselves to the liturgy as to a superior trainer who can be absolutely trusted with our spiritual good.
Photo credit: Cathopic.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America who taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. Today he is a full-time writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism whose work appears online at, among others, OnePeterFive, New Liturgical Movement, LifeSiteNews, The Remnant, and Catholic Family News. He has published eighteen books, including Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico, 2020), The Ecstasy of Love in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Emmaus, 2021), and Are Canonizations Infallible? Revisiting a Disputed Question (Arouca, 2021). His work has been translated into at least eighteen languages. Visit his website at www.peterkwasniewski.com.