The following is a real exchange of letters, with identifying details edited out. The correspondence took place about three years ago.
Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,
A mutual friend forwarded to me the letters between you and your priest friend entitled “Discovering Tradition: A Priest’s Crisis of Conscience.”
Just as a sort of prolegomena, I came across the Traditional Mass in high school after a reversion experience. As so many do, I started researching the Old Mass and, as a result, began attending a local FSSP parish, where I learned how to serve. Later, after I had entered the diocesan seminary, I studied how to celebrate the EF with the help of a Fraternity priest, and my first Mass (as celebrant) was in fact an EF Low Mass. It was very important to me to signify in which liturgical/cultural “stream” I stood. Since then, I celebrate the Old Mass regularly—both privately and publicly. The traditional Mass has been the pillar of my priestly life. I cover my mouth with respect to the Novus Ordo…
No doubt, the death of an actually Catholic culture and a sense of the sacred/piety within the Church, the death of catechesis, the death of the capacity for deep prayer (both corporate and private), the death of a spirit of penance and the nobility of suffering (or, frankly, a sense of much being noble at all…), the neglect of the sacraments (especially confession) the preponderance of gay (or at least soft and emasculated) clergy, the ubiquity of sacrilege especially with respect to the Blessed Sacrament, show tunes at Mass and the death of the refined culture that grew out of the Mass of the Ages, communion in the hand, the exchange of roles between clergy and laity, etc.… it all causes me grief and anguish.
And so, I do admit that most of what is said in those letters has my empathy, but many of the problems discussed in the letters concerning the Novus Ordo are actually for me more reason not to “jump ship.” When I joined the local seminary, the parishioners at a traditionalist parish cocked their heads and asked why I didn’t just join a group like the FSSP, and my reason given then remains my reason for staying now: to put it briefly, I have problems with apparently retreating into the traditional “ghetto” and abandoning the sheep. I admit this is a problem and a suffering more peculiar to the priestly heart than the lay, but I’m sure you can understand. They really are sheep without shepherds, and, granted, some (perhaps even much) of the decay in the Church at large, as well as in the average parish, is perpetuated with malice, but I would readily say that most of it is not. Most of it is simply ignorance, resulting from the spiritual abuse of bad priests neglecting to provide for, protect, and discipline their spiritual children.
Again, I am more than sympathetic to the sentiments of your interlocutor, and to be honest, the appeal of a traditional monastery is sometimes overwhelming. But my priestly heart breaks that another priest would apparently leave the sheep to the wolves of liberalism and modernism. It is beautiful that he has been given the grace to see the surpassing excellence of tradition, but how can I not be grieved when yet another foxhole around me is emptied because the man in it has apparently despaired of the cause? I am a priest in order that God may be glorified by the salvation of souls. Isn’t it the Novus Ordo Catholics who most need the hand of good priests formed by sacred tradition to pull them out of the pit of hell, figuratively and literally?
I stay because my people are literally dying in their sins, because for sixty years they have scarcely been told that there is such a thing as sin. How can I not be disappointed to see another good priest running for apparently greener pastures, when “an enemy” has sown so much darnel and salt in the field of souls? I feel like St. Francis Xavier when he said:
We have visited the villages of the new converts who accepted the Christian religion a few years ago. No Portuguese live here—the country is so utterly barren and poor. The native Christians have no priests. They know only that they are Christians. There is nobody to say Mass for them; nobody to teach them the Creed, the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Commandments of God’s Law… Many, many people hereabouts are not becoming Christians for one reason only: there is nobody to make them Christians. Again and again I have thought of going round the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity: ‘What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!’
I wish they would work as hard at this as they do at their books, and so settle their account with God for their learning and the talents entrusted to them. This thought would certainly stir most of them to meditate on spiritual realities, to listen actively to what God is saying to them. They would forget their own desires, their human affairs, and give themselves over entirely to God’s will and his choice. They would cry out with all their heart: Lord, I am here! What do you want me to do? Send me anywhere you like—even to India.
I might add: “even to a Novus Ordo parish.”
Thanks so much for your time and charity in reading what has inadvertently turned into a manifesto, and thank you even more for your time in responding, if you see fit to do so. I greatly welcome any thoughts or input you would have to offer.
Sincerely in Christ,
A Priest in the Trenches
I understand completely where you are coming from and why you are doing as you are doing. I myself directed choirs and scholas for 25 years in the Novus Ordo, and my goal was always to bring the riches of the Church’s sacred music to the faithful in the pews—and to the clergy, too, who often appreciated it just as much or more, since it helped them pray the Mass better. This is a noble, laudable, necessary, and charitable course of action. As you say, if every Novus Ordo parish were abandoned by priests who love the liturgy and the traditions of the Church, the sheep would be left to the wolves.
Of course, the Lord does occasionally call priests from active ministry to a contemplative monastic life, so that, in His mysterious ways, He may bring forth more fruit in silence and seclusion than would have been reaped from pastoral engagement. But this is not going to be the usual calling.
At the same time as I was providing music for the Novus Ordo, I was also leading music for the traditional Latin Mass. For almost that entire period, I attended both forms alternatingly. This gave me a close-up perspective on the differences and prompted me to think, over and over again, about what had been removed, changed, added, etc. I couldn’t really avoid it, with my close involvement in planning and executing the liturgy. Plus, as a philosopher I always want to know why—why was this or that inserted, deleted, revised, made optional, etc., and I cannot rest with superficial answers. This led me to extensive research, which illuminated my experiences. I finally realized that there had been a profound rupture in the Roman liturgical tradition, and that this was going to have ripple effects until the end of time (or until the rupture is itself definitively canceled out). It would ripple into our attitude towards doctrine and dogma; our moral and social life; our asceticism and aesthetics; and obviously, our sense of the basic good of tradition as such.
Reflections like these prompted me to formulate my thesis: reverence is not enough; one needs to be united with the tradition as it developed under the guidance of Divine Providence. (For a fuller exposition, see this lecture and this one.) As a result, I began to feel somehow complicit in perpetuating the rupture, again in spite of the obvious good of promoting sacred music and reconnecting laity piecemeal with their heritage.
Now, this is not to say that there should not be soldiers in the trenches, or even generals of armies, who make the best of a muddy and messy situation, and press on towards eventual victory. I admire those who can do it in spite of the constraints, imperfections, ignobility, incomprehension, resistance, and other problems encountered on the battlefield.
The only thing I would say is that every wise soldier and especially every prudent general must keep hold of his best weapons and use them whenever he can. So the priest who knows how to celebrate the old rite and appreciates its value must, I think, not only keep it at the heart of his own priestly life, but also share it with his people more and more as time goes on. I know this is not always immediately possible, and rarely will it be possible to the extent one would wish, but an effort has to be made in that direction for the long-term health of the Church. Pope Benedict rightly recognized the health-giving power of reconnecting with the liturgical tradition as enshrined in the usus antiquior.
Thus, I hope you are able, for your own sake, and for the poor sheep, to offer the old liturgy—not just the Mass, but baptism, penance, extreme unction, the divine office, as circumstances may suggest. The surprising resurgence of the old liturgy is a balm provided by God in our difficult times for those who are suffering the “grief and anguish” you so well describe.
May Our Lord abundantly bless your care of souls, especially in its difficult moments.
Yours in Christ,
(one year later)
You may not remember that we had a brief exchange awhile ago. I’m emailing again because I owe you something of an apology. When we last corresponded, I defended the position that priests sympathetic to tradition should remain where they are precisely because the situation is so desperate.
My thinking has developed, and I believe that I’ve come to the conclusion that the glory of God and the salvation of my soul are my first and most basic and most necessary work, and while the thought of what could be interpreted as leaving the flock to the wolves does cause me considerable distress, I do not believe that I can secure those primary objectives while remaining in my current situation. For that reason, I’ve begun looking for traditional orders to join.
I thought I would let you know, given our prior discussion. Thank you for your work generally, and your prayers for me personally, and know of mine for you.
Peace to you in Christ!
A Priest in the Trenches
Good to hear from you again.
The realization you describe is becoming increasingly common. I am contacted fairly regularly by priests, religious, and especially seminarians who are trying to figure out what to do when they see that the liturgical reform has opened a Pandora’s Box that cannot be shut but must be buried (to mix metaphors). It is a veritable abuse pandemic, and the most subtle evil of it is that even a “reverent celebration” is a personal achievement of options tastefully chosen, within parameters negotiated between the expectations of bishops and the tolerance level of congregations. In other words, it’s something like an auction at which the liturgy goes to the highest bidder.
It took me a long time to reach the conclusion that restoration is the only way forward; I resisted it pretty sternly for about ten years. During that time, I was a choir director for both “forms,” and did my utmost: I led chant and polyphony at the NOM, and encouraged the dialogue TLM. It was all about “mutual enrichment” and “hermeneutic of continuity.”
But then my studies overtook my naivete and I realized, not without considerable anguish of spirit, that the problems were “baked in” to the reform, like the flour and sugar of a cake; they were (to use a perhaps overused expression) features, not bugs. This fundamentally changes the objective nature of the gift of worship in both senses: a gift received from the Church’s tradition and a gift given to God, who deserves the greatest and the best—and who deserves it first, prior to any human considerations.
And yet, having seen this truth, my job obliged me to continue providing music for both Masses. I sought refuge in the Gregorian chants and tried to put all my concentration into them, using their beauty as a kind of psychological shield. This, ultimately, struck me as somewhat Pelagian: attending Mass became an ascetical effort in which my will had to conquer my intellect, and in which I had to force myself not to pay attention to certain grating aspects of Paul VI’s rite. What was blocked, in any case, was precisely the kind of trustful surrender to the liturgy that one ought to be able to practice without even a second thought.
This became one of the main reasons why I reached a point where I needed to leave the schizophrenia of a “biformal” community and move to a “full service” traditional parish. I loved the people I was working with, but the liturgical diet was, in one way, too sparse, and in another way, too diverse and contradictory. I felt like I was being torn in two; that which should have been a place of “refreshment, light, and peace”—the liturgy, in imitation of heaven—was a source of discontentment, stress, and conflict.
It’s one thing to choose to be a Martha instead of a Mary; serving Christ actively can be legitimate, even if contemplative nuns and monks have chosen the better part. It’s another thing to choose to be a Nicodemus who can visit Christ only at night, as it were. This is where I had to “break ranks” from the party of the scribes (Consilium) and join the party of the apostles (Roman tradition).
So I feel that I understand something of what you are going through. If there is anything I can do to help, please let me know.
Yours in Christ,
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He 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 who has written many books and publishes on a wide variety of sites. His work has been translated into twenty languages. Visit his personal website at www.peterkwasniewski.com, his Substack “Tradition and Sanity,” his publishing house Os Justi Press, and his composer site CantaboDomino.