It was a Saturday afternoon in summer. It was bright and sunny. It was a “Saturday vigil” Mass for some green Sunday or other. I was twelve.
The celebrant was the diocesan bishop, Theodore McCarrick. He was doing a parish visit.
My memories of that Saturday at church were vivid even before “Uncle Ted” became a justly vilified ecclesiastical pariah. My memories of that Mass were vivid because it was one of several similar occasions on which I came to appreciate what exactly often troubled me about the celebration of the post-conciliar, reformed liturgical rites, even as a child.
It was the cult of personality. It was the fact that liturgies were akin to talk shows, with a prominent, overly amplified host. And it was his show, from start to finish. For all the emphasis on “full, conscious, and active participation” in the liturgy, it was his show.
Theodore McCarrick was charming. I remember nothing of the content of his homily, save that it was introduced by jokes I didn’t think particularly funny. It was an unremarkable homily to be sure, brisk and anodyne.
But McCarrick was a charmer. He chatted with everyone in the sacristy before Mass: the priests, the lay ministers, those of us who were serving at the liturgy. Some of the parish priests would pray before Mass, either privately or in a circle with the ministers. McCarrick didn’t strike twelve-year-old me as particularly prayerful. He reminded me of politicians I saw on television, or of actors on stage or set.
The McCarrick charm was on full display whenever the revised Missal carried the hallmark Bugnini rubric about using “similar words.” His invitation to the penitential rite. His introduction to the Pater Noster. The Pax. The delivery was like that of an actor determined to convince one’s audience of sincerity, empathy, and immanence. McCarrick was a master of liturgical eye contact. Where Tridentine era missals might have prescribed downcast eyes here or there, it was rare that McCarrick ever took his eyes off the assembly. I came to think, on that summer afternoon, that Eucharistic Prayer II was so popular not only for its brevity, but because most priests had it memorized and could recite it while staring as if into the very souls of their congregants.
It was only years later in college that I learned of the phenomenon of the so-called private Mass, recently banned in Saint Peter’s Basilica by fiat of pontifical minions. For a while I served Mass for a few retired Jesuits who “said Mass” every morning. The Masses were in English or Latin. They were Novus Ordo or even, on occasion for some priests, Tridentine. Regardless of the missal used, they were always ad orientem. The celebrants ran the political and theological gamut; some were ardent liberals and others were equally passionate conservatives.
The liturgy unified them, and those few of us who were fortunate enough to participate in their Masses. It was prayerful. It was not focused on them or us, but on the august sacrifice. They did not mind a server, though the Mass was happening with or without one. They did not mind a few students, but the Mass was happening whether there were two or none. Except for the quiet mutter of the responses, nothing changed depending on the size or lack of a congregation.
It simply happened.
I do not know if such liturgies still take place as Jesuits age and pass on, but I hope they do. They made sense. They were eminently Catholic. They were doing immense good for the world in the quiet shadows of subdued early mornings.
And there was no cult of personality on display. Rather, men of diverse leanings were subsumed into one liturgy together with anyone who might join them.
The post-conciliar Mass is more susceptible to the cult of personality precisely because it is likelier to be celebrated versus populum and in the vernacular, and because it is laden with a rubrical system that permits ad-libbing at various points in the action. It is overloaded with so many options that the celebrant is often at broad liberty to select the texts he pleases.
The post-conciliar Mass needn’t become the Saturday afternoon equivalent of a talk show, but one shouldn’t be surprised when it does. It is equally unsurprising that there should be opposition to “private” Masses, even those using the Pauline missal. The Bugnini program – amply documented in his massive apologia on the reform of the liturgy – was designed to free clerics from the constraints of the rubrics, and to usher in the era of the popular presider, the charming celebrant. The charming celebrant who is, all the same, the one in charge of the whole business.
Conversely, the so-called Tridentine Mass goes out of its way to suppress the individual personality of the priest. That summer Saturday childhood experience of the Uncle Ted Hour made me wonder what McCarrick’s Tridentine Masses were like for the first years of his priesthood, in which only the sermon afforded any chance for his personality to be on pervasive display.
This essay was composed on yet another day on which there is rumor that the provisions of Summorum Pontificum may be rescinded or revised. The Tridentine Mass is despised by some for many reasons. For many its celebration implies a lack of respect for authority: if no one had disobeyed Paul VI, they think, then today there would be no such Masses. For others, the theology implicit and explicit on every page of the Missal is problematic. Some have a passionate distaste for anything that they deem remotely highbrow or redolent of whatever they think elite culture might be. For still others, the hodiernum tempus of the Second Vatican Council is the unending day, and the very Mass that was celebrated daily during said council is somehow the incarnation of “opposition” to the (busy, overworked) “Spirit” thereof.
But the core reason behind the antipathy, I suspect, is that the Tridentine Mass threatens the cult of personality. It takes away the captive audience mentality of the typical weekend liturgy, where a presider presides with amplification, jokes, a constant stream of words delivered with a thespian’s intensity, and that unfailing eye contact. It takes away the clericalism of the laity, where Father is allowed finally to practice aerobic respiration while myriad ministers make sure that the captive audience is never without words to absorb. It takes away the chance of a charming actor to practice improvisation of rites both penitential and pacific.
It is, in fine, a liturgy that is intolerant of narcissism.
“Religion” is from the Latin religio, meaning to bind or to tie. The Tridentine missal restrains the worst impulses of clericalism that manifest in the cult of personality of the affable presider. The Tridentine missal is democratic: it does not scrupulously obsess over every last posture of its assembled congregants. The Tridentine missal doesn’t require committee meetings to decide how exactly to craft a “meaningful” liturgy for a given Sunday or feast.
I learned much from a McCarrick Mass about what can go so very wrong with the post-conciliar liturgy. I learned much from the Masses of retired Jesuits about the very nature of liturgy, indeed more than I have learned from reading scholars of diverse theological and political leanings.
The Tridentine Mass survived Bugnini and his not so merry men, in no small part because of the passion and commitment of a French archbishop who knew more about the “smell of the sheep” than many an advocate of progressive liturgy then or now. The Tridentine Mass will survive those today and tomorrow who want to see it relegated to the dustbin of history. The Tridentine Mass remains the best antidote against the all too common tendency to succumb to the cult of personality, and that, I would argue, is why for some it must abolished once and for all.
Dr. Lee Fratantuono finished degrees in Classics at Holy Cross, Boston College, and Fordham. He has authored over a dozen books and some sixty articles on Greek and Latin literature and Roman history, including commentaries on books of Virgil, Ovid, and Tacitus, and monographs on Lucretius and Lucan.