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When Is the Reform Finally Reformed?

Despite what may be insinuated, it is yet to be established definitively that the traditional Latin Mass employs only callous garlic-breathed priests who angrily shake their fists at crying babies, loud sneezes, and mispronunciations of Habemus ad Dominum. Conversely, it is yet to be established that every Catholic who seeks a “reform of the reform” of the post-conciliar Mass is thoughtless, is loathsome, and will kick cute puppies whenever the sound of Habemus ad Dominum is heard (even if pronounced properly). Good people abound in both instances — a tedious yet seemingly necessary statement when writing an article such as this.

The good people who believe that the Novus Ordo Mass must be re-examined to uncover its original intent, a “reform of the reform,” include many important Churchmen such as Cardinal Robert Sarah; Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI; and, possibly to a lesser degree, Bishop Athanasius Schneider. Also included in these ranks are many family members and friends of mine. They yearn for a return to sanity at Mass, where beauty and piety are cultivated and banality and profanation are condemned.

Unfortunately, these reasonable wishes are not, I believe, possible — not now, or ever. I doubt there will ever be an upright and glorious reform of the Novus Ordo Mass.

The problem arises with the very question: what does reforming the Novus Ordo Mass look like? What is its endgame? It sounds simple, but in a Mass of options, it is anything but. We are left to the will of the wind, misidentified as the Spirit, to decipher. I think of but a few of the many questions and concerns to be addressed by such a reform:

Shall we increase kneeling at Mass? If so, by how much? Will the pronouncement be universal? Why is kneeling currently being deterred by some bishops, and what will the long-term effects of this be? Why are such bishops being promoted?

What of Latin, and how much is permissible? Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium states that “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (par. 36). What does this inept statement even mean? How much Latin is to be preserved? Currently, in most places, the answer is none at all.

How do we revive sacred music? Is Gregorian chant to really be given pride of place? What of the fact that the best sacred music is in Latin? Will the organ be resurrected from the ashes? Can we at least all agree that Dan Schutte ditties should never, ever be forced upon the ears of long-suffering church goers?

Shall the priest turn toward the Lord and say Mass ad orientem? One wonders how a reform of the reform could not include this. Yet why did Cardinal Sarah so abruptly have his hand slapped by Pope Francis, though possibly only figuratively, for suggesting a return to this most important practice? And what shall we do with the multitude of dizzying post-conciliar circle churches that confuse the direction and purpose of prayer? Is there a market for good roller-skating rinks?

So many questions, and a multitude more. Shall we finally forbid Communion in the hand? Is kneeling going to be reinstituted as the proper way to receive Our Lord? What of the liturgical calendar? Is the Church really better off without Ember Days, Septuagesima Sunday, and the Octave of Pentecost? And can we not admit that the “improved” lectionary, so mischievously cutting out “controversial” Scripture passages, needs revising? Are female altar boys to be banned, thus promoting an effective vocational farm system? Will veils, altar rails, Minor Orders, the prayer to St. Michael, and incense be rediscovered?

I urge you to ask all of these questions to a room full of liturgists and armchair theologians seeking to reform the Novus Ordo Mass. Ask, grab a fine beverage, and sit back to enjoy the show. Fireworks will ensue. Only vague approbations will be possible, along the lines of Dr. Mary Healy, who recently said, “The reform that is most needed is a profound conversion of the hearts of the faithful through a deeper understanding and more intense spiritual participation in the liturgy.” I am reminded of my occupation as a teacher, where, whenever serious challenges arise, such as bullying, the solution is to start a T-shirt campaign. This is no solution. It is warm and fuzzy, and even admirable to consider, but it is not a practical solution. What is it to raise our hearts, Dr. Healy? Perhaps a “spiritual participation” T-shirt campaign?

When urged to act, reforming the Novus Ordo Mass is as divisive, vague, and option-oriented as the actual promulgating documents it adheres to. It is inherently a breeding ground for confusion — the language of Sacrosanctum Concilium being, “provisions shall be made,” “in some places and circumstances,” and to “respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples.” I hear Shakespeare’s words deride our self-inflicted crisis: “Confusion hath now made his masterpiece.”

So what are we to reform toward? “Vatican II in light of tradition, of course!” one might dictate. Does this assume reforming the post-conciliar Mass in light of the traditional Latin Mass? To make it appear as close to the Usus Antiquior as possible? Even this will be insufficient. As historian Henry Sire explains, “When the Second Vatican Council begins to be interpreted in the light of tradition, the next step will be to find it wanting in the light of tradition” (Phoenix from the Ashes, p. 447).

To this point, let us conclude with a thought experiment. Pretend the Novus Ordo Mass can be reformed to the beauty of the Mass prayed for centuries prior to its inception, with hundreds of millions of Catholics eager to be challenged in truth and awed by grandeur. Most importantly, pretend the Vatican shares in this aspiration. In fact, pretend the reform is so successful that every part of the Novus Ordo Mass appears in continuity with the traditional Latin Mass — Benedict’s great hermeneutic of continuity. Pretend there is stunning architecture, the Roman Canon, Gregorian chant, Latin, altar rails, ad orientem, and untold beauty and reverence. Pretend it all, beyond all hope, and smile approvingly saying, “At last, the reform of the reform is a success.”

I tell you that one day, some good Catholic, presuming that the two Masses are similar, will take a chance on a traditional Latin Mass. As scales falling from eyes, he will notice what no reform told him. He will squint confused, and then begin, “What are these prayers at the foot of the altar? And why does the Confiteor invoke saints by name?” Then he may further wonder, “Why genuflect at the Incarnatus in the Creed? How come there is only one Canon, and it is said silently? Why do the altar boys never touch the sacred vessels, the priest keeps his thumb and index finger together after consecration, and that the priests has his hands washed near the end of Mass? Why are there multiple genuflections, signs of the cross, and altar kisses? Why do these actions have a meaning that no one told me about? Why do all the prayers seem different, richer, and more precise?” He may continue, “Why does the priest say exorcism prayers when effecting holy water? Why are there exorcism prayers, and blessed salt placed on the tongue, at baptisms? For that matter, why were all the sacraments revised, or rather gutted with near fatal precision, of their signification? If it is supposed to appear the same, why does it all feel different?”

The answer is because it is different. Side by side, these two Masses are disparate.

Then perhaps his inquiries will lead to one stark realization: that even this “reformed reformed” Mass was a creation, though some might call it an iconoclastic destruction, devised by Annibale Bugnini. And the variances of the two Masses will finally be understood.

I feel I need to reiterate one last time: there are many good people, I am sure much holier than I, who seek a reform toward sober perspicuity at the Novus Ordo Mass. But one thing must be understood: that the improbable “reform of the reform” is not the same as the traditional Latin Mass, nor will it ever be.

So what will we choose to best lift our hearts to the Lord? A “spiritual participation” T-shirt? As for me and my house, we have but one response: Habemus ad Dominum.

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