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Sorting Out Difficulties in Liturgical Allegiance

A young adult of strong faith and an admirable family piety sent a letter to me last summer with certain questions and concerns that I believe will resonate with many other readers of OnePeterFive. I will share first the letter, and then my response (with all identifying details removed). 

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Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,

I have a few questions about the usus antiquior vs. usus recentior tension. This summer, I do not have nearly as many opportunities to attend the old Mass as I do at school. Thankfully, there is one Latin Mass in our diocese every Sunday afternoon, offered by different priests who know it. My family, however, is faithful to our (mostly reverent) Novus Ordo parish. Nearly every Sunday I’ve been attending the morning Mass with my family and then the afternoon Latin Mass by myself. Going to the later Mass often means that I cannot enjoy lunch with my family. They usually don’t mind, but I can tell that it sometimes bothers my parents. Is it selfish to want to attend the Latin Mass rather than being with my family?

Also, I have heard from many traditionalists that it is better to never attend Novus Ordo unless you have to. For example, they say you should give up daily Mass if there is only the Ordinary Form available on weekdays. I don’t think I agree, but I want to know what you think. You attend both forms at school. Isn’t it better to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and receive Holy Communion daily, even if it is not as reverent as possible? Or is it a disgrace to God to participate in Masses which are irreverent? Does it depend on how irreverent the Novus Ordo Mass is?

Finally, where do you stand on the Reform of the Reform mindset? Do you believe that the Novus Ordo should or will always be around and so we should embrace and make it as reverent as possible? Or do you seek to reform it to be as reverent as possible while still moving people closer and closer to the old Mass so that the TLM might someday be the ordinary or only form there is again? Some of my friends who have listened to you or read your articles asked me where exactly you stand, so I thought I’d ask you before trying to answer.

Sincerely yours,

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Dear N.,

With probity and insight, you have put your finger on some of the most difficult questions that educated Catholics have to face today. When I say “educated,” I mean Catholics who have studied and experienced the vast gulf that separates the conflicted and pluralistic state of the Church today from the luminosity of her constant doctrinal teaching and the treasure of her liturgy as it was handed down over the centuries. There are no easy answers, because we are living in a period of unprecedented rootlessness, amnesia, and confusion.

I remember when I was around your age going through exactly the same situation. I had grown up at a mainstream parish in New Jersey, and as I discovered magisterial documents like Mediator Dei and theologians like Aquinas, I began to see how messed up the parish was. My parents kept going there, but at a certain point I just couldn’t do it any more. So I began to go elsewhere, attending both the Novus Ordo and the traditional Latin Mass, and it was a tense situation. I’m not sure they ever fully understood, in spite of my attempts—probably not very successful ones, come to think of it—to explain myself. But you’re a nicer, gentler, and more intelligent person than I was at your age, and your parents are probably more serious Catholics than mine were, so you may have more success in your attempts to explain why you love the old Mass and wish to attend it. It also seems to me a sign of humility and filial piety that you continue to attend Mass with them; they cannot really complain that you are being anti-social or “elitist.”

The most important point is this: it is never selfish to want to nourish one’s own spiritual life with the rich food of the traditional liturgy. As always, one does need to take circumstances into account. St. Frances de Sales says it is better for a woman to take care of her children than to neglect them by spending extra time in prayer at church. On the other hand, a woman who only took care of her children and never made time for personal prayer would end up being a bad mother and eventually a bad Christian. So we must take the needs of our souls quite seriously, and I believe that once one tastes the beauty of the old Mass (and all of the other liturgies and devotions that cluster around it), it is barely possible anymore to subsist on meagre fare, thin gruel. Don’t forget what Pope Benedict XVI said in his letter to Bishops of July 7, 2007, speaking about the usus antiquior: “Young persons too 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.”

Would your parents ever consider coming with you? Perhaps they could be drawn to love what you have been drawn to love.

In any case, other questions remain, and you frame them well. Where and when does one draw the line? Should one always go to daily Mass, regardless of how it is celebrated? Is there ever a reason not to attend a Mass? And could there ever be a reason to stop attending the Novus Ordo and simply attend the Vetus Ordo? These are prudential areas, but we can say for sure that a Mass that is not correctly and reverently celebrated is offensive to God in those respects in which it is deficient (the liturgy is, after all, connected with the exercise of the moral virtue of religion, by which we give to God that which we owe Him in justice—and this we can fail to do in several notable ways). Moreover, such a Mass is unhealthy for us spiritually, inasmuch as it malforms us. And when we become distracted or irritated, we are poorly disposed to worship God and to receive Holy Communion, for which we are required to have a disposition of lively faith and devotion.

I believe we can learn something from the Eastern tradition, which speaks of “aliturgical days”—days on which liturgy is not celebrated—and thinks of them in analogy with fasting: our desire for the Sacrament is intensified by other forms of prayer. The sacrifice of the Mass is the crown jewel, but it needs to be set within a golden crown, which is the Divine Office and our personal prayer. The Divine Office is also liturgical prayer, but it has the benefit of being something any Christian can do, even on his own or in a small group. When one prays Lauds or Prime in the morning, and/or Vespers or Compline in the evening, and any “little hours” if one can fit them in, the day is consecrated to the Lord in much the same way as when one attends Mass. It is part of the great sacrifice of praise that Our Lord as the Eternal High Priest offers to His Father in the Holy Spirit.

Joseph Ratzinger also spoke more than once of the benefits of making a “Eucharistic fast” (see this article for more). He said that in an era like ours, which is too prone to take Communion for granted, reducing it to a routine that lacks a deep hunger and thirst for God, we can benefit ourselves and make reparation for others by not going to Communion, but rather, by making an act of desire—a spiritual communion. This is a way we can think positively about days without Mass, whether because it is not possible to find a Mass compatible with one’s schedule, or because, unfortunately, there is no suitably reverent Mass available.

For me, personally, the Ordinary Form is very difficult to pray at, for a variety of reasons. When I am able to sing the Proper and Ordinary Gregorian chants with the schola, as at the College, it becomes easier to pray, because I can enter into the spirit of the liturgy through those authentic chants of our tradition, which were “built for praying.” But it remains a challenge nonetheless. Moreover, as you know, in the usus antiquior, the celebrant makes far less of a difference than in the usus recentior, where the personality of the priest is inevitably on display, above all on account of the versus populum stance and the requirement that nearly everything be said aloud. Hence, who the celebrant is makes a huge difference in whether or not I can attend a Novus Ordo Mass with spiritual profit.

These are realities that deserve to be considered; in no way would it be right to force oneself to go to daily Mass “just because.” There is no “just because” in the spiritual life: we must be aware of what we are doing, how it affects us, and how it may please or displease the Lord. The Mass is not just a “Communion delivery system.” It is a formal, structured, public act of worship consisting of prayers, chants, readings, ceremonies, and gestures, ordered to such movements of the soul as adoration, glorification, thanksgiving, supplication, and repentance. So it is not simply a matter of “wherever Jesus is, God is pleased”; it is also a matter of what we are doing, what we are offering of ourselves to God, and how, and why.

The Mass was given by Christ to the apostles and reaches us through accumulated tradition, the path by which He willed that we should be enriched by the faith and holiness of every age of the Church. Nothing could be further from the truth than to think that liturgy is indifferent as long as the Eucharist is present. The Eucharist is present at a Satanic black Mass in an act of supreme sacrilege. The Eucharist is present as well at many licit and valid Masses that are nonetheless offensive to God and harmful to us precisely because of the manner in which they treat (or fail to treat) the Presence of God. The Eucharist is a culminating point; it does not cancel out everything else.

We want to avoid two extremes: a liturgical snobbery for which nothing is ever “good enough” (for indeed, nothing short of the beatific vision will ever be totally satisfying to us—although at its best, the sacred liturgy can be and ought to be a foretaste of heaven!), and, on the other hand, a false humility that pretends not to know the difference between fitting and unfitting, beautiful and ugly, noble and banal, reverent and irreverent—differences that have serious implications for our spiritual life and the exercise of the virtues of faith, hope, charity, and religion. The former attitude can harden into a peevish discontent, and the latter into a relativism that undermines ever-needed efforts at improving our ecclesiastical life.

If the great reforming saints had had the attitude that “it’s all okay” and “who am I to judge?,” Catholic renewal would never have happened in many former centuries; but if they had been too impatient and severe, they would have ended up in despair. As always, virtus stet in medio, virtue stands in the mean or middle position; and as Aristotle repeatedly remarks in his Ethics, finding the mean is no easy task. But still and always, we must strive for it.

I do not withhold my help from improving the Novus Ordo when called upon to do so, but my mind and my heart are firmly and forever with the classical Roman Rite, which is our heritage, our treasure, our lifeline, our touchstone, our glory as Roman Catholics. Re-establishing this magnificent lex orandi and participating most deeply in it is the goal we should set ourselves, both for our own benefit and for that of countless fellow believers who are dehydrated of the divine and starving for the sacred.

Oremus pro invicem.

Dr. Kwasniewski

This post, in rewritten form, is now chapter 21 in my book Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico Press, 2020).

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