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The Latin Mass as Intangible Cultural Heritage

Against the contempt shown in recent decades—and even more, in recent months—toward Catholic tradition, one does not make progress with pacific words, protestations of loyalty, or the wringing of hands. As if the powerlessness of the lowly were not already a heavy psychological burden, we carry the additional weight of knowing that hardly any high-ranking prelate can be found who is willing to oppose the current pope and his entourage, or willing to organize a long-overdue resistance.

A look through the pages of Church history suggests perhaps a different route of defense.

As we know, there have always been problems in the Church. In past centuries, it was often secular rulers who came to the rescue, delivering the People of God from the malicious miter or the pernicious pope. An English friend recently related to me a remarkable story that deserves to be better known among the adulators of the pontifex maximus:

Pope John XII was one of a long line of corrupt popes elected on the nomination of two aristocratic courtesans who held the power in Rome, Marozia and Theodora, Countesses of Tusculum, who ensured that their lovers, sons, grandsons and other relatives were elected pope. A grandson of Marozia, this John XII, elected in his twenties, corrupted the Papacy utterly, shamelessly turning the Lateran Palace into a bordello [brothel] and spending his time in riotous, frivolous, and wasteful living (at least according to the Antapodosis of Bishop Liutprand of Cremona).

He had earlier crowned the Emperor Otto the Great who, upon hearing of John’s riotous life, warned him to reform his life. John did not do so. What happened next ought to be emulated in dire situations. Otto took an army to Rome and convened a Council of bishops (as was the perennial right of the Emperor)—known to history as the Synod of Rome of 962. The Council declared Pope John self-deposed for crime and elected a new pope, Leo VIII, recognised by the Church as a true pope.

John was away hunting in the Campania hills at the time. Declining to accept the summons of the Synod, he was condemned in absentia. On his return to Rome, Leo fled and John re-took the pontifical throne, punishing severely those who had opposed him (many by mutilation). A weary but determined Otto was about to take his army back to Rome to unseat the usurper when, according to Bishop Liutprand, news came that John had been murdered by his mistress’s husband in flagrante delicto.

Now, some delicately nourished canonists argue that the declaration of self-deposition was uncanonical, and others say not. What is not in doubt is that St. Robert Bellarmine teaches that popes may be declared self-deposed for heresy, if not for crime, by a Council of bishops or the College of cardinals.

Who, reading this lamentable saga from the pornocracy, would not cheer on good old Otto the Great in his campaign to lance Rome’s incestuous boil? Yet the story also serves to remind us of the sad fact that our modern world affords no Christian emperor to serve as a useful check on excessive papal ambitions (or indiscretions).

Yet we are not without balancing forces—quite powerful ones, in fact. Today’s “emperors” are the media and various secular organizations that exert pressure and influence the social course. We are all familiar with how ministries of art and architecture in Europe have for decades restrained the iconoclastic hand of modernist bishops itching to destroy the beauty paid for by generations of faithful, in the name of an updating that no laity asked for. We must not be too proud to think that we need the help of worldly organizations or civil authorities. They can be our unexpected allies in the battle against the postconciliar hatred of tradition.

Here is where Unesco (that is, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) enters the picture. This organization has declared many things as “world heritage” and thus protected them from destruction and extinction. According to Unesco’s stipulations in the “Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage” (bit of a mouthful, that), even “ritual” can be recognized as part of one’s heritage such that steps should be taken to preserve it—not just as a memory of something from the past, but as a lived tradition handed down to future generations. In Ireland, for example, holy wells and ancient pilgrim routes have already been preserved in this manner. One lady from Germany told me that in her town, an application is being made to Unesco to include the annual procession of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary in the World Heritage List. The procession has been held since the seventeenth century, following a vow to the Virgin Mary to save the town from destruction during the Thirty Years’ War.

Consider Unesco’s working definition:

The “intangible cultural heritage” means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills—as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith—that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.

The Convention goes on to say that this heritage “is manifested inter alia in the following domains” (and here’s where things get very interesting):

(a) oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage; (b) performing arts; (c) social practices, rituals, and festive events; (d) knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; (e) traditional craftsmanship.

If the Holy Mass in the ancient rite could be classified as world heritage and/or intangible cultural heritage, it would gain protected status and a chance to continue, just as great shrines and cathedrals have a protected status. It would be safer from the marginalization and liquidation to which wicked prelates wish to consign it.

The list of the intangible cultural heritage is long and includes, among others, choral singing, Morse telegraphy, trombone choirs, organ building and organ music, etc., not to mention every type of spiritualism, animism, polytheistic festival, dance form, and cosmetics/costumery. The Tridentine rite, the greatest of all Western cultural forms (though it is far more), is conspicuously missing.

Not that I would consider Milan Kundera an ultimate authority on anything—too Nietzschean—but this passage from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is certainly rather suggestive if while reading it one thinks of the liturgical reform and the now-reactivated efforts to eliminate traditionalists and their practices from the Catholic Church:

‘The first step in liquidating a people,’ said Hubl, ‘is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.’

By being listed as intangible cultural heritage by Unesco, the Holy Mass in the Vetus Ordo would enjoy a legally and globally recognized status that could help save it from extinction. It is not as appropriate or romantic as having Christian emperors, kings, princes, dukes, counts, or other aristocratic protectors working on its behalf, but we should not neglect to use whatever resources are available to ensure that a heritage deeper, richer, more beautiful, and more true than any of the thousands listed by Unesco remains present in our midst. In the stirring words of the Abbé Quoëx:

The legacy of the Lord, the Mass is the Sun of our lives and our treasure. We love it due to the fact that it is substantially and principally of the Lord’s institution. But we love it also as the Church, to which Jesus entrusted its celebration, has transmitted it to us down through the centuries by means of the various liturgical traditions. The prayers and rites developed through the centuries in order to explain and manifest before the eyes of the entire Church the unfathomable riches of the essential rite bequeathed by the Lord….

We cannot in any way forswear a heritage slowly built by the faith of our fathers, their burning devotion, and the theological reflection around the sacrament of the Passion of the Lord. In contact with the Mass of Saint Pius V—in which we also contemplate the purest masterpiece of Western Civilization, hierarchical as well as sacral—our souls lift up and our hearts expand, while our minds taste the most authentic Eucharistic doctrine. This is why we wish to understand and love, at all times more, the Traditional Mass, our treasure, and we will not cease to defend and advance it (Le Baptistere, March 2003; translation courtesy of Rorate Caeli).

Would not any power on earth that could put a stop to the destructive measures of a Pope Francis be an instrument in God’s hand? One should dare to try. God helps those who help themselves—or at least who let themselves be helped. After all, it would not be the first time, and it will not be the last time, that the Church, in God’s Providence, has been indebted to unbelievers and to the secular arm.

Someone might object that by taking such a step, we would fall afoul of Scripture’s warning: “Put not your trust in princes: in the children of men, in whom there is no salvation” (Ps 145:2). But that is not so, if our intention is simply to benefit from—but not to rely ultimately on—the help that man can give. After all, we do this every day of our lives when we rely on people for help in matters great and small. The psalmist’s warning is directed against the one who thinks that politics, statecraft, battle, diplomacy, etc., can rescue us from our existential woes and save our souls. They cannot. Only God’s grace, besought in prayer, can do that. But they can do a great deal of lesser work that is not opposed to the Kingdom of God, and sometimes even removes impediments to its expansion. History is rich with examples.

I don’t know what would be involved in getting this process going—or who even would act as the petitioner—but if anyone out there in the readership has the know-how to put together a strategy, I would like to hear from you.


Photo provided by the author.

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