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The Nostalgic Imaginary Past of the Traditional Latin Mass?

“Mom, why are you cutting a piece of the roast off?” asks a little girl, watching her mother place a roast beef into a roasting pan.

“Because that’s what my mom did.”

“Grandma,” asks the girl later, “why did you cut a piece of the roast off before cooking it?”

“Because that’s what my mom did.”

“Great-Grandma,” asks the girl, one last time, “why did you cut a piece of the roast off before cooking it?”

“Because my roasting pan was too small,” comes the sensible reply.

Given my traditional liturgical leanings, I’ve had the preceding legend thrown in my face. The story is intended to represent how the love of traditional Catholicism is, as recently described by Pope John Paul II’s biographer George Weigel, essentially a search for a nostalgic imaginary past — an inapplicable shadow with a meaning long since eclipsed. More precisely, Weigel writes:

I grew up with the pre-conciliar liturgy. It was not a Mozart Missa Brevis and sonorous Latin every Sunday; it was more often badly pronounced (and often mumbled) Latin, and execrable, pietistic music (when there was any). Of course, there were dignified, beautiful celebrations of what we now know as the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, and living in a cathedral parish, I was privileged to participate in them as an altar boy and choirboy. But they were hardly the norm in American Catholicism. Nostalgia for an imaginary past is not a reliable guide to the future.

Weigel’s solution, predictably, is to continue with the reform of the reform. Find a Novus Ordo Mass that promotes beauty, he advises. Or work toward improving your current Novus Ordo Mass (as though Msgr. Bob-the-Boomer would be open to Gregorian Chant instead of “Let us build a city of God…”). Indeed, in the example of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, South Carolina, Weigel exhorts each parish to be “a thriving example of the New Evangelization, embodying the hope that the liturgical reform, reformed, can energize mission and empower missionary disciples.” In other words, we must keep trying to build that city of God.

The attempt here is clear: juxtapose a deadened, if not worst-case-scenario traditional Latin Mass against the best possible, if not “unicorn,” Novus Ordo Mass — both of which are rare in our day.

A series of questions come to mind. Is it “imaginary” to think the Church once commonly had beautiful traditional Latin Masses? Why are Catholics able to find such beautiful Masses now? Is to attend such a Mass simply nostalgic? What is nostalgia? Why are the Novus Ordo Masses Weigel exhorts us to attend practically nonexistent? Why are the disastrous Novus Ordo Masses so many? Why are older Catholics, such as Weigel, against the spread of the traditional Latin Mass?

To the last question, I will state the unmistakable reality: that younger Catholics can be forgiven for cohabiting, using contraception, abusing drugs, experimenting in New Age practices, and believing only select Church teachings or none at all…but — the inevitable but — for Heaven’s sake, they must not believe that the traditional Latin Mass is a sensible and faithful form of worship in our enlightened post-conciliar age. Rather, despite contrary evidence, it must be held that the old Mass was once, and therefore will continue to be, a drudgery — rigid, infertile, and medieval.

As if on point, Weigel anecdotally describes a typical American pre-conciliar traditional Latin Mass as having mumbled Latin and execrable music. If this were the case in many places, shame on them. Careful renewal — i.e., not destruction — was warranted.

One wonders, however, if Weigel has been to a traditional Latin Mass recently. Would he see mumbled Latin and execrable music? Hardly. He most likely would see a Mass that is carefully said, pious, beautiful, sacrificial in nature, and cherished. He would see everything he loves about the well said Novus Ordo Mass in Greenville, and much more, for he would see a Mass that escaped the infiltration of modernity. In short, he would see a Mass as it was, and is, intended to be, without Annibale Bugnini’s devious fingerprints all over it. As historian Henry Sire relates in Phoenix from the Ashes, “[p]roperly speaking, the ideal of Catholic traditionalism is not what things were at some time in the past, but what they would be now if historical development had not been perverted by modernity in its anti-Christian forms” (p. 157).

Sadly, such is not the case with the typical Novus Ordo Mass. Even the best said Novus Ordo Mass, rare as it may be, still lacks historical organic development, as well as protection from an anti-Christian culture. The prayers, actions, order, and sacrificial purpose, and even its fruits, are shockingly disparate. Anthony Esolen, in his perceptive book Nostalgia, describes the “renewal” of the Second Vatican Council more vividly:

I used to wonder why such a colossal destruction of parishes, schools, religious orders, and cultural influence has never caused the revolutionaries to reassess their ends and means. But I was reckoning on normal human beings with ordinary passions and ordinary views of the human good, let alone divine. I assumed that if you invented a new kind of bridge, and it collapsed under the weight of cars and trains, sending people to an easily preventable death, you would hang your head, acknowledge your error, and leave bridge-building to wiser and more experienced heads. I had not reckoned on the rage to destroy, a deep-seated hatred of what is, and an inverted ‘religious’ passion for a never-to-be-realized ideal. (p.92)

How does one “reform” a collapsed bridge? How does one discount Annibale Bugnini’s devastation of modernity structured into the Novus Ordo Mass? We are told: reform the reform, renew the renewal, and re-evangelize the New Evangelization. It is an “inverted ‘religious’ passion for a never-to-be-realized ideal.”

A final word on the eye-rolling accusation that the traditional Latin Mass is nothing more than nostalgia, including the belief that something is good only if it is old. Properly speaking, as Anthony Esolen also explains in Nostalgia, authentic nostalgia is a longing for our true home. It is “algea for the noston; pain for the return, ache for the homecoming” (p. ix). If there is any nostalgia for the traditional Latin Mass, it is in the accurate sense of the word, of the Mass being a profound aching for heaven, our true home.

I don’t think Weigel uses nostalgia in its literal sense. Rather, what is insinuated is simply having wistful sentimental feelings for something old, or a cathartic pleasure in seeking what we think happened in the past. Permit me one shot: this sense of nostalgia is like spending one’s career trumpeting the life of a past pope, based only on what one wants to think happened throughout this pope’s life. I speak of Pope John Paul II, a man I love, but I am not nostalgically blind to his defects, either.

If this sentimental notion of nostalgia applies to traditional Catholicism, then the following holds true: I fast on ember days because of nostalgia; the annoying hunger and borderline grumpiness make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. My wife covers her beautiful red hair with a veil, not because of anything St. Paul said, but out of mindless nostalgia. I spend hundreds of dollars on valuable books, such as The Roman Catechism, because studying the Faith, and being held accountable in it, is merely nostalgia. My wife and I homeschool our children, and even bother teaching them ecclesial Latin, out of a nostalgic angst against anything secular or modern. My children love chanting the Salve Regina — an example of brainwashed nostalgia. And finally, my wife and I, when possible, get up at 5:15 A.M. and drive 2.5 hours, in the -30° winter darkness, with our four sleepy children, all for sentiments of nostalgia. I am told there are no real spiritual and theological reasons for this — only unreliable feelings of nostalgia for an imaginary past.

I will say one final time: true love of the traditional Latin Mass is not a search for a sentimental imaginary past. It is not, as with my initial story, to mindlessly trim a roast, for no other reason than because it was done many years prior. It is rather to cherish, sacrificially embrace, and ache for an organic and holy Mass that was exemplary in the past; remains so in the present; and will surely be a reliable, if not necessary, guide to the future — not because it is old, but because it has been proven most worthy.

To approximate otherwise is rather imaginary.

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