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The Old Mass and the New Evangelization: Beyond the Long Winter of Rationalism


Many people have expressed an interest in hearing or reading the lecture I gave at Franciscan University of Steubenville earlier this week. The lecture wasn’t taped, but the full text is now available at Rorate Caeli. Apart from my book, this lecture is the closest I’ve come to a sort of “manifesto” of the reasons why I believe the traditional Latin Mass — and, indeed, the whole way of life and prayer that goes with it — is the way of the future, the way forward out of our ecclesial crisis. As long as we ignore the primarily liturgical roots of that crisis (a claim made specifically and repeatedly by Joseph Ratzinger), we will be bumbling along with one band-aid after another, while the bleeding continues, and the patient declines. It is time to wake up and smell the incense.

The following is an excerpt:

Rediscovering the Ancient Mass

Allow me to begin with some facts. The attendance of Catholics at Mass has been in steady decline, one might even say freefall, since about 1965—the year when huge changes began to be made to the way in which the Mass had been celebrated for centuries.[2] On the other hand, since the year 1984, when Pope John Paul II first asked bishops to permit priests to celebrate the usus antiquior or older use of the Roman Rite, and particularly since Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum in 2007, which dispensed with the need for episcopal permission, the number of traditional Latin Masses available to the faithful, the number of clergy offering them, and the number of Catholics attending them have steadily increased. As of 2013, over 1,000 clergy in North America had completed a formal training program for celebrating the Extraordinary Form. In 1988, there were only about 20 places in the United States where you could find a traditional Latin Mass on Sundays; today, that number has risen to almost 500.[3] In response to an obvious demand on the part of students, faculty, and staff, Catholic colleges and universities are including the Extraordinary Form in their chaplaincy schedules. Religious orders have incorporated the usus antiquior into their way of life or even adopted it exclusively, with the result of a surge in vocations. The average age of Catholics attending traditional Latin Mass parishes or chaplaincies is lower than the national average, while the average family size is higher.[4] It is a vibrantly youthful, flourishing, and expanding movement. As Pope Benedict XVI observed in 2007:

Immediately after the Second Vatican Council it was presumed that requests for the use of the 1962 Missal would be limited to the older generation which had grown up with it, but in the meantime it has clearly been demonstrated that 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.[5]

Why is all this happening? Why has the liturgical reform of the 1960s and 1970s failed to produce a new springtime in the Church?[6] What, in contrast, is the secret of the old Latin Mass’s appeal—the reason or reasons for its suprising resurgence in our day, when most of the people who celebrate or attend it were born after 1970? And how is this development good for the Church and for the New Evangelization?

In order to begin answering these questions, we need to orient ourselves correctly with respect to what the New Evangelization means and how the liturgy fits into it. One could give a number of valid formulations, but I find Bishop Dominique Rey’s the most succinct:

The New Evangelization is not an idea or a program: it is a demand that each of us comes to know the person of Christ more profoundly and, by doing so, become more able to lead others to Him. The only way to begin to do this is through the sacred liturgy, and if the liturgy is somehow not as it should be, or I am not properly prepared, this encounter with Christ will be impeded, the New Evangelization will suffer. … The history of evangelization throughout the centuries shows how the great missionaries were great men of prayer, and more specifically of authentic devotion. It also shows the correlation between the quality and depth of liturgical life and apostolic dynamism. … The New Evangelization needs to anchor itself in profound Eucharistic and liturgical renewal.[7]

Taking what Bishop Rey says, we can formulate a thesis. If the old Mass helps people to “come to know the person of Christ more profoundly,” if it helps us become “great men of prayer and authentic devotion,” if it provides superior “quality and depth,” then it is, and will continue to be, one of the most important elements of the New Evangelization.

I’d like to take an experiential or inductive approach…

Please go to Rorate Caeli for the rest.

12 thoughts on “The Old Mass and the New Evangelization: Beyond the Long Winter of Rationalism”

  1. I had the following problems after reading the full text over at Rorate.

    1) If the liturgy is as essential to evangelizing as stated in this lecture, shouldn’t the first Apostles have developed the liturgy to a considerable level first? Doesn’t the fact that they were successful at evangelizing the nations while the liturgy was still relatively rudimentary suggest that the the loss of faith today and failure at evangelizing are not caused by the liturgical deficiencies?

    2) Also, shouldn’t the reason for converting to the Catholic faith be independent of ones liturgical preferences? If another false religion developed an elaborate and sophisticated liturgy, wouldn’t it be unreasonable for anyone to become an adherent of it just because of that?

    3) I understand that there are those who did convert due to the beauty of the traditional liturgy. But I find it hard to accept that evidence as saying anything conclusive. After all, there are those who convert by attending charismatic liturgies, no? How would we discard their similar claims that the banal charismatic liturgy is the best because it brings converts?

    Please know that I actually do want the traditional liturgy to return. I do think that it is more effective way for someone who is already Catholic and desires to grow in holiness to do so, in comparison to the Novus Ordo. But I find it hard to see how evangelizing can benefit from it or how the traditional liturgy can keep Catholics from leaving the faith.

    In a supernatural sense, I can see how the traditional liturgy benefits the non-Catholics and Catholics because there are actual prayers and petitions for them that are recited with reverence. So God will listen to the pleasing prayers and give more Graces. But from what I understood, this is not what is generally meant in the lecture.

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    • Dear Tony,

      Excellent questions. I will give some brief responses here, and then include a few links at the end for further reading (since I have tackled these issues elsewhere).

      1. The liturgy is not in itself “for the sake of” evangelizing. It is for the worship of God and the sustenance of Christians. The early Christians, in fact, barred unbelievers from some or all of the liturgy. Nevertheless, liturgy CAN have evangelizing power, and my argument is that the traditional liturgy has, paradoxically, MORE of that power in our modern times, because it is more purely focused on the adoration and contemplation of God — our truest and deepest needs.

      2. Nevertheless, one must not judge a liturgy by its “crowd appeal.” That would be putting the cart before the horse. As Ratzinger often says, liturgy is a gift received from our forefathers and ultimately from the apostles, as developed down through the ages under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is not a perpetual workshop for us to tinker with as we think best. What the apostles had was sufficient for the apostles, but if God had intended this to be the permanent state of the liturgy, he would not have allowed and even encouraged its development over time. The liturgy is alive, organic, and cumulative. The true religion has the true liturgy, so your objection about false religions is beside the point. Indeed, a false religion with an impressive cult will, on the whole, retain its members better than a false religion with a lame cult. If anything, this proves the psychological or anthropological point I was making in my lecture.

      3. God works in mysterious ways, and He draws men to Himself by many paths. I rediscovered my faith through the charismatic movement. But as time went on, and I studied and experienced more, I was drawn deeper into Catholic tradition, and found that it nourished me better, AND was more worthy of the God in whom I believe. My argument doesn’t conclude that traditional worship is the only way one could discover faith in God or love Him; it concludes that it is a better way, more suited to human nature and to the divine nature (and to Christ, true God and true man).

      I trust you’ve seen this earlier piece of mine, co-authored with Michael Foley:

      Here’s another:

      Finally this one, which reminds us of how difficult it is to predict what will happen and to whom and how — which does not exonerate us of the responsibility of doing what is inherently good, true, and beautiful:

      Thanks and God bless.

      • Thank you Dr. Kwasniewski for taking the time to reply to my questions. I really appreciate it.

        I do understand your point much better now. I guess I still feel a little uncomfortable about linking the liturgy or anything deemed “beautiful” with evangelizing due to the subjectivity it brings to the table. Then the whole process of choosing ones religion becomes more or less dependent on ones disposition rather than an objective inquiry. So it seems to more or less drift away from reason and toward the “feeling” territory. I do recall that there is an objective notion of beauty (defined in terms of ontology of things) but this requires that the person already be aware of the ontological truth of things in order to best appreciate this sort of beauty. It would seem true that the main reason why we have a moral crisis (let alone the faith crisis) is that most people do not know or have become out of tune with such truths. So I am not sure how this form of beauty is useful today.

        I definitely agree with you that many may indeed stumble through such subjective endeavors right into Catholicism. But it seems to make the whole process unnecessarily uncertain. Damage may also occur while the person lingers in another religion or wrong worship that may keep the person from ever reaching the truth.

        Also, in regards to our choices on temporal matters, we always emphasize the need to base them on objective reasons. When we move to the territory of speaking about evangelizing through beauty (whether it be liturgy or some other aspect), we move away from this and invite people to move away from reason. In my experience, that tends to turns a lot of people off.

        I guess what I am trying to say is that it seems important that reason dominates the process of arriving at the true religion. Then no matter what happens, one will always be able to scrutinize ones decision and reaffirm ones choice (not to mention the ability to explain it to another in a well defined manner). But if it were only dependent on what appealed to ones predispositions, I think it can be difficult to stay strong.

        In that light, I see both the individuals in the story of Boniface as possibly being in dangerous territory. When the first person’s predisposition changed due to sin, he no longer had any reason to stay. This was probably because his reasons for converting were never completely outside of himself.

        But this may just be a difference in opinion.

        Thanks again and God bless you as well!

        • You’re welcome. What I think is still missing in this, your latest reply, is a simple act of trust in the Church’s tradition. That is to say, we don’t come to the Mass as to a human construct, empty of content, and ask ourselves: “How best can we fill this vacuum today/this decade/this century?” Rather, we take the elements we have inherited and we present them as well as we can do, and leave the rest to God. Of course, there is some room here for subjectivity — e.g., one can sing motets or hymns or have organ music — but there is a given structure (the Ordinary, the Propers), and a given repertoire (the Gregorian chant, with Renaissance polyphony singled out as the next best). Not everyone will respond to this right away, but if the Church were consistent in presenting these riches, they would do their slow and subtle formative work on the faithful, in addition to giving glory to God, which is their main raison d’etre. The liturgy is primarily for the baptized, and only secondarily to attract the outside world.

          Here is an article I wrote exactly on the subject of entrusting ourselves to a tradition larger than ourselves and our own times:

          God Bless,
          Dr. Kwasniewski

          • Thank you once again Dr. Kwasniewski for your reply and sharing the article on this subject. I just had sometime to read the article you wrote and I do completely agree with you. As you mentioned, I do think that in conforming ourselves to accept the rich tradition of the Church, the liturgy operates in a formative capacity as well. In general, I do firmly hold that we must respect all the traditions developed in connection to our faith (and morals) over centuries, and should never abandon them without a solid reason. In that light, I think I may have also given the wrong impression that I am somehow against the rich tradition of the Church.

            I should clarify that I only have some reserve in regards to the emphasis of the traditional liturgy as a tool for evangelizing. Since the talk at Steubenville seemed to emphasize the evangelizing aspect, I think I misunderstood you as perhaps giving credence to substituting direct reasons to convert to the Catholic faith, with indirect forms of appeal (like the beauty of the traditional liturgy in this particular case).

            I apologize for my misunderstanding.

            If I may ask a completely unrelated question that occurred to me as I read the most recent article you linked me, if we are to subject to the judgement of the Church on all matters pertaining to the Catholic faith, should we assent to her decision to engage in ecumenism for an example (even when previous Popes seemed to have considered it as dangerous enough to lead to widespread agnosticism and eventually atheism)? How does one resolve this conflicting scenario? You have given me more time than I deserve in this discussion and please do not worry about this question if you do not have the time to answer it. I completely understand.

            Thank you again for taking the time to discuss this issue with me Dr. Kwasniewski, and God bless you!


          • I think you are quite right to be wary of anyone who LEANS ON “evangelistic results” for their liturgical arguments. I suppose my talk is open to that criticism, but one can only present so many angles at one time. My basic position is that the tradition dictates what is right for us to do — and if we do it faithfully, it will have the fruits that God wants it to have. It is not for us to determine how to shape the liturgy to modern man; it is modern man’s responsibility to let the liturgy shape him.

            Saying anything else would indeed risk a kind of aestheticism: salvation by good taste (which, unfortunately, is what traditionalism is often reduced to by the ignorant).

            Your other question is, of course, much broader. The “judgment of the Church” is not simply whatever her leaders happen to do or say at any given time… For instance, the real parameters of ecumenism are clear from Trent, Vatican I, and the encyclicals of popes such as Pius XI. Nothing Vatican II says can contradict those earlier teachings. Needless to say, the Church’s leaders are free to propose a new strategy, provided it does not imply dogmatic relativism; but that strategy has to be judged by its fruits, not in an a priori manner.

            The best book to read about all these things is Sire’s Phoenix from the Ashes (Angelico Press, 2015). Get it and read it.

          • I cannot thank you enough for replying Dr. Kwasniewski. I just checked on Amazon and the book you recommended is available for sale in my region [I sometimes have difficulty getting certain Catholic books in Canada]. I will definitely try to obtain it soon and give it a read.

            I am also relieved by your answer on ecumenism since I was for a moment worried after reading your article whether I had done wrong in the past in opposing ecumenism.

            Thank you again for bearing with my questions and taking the time to address them.

            May God bless you!

    • Dear Tony Re your first point, the Holy Ghost accompanied the Apostles with frequent miracles attesting to the truth of their evangelising whereas today we don’t require either miracles or the solemn nonsense of proselytising to continue inverting the faith to an anthropocentric project indistinguishable from the Salvation Army or the Masonic Creed.

  2. Thank you Dr. Kwasniewski. Do you think it is possible that you could give a similar lecture at Christendom College? To say that there is some confusion as to what the “new evangelization” means is an understatement. My son is a student there and from what he relates to me, the majority of the students cling to the Novus Ordo. There also seems to be a reluctance/resistance to offering the TLM Sundays on campus.

    Thank you and God bless.


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