One night, many years ago, I found myself embroiled in an unusual argument at a bar on Second Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. For reasons I have long forgotten, I mentioned the Mona Lisa to a young lady sitting there on the barstool next to me. She remarked that she did not care for the Mona Lisa. I was incredulous. I directly informed her that she was not permitted to “not like” the Mona Lisa. She responded with equal incredulity—by her taste, it was a rather dull painting.
But, I told her, your taste is irrelevant or malformed. For we do not judge the Mona Lisa, a work that has fascinated the centuries and stands at the center of all Western art. We can only admire such venerable and timeless treasures of our cultural patrimony, the achievements of man and their influence down through the ages.
I did not convince my friend that night, but I have never wavered from my conviction in this regard. It is a sensibility that drew me to the “traditional” things of our religion as a young teenager, long before I had ever experienced the Traditional Latin Mass, during that time when the TLM was virtually extinct. It is the same sensibility that, years later, especially after the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum, reinforced my more informed revulsion at the arrogance and Philistinism of the reformers who so readily discarded the pearls of their own inheritance.
For, apart from its spiritual merits, the Traditional Mass is a cultural treasure of incomparable value. It is an ancient poem, like those of Homer, handed down across the ages, that cannot be judged by any one era or place, but that belongs to all time, and to no time. It is the living descendent of the Temple sacrifice of Jerusalem, carried through the Hellenized world at last to Rome, where it was imbued with the “noble simplicity” and austerity that was the quintessential mark of the great empire of the West. It retains in its lexicon the three great tongues of our patrimony, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. It is a product of Jerusalem, Athens and Rome.
Inspired by its ever-fixed lectionary, Bach set to music the St. Matthew Passion, the account read every Palm Sunday for a millennium before its composition and for three centuries thereafter. Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Hadyn, Schubert and countless other artisans set its ordinary parts to the greatest musical compositions.
Quasimodo the bell ringer was named in honor of the first word of the Introit of the Mass of Low Sunday, the day on which he was discovered on the steps of Notre Dame. Joyce’s Buck Mulligan intones the Introibo while shaving on the first page of Ulysses. And those most beautiful first words of Psalm 42, the first words of the Mass, are fittingly inscribed on the frieze above the chapel of my own college, looking down upon the thousands of youths made happy as they passed through its doors.
The Mass offers fixed things— words, expressions, readings—that have been said, sung and heard on the same cycle, down through time, in the worship of the Roman Church, the oldest living institution of the Western heritage. The most unchangeable of all the texts is the Roman Canon, whose very name means “fixed”.
In the letter to the bishops that accompanied the recent motu proprio, Pope Francis instructs that the Novus Ordo “contains all the elements of the Roman Rite, in particular the Roman Canon which constitutes one of its more distinctive elements.” This is a rather ironic contention, given that this venerable and untouchable prayer, dating to at least the papacy of Gregory the Great, that served as the sole and exclusive prayer for the consecration of the Eucharistic elements, was a source of annoyance to the authors of the reform, who thought to eliminate it altogether from the New Mass.
When John XXIII, in perhaps an excess of pius exuberance, thought to add the name of St. Joseph to the Communicantes part of the Canon, there was great trepidation. The power of the pope to alter even a period in the Canon was in doubt, but, in view of Joseph’s undeniable stature, and as a result of the growth of his cult in the 19th century, John XXIII inserted his name.
Less than a decade after this little, but audacious, change to the Communicantes, the reformers discovered, after 1,500 years, that the Canon was a burdensome hodgepodge and stylistic mess. They would provide a series of better prayers in the new missal that could be used freely in place of the Church’s most sacred and ancient liturgical formulation. Bugnini, the principal architect of the modern liturgy, wanted more “variety”, perhaps emulating Ed Sullivan. These churchmen exhibited not a shred of humility before this incomparable work of art and component of the Western tradition, literary and spiritual. To hold it “defective” is no different than to decree edits to the end of Hamlet, to rearrange the Fifth Symphony or to touch up the Sistine Ceiling.
As a result of the consequences of this tragic attitude, it is difficult to discern how the pope can today say that the New Mass is the Roman Rite due to the constitutive presence of the Roman Canon. It is a well-known fact that the Canon is rarely employed in the Novus Ordo, demoted as it is with the appellation “First Eucharistic Prayer.” When it is read, it is often shortened (no need to recite the names of all those martyrs!!) and its natural flow is disrupted by the annoying novelty of the “Mystery of Faith” acclamation. For decades, it was dreadfully mistranslated, such that its actual words were hardly rendered at all into the vernacular.
In short, the contention that the Novus Ordo is the present embodiment of the Roman Rite due to the “presence” of the Roman Canon actually proves the opposite proposition when held up to reality. The inability to recognize this obvious and longstanding state of affairs calls into question the basic knowledge and competence of the highest authorities in the Church. Sadly, all these years on, they ignore or defend the indefensible hubris exhibited towards the most sacred of the Church’s treasures, riches that belong to both our spiritual and cultural patrimony and that unite all the baptized across time. The circumstances of the mid-century Church that gave rise to the legitimate impetus for reform have long ago vanished. What remains, unfortunately, is the desire to turn up the corners of Mona Lisa’s smile.
Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004. He is the author of The Pearl of Great Price: Pius VI & the Sack of Rome.