About a decade ago, in a Southwestern church in a run-down part of town, I saw it for the first time.
From a back pew, I glimpsed something beautiful, perfect. Seeing the priest celebrate it was like being plunged into some heavenly choreography from the Book of Revelation. That first Latin Mass surpassed my understanding, but I intuitively grasped one thing: kneeling for the mystical Roman Canon, I knew my soul wanted to fall down in worship.
I was living in the summer glow of Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, the 2007 papal text liberalizing the usage of the Traditional Latin Mass. Under that bright sun, I was utterly oblivious to the coming “atom bomb.”
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To better understand the explosive that Pope Francis launched against the Latin Mass with last month’s Traditionis Custodes, it helps to tell a story about the pope’s good friend, the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor (pictured above right).
In 1950, Murphy-O’Connor was a young man studying for the priesthood in Rome. On November 1, he found himself at St. Peter’s for Pope Pius XII’s proclamation of the dogma of the Blessed Virgin’s Assumption. Talking his way into the invitation-only Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, Murphy-O’Connor saw “a magnificent celebration.” This Mass—he said in his memoir, An English Spring,
Typified in many ways the life of the Catholic Church in the years before the second Vatican Council: a little too comfortable in its certainties, somewhat triumphalist and inward-looking, and firmly opposed to the decadence and ‘worldliness’ outside.
Something inside of Murphy-O’Connor was uncomfortable. His memoir tried to sum up this “pre-Vatican II Catholicism”—the scapulars and veneration of saints, the fasts from midnight and fish on Fridays, the rosaries and First Friday devotions. But above all, he said, the Mass “was in Latin, with the priest with his back to the people.”
Time passed. Vatican II took place. “Gradually, the celebration of the Mass in English with the priest facing the people, rather than with his back to them, became the norm,” said Murphy-O’Connor’s memoir.
Like some inexorable train, the liturgical revolution might have kept racing ahead, leaving the Latin Mass behind.
But on June 27, 2007, Murphy-O’Connor, then a cardinal, attended a decisive meeting.
It was called by Pope Benedict XVI, and its purpose was to prepare a select group of bishops for the imminent release of Summorum Pontificum, his text favoring the Latin Mass’s wider proliferation.
You couldn’t tell it from the photo, but Murphy-O’Connor was locked in a larger battle with Benedict over the Church’s direction. For Murphy-O’Connor was once a member of the St. Gallen mafia, a secret group of reformist clerics who met in Switzerland to plot against the restorationist program of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Before the 2005 conclave, over a gin and tonic, Murphy-O’Connor dropped hints to his spokesman about the group’s interest in then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio for pope.
Allegedly, the mafia stopped meeting around 2006, its momentum lost with Ratzinger’s 2005 election as Pope Benedict XVI. In early 2007, Benedict released Sacramentum Caritatis, shutting down the mafia’s agenda to open up Communion to the divorced and civilly remarried.
Now, with the release of Summorum Pontificum in July 2007, Benedict had apparently triumphed again. After the text’s publication, a vaticanista reported the supportive, positive comments from Murphy-O’Connor and another St. Gallen alumnus.
But as the media disclosed, Murphy-O’Connor had in fact privately urged Benedict not to issue Summorum Pontificum. Soon after the text’s release, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the mafia’s leader, publicly struck at the document’s heart—telling the media why, out of principle, he refused to say the Latin Mass.
By November 2007, Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith of the Congregation for Divine Worship was slamming the “disobedience” toward Summorum Pontificum. According to Catholic News Agency, the Vatican official was specifically responding to misrepresentations of Benedict’s text from Murphy-O’Connor and one of his protégés, Bishop Arthur Roche.
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A few weeks later, Murphy-O’Connor hosted, in the Throne Room of his Archbishop’s residence, an event that various Vatican watchers understood as a fresh attack on Benedict’s liturgical project.
It was a presentation of the book A Challenging Reform: Realizing the Vision of the Liturgical Renewal. The book was written by Archbishop Piero Marini—the personal secretary of the infamous Archbishop Annibale Bugnini—and it documented the work of Bugnini and others in altering the Catholic liturgy.
“Marini is regarded as perhaps the leading advocate of progressive reform in Catholic liturgy,” explained vaticanista John Allen. Allen stressed that, during the time of Pope John Paul II, Marini had been responsible for liturgies where “indigenous dancers began to gyrate down a catwalk” and a female shaman in effect “performed an exorcism” over high-ranking Churchmen.
According to Allen, at that 2007 presentation in the Throne Room, Murphy-O’Connor lauded Marini, praising his “meticulous care and great reverence” in the liturgy. Marini, meanwhile, highlighted the role of the papacy in making the liturgical revolution possible. Roche, the protégé who helped Murphy-O’Connor misrepresent Summorum Pontificum, was present for the event as well.
If you wanted to glimpse the future that the revolutionaries envisaged for the Church, it was there, in that room.
Murphy-O’Connor went on to serve as a kingmaker for the 2013 election of Bergoglio as Pope Francis. The new pontiff, according to Paul Vallely’s Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism, had already “restricted” and “discouraged” the Latin Mass in Argentina. Pope Francis went on to “resurrect” Marini, the controversial liturgist—and to appoint Roche, the protégé of Murphy-O’Connor, as head of the revamped Congregation for Divine Worship.
Murphy-O’Connor didn’t live to see it, but on July 16, 2021, Pope Francis aimed Traditionis Custodes directly at the Latin Mass.
According to one of the text’s inspirers, the revolutionaries’ end game is the utter disappearance of the old liturgy.
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In the meantime, it’s August 15, 2021, and I’m attending an early morning Low Mass in honor of Our Lady’s Assumption.
A deacon likens Mary to the mysterious Ark of the Covenant. Thick August light streams in. The priest carries out his otherworldly choreography as we all kneel. Then a transcendent hush snatches us up during the Roman Canon, punctuated by the cooing and crying of babies.
No human plot could ever destroy what I see in that church. It is too strong to perish and too beautiful to die. The Latin Mass will live on.
Photo credit: St. Gallen Cathedral by Shino via unsplash.com.