The Traditional Liturgy Demands More and Delivers More

We have probably all met people who are thinking of attending the traditional Latin Mass on a regular basis and who, when they actually start going, are struck by how much extra effort it costs. Perhaps we ourselves once felt the same way.

For starters, you are expected to kneel for long stretches of time. There is a lot of silence to get used to (and, if you are a parent, to keep your children relatively quiet in). Sometimes there are lengthy readings, chants, or prayers that may test your patience and stretch to the limit your capacity for meditation. You might be confused about what words the priest or the schola is saying or singing, because the hand missal you picked up from a bookcase in the foyer is over a thousand pages long, and you haven’t figured out how to use it yet. So much is strange, even overwhelming; sometimes it seems random. And the whole of a High Mass might last for an hour and a half or even longer, depending on the solemnity of the rite or the volubility of the preacher. Everyone dresses up more; women are expected to wear veils; the atmosphere is more serious. An eager devotee might volunteer the information that Catholics who come to Mass here often try to observe either the three-hour Eucharistic fast or the fast from midnight. The usus antiquior is premised on asceticism and a reverential beauty in no hurry to be done. This Mass demands a lot of you and your family, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Is it worth the effort?

On the other hand, going to the Novus Ordo can be such a breeze. With regimented logic, everything happens in sequence, step by step—just one thing at a time, with no confusing layering of ritual. The texts are in your own language, so no one gets lost. The music can be better or worse, but you know basically what you’re getting: a four-hymn sandwich with a squirt or two of instrumental relish. The liturgy’s style is not medieval and meandering, but modern and microphoned. We recite the Creed, rather than singing that whole list of doctrines. The church building is full of your friends and acquaintances, so you get the social benefits of chatting outside before and after Mass. It feels comfortable and homey; the dress-code is relaxed; no one thinks of a lengthy fast before communion, and if you like to receive in the hand, no one bats an eye. The children will still squirm or cry, but you’re in and out in an hour. This Mass places “reasonable” demands on you and your family, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. It was designed to be easier for Modern Man, and not surprisingly, it is—on the surface.

“Behold, Lord, we have left all things to follow you. What reward shall we have?” said a brash St. Peter to his Master. We can ask the same question about the liturgy: “Lord, we have left all the conveniences of the modernized and simplified liturgy; what’s the pay-off for us?” Those who persevere in attending the traditional Latin Mass discover layers and dimensions of the Catholic Faith of which they would never have become aware if they had not at some point taken a leap of faith by committing themselves to this ancient ritual, the “road less traveled.” Indeed, they find that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass becomes far clearer in its meaning and far more potent in its impact. “Thy discipline hath corrected me unto the end: and Thy discipline, the same shall teach me” (Ps 17:36).

First, you come to realize that even after years of attending the Novus Ordo, you had not developed much of a “liturgical interior life”—that is, the ability to rest in the mysteries shining forth in the Mass, to absorb the prayers or Scripture texts, to connect deeply with the Real Presence of the Savior. The usus antiquior makes ample room for the growth of the spiritual life at the pace and in the way most suited to each individual, offering many helps or “handles” for penetrating into the marvels of the Eucharist and of the Church’s liturgical year. It gives you a lot more to pray about and a lot more room to pray in.

After experiencing this for a while, it can be like a shower with ice-cold water to return to the Novus Ordo and discover that it is pretty much a non-stop extroverted exchange from start to finish, with now the priest speaking, now the congregation, always “something doing,” and never, or rarely ever, an expanse for resting, absorbing, connecting. Even though the classical liturgy has a lot more going on in its minutiae, it operates on broader lines at a more leisurely pace—an inheritance from the ancient Mediterranean world and the monastery-rich Middle Ages. It offers shelter to the pilgrim and hospitality to the beggar, a gleaming of facets to the artistic, an intricate mesh of symbols to the intellectual, a starry vault to the dreamy. To the working man it offers graced repose, to the simple man an immediate contact with the divine, to the cultured a colorful tapestry for contemplation, to the God-thirsting an endless series of provocations and illuminations. The Novus Ordo is surprisingly thin on and bereft of these goods, and even if it had them in abundance, its operative principles would interfere with their assimilation.

Second, at the traditional Mass you start to notice a plethora of little things that serve as windows to the infinite and eternal: the priest kissing the altar time and again; the bowing of heads at certain phrases in the Gloria or the Credo; many signs of the cross made at significant moments; the clink of thurible chains and floating clouds of sweet smoke; the subdeacon holding the paten under the humeral veil; the pregnant silence of the Canon; the lifting of the chasuble at the elevations; the many ringings of bells; the corps of servers with straight backs and folded hands; the touching of sacred vessels and of Christ’s holy Body by ordained ministers alone…. All these little things (and the list could go on) are so many signs or calls of love from God, who is drawing us with exquisite gentleness into the depths of His mystery, preparing us for our beatitude with Him. He would never wish to give us anything less than the fullness of the orthodox Faith, in the fullness of its sacral expression.

(“Now wait a minute,” you may say; “can we not sometimes find the same little things in the Novus Ordo, too?” Yes, you might find some of them, on a good day, if you’re lucky.[1] The problem is that they rarely appear in that context, and when they do, it is with the slightly awkward feel of strangers who have arrived at a casual party vastly over-dressed. They do not belong to the company, and they sheepishly depart. In the old rite, these little things are completely at home; the house belongs to them and they to the house, like servants at a grand mansion. The combination of prayer, music, and ceremonial, orchestrated by carefully determined rubrics matured over centuries, is both perfectly natural and perfectly supernatural. One can surrender to it, trust oneself to it, be endlessly inspired by it. Dignum et justum est.)

Third, by immersing oneself in the ancient Roman liturgy, one’s identity as a Catholic, and the content of Catholicism, becomes thicker and richer. With the aid of good illustrated books, sound catechesis at home, and patient parenting, your children will have the opportunity to become more fully Catholic, too, and their unspoken sense of the reality of the Faith, the powerful reality of the things we say we believe (such as the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament), will grow. This, in itself, is worth all that it takes to get to the traditional Mass: children will be confronted again and again with unequivocal signs of the holiness of God, the dignity of priests, the set-apart sacredness of the sanctuary, the altar as a place of sacrifice, and the special privilege of receiving the Lord from the anointed hands of His minister, as we kneel along the altar rail to receive the precious Body of Jesus.

The traditional liturgy is like the old catechism writ large, in vivid characters, imprinting fundamental truths on the souls of those who attend it—truths for which there is little obvious support in the Novus Ordo, with its democratic permeable barriers that allow laypeople and clergy to mix roles and functions, its positioning of the priest versus populum as a “presider” at a social event, its treatment of the altar as a table, its dearth of signs and symbols to catch hold of and elevate the mind, its nearly institutionalized use of substandard church music, its lack of intrinsic silence, its encouragement of informal attitudes, and much else besides.[2] If we want to avoid all this, we must not dither and second-guess. We must make up our minds to attend the Church’s traditional liturgy, which enshrines the totality of Catholic dogma and responds to man’s deepest religious needs. Whatever our vocation is, whatever our state in life, whatever the state of our soul, we stand to receive a treasure infinitely greater than any sacrifice we might make in order to obtain it. If we are parents with children, we are greatly increasing the possibility that God may give our families the greatest gift after the Most Holy Eucharist, namely, a vocation to priestly or religious life—a vocation that the traditional liturgy awakens in a disproportionate number of its adherents.

An awakening to the interior life; the finding of dozens of new paths to the knowledge and love of God; the enrichment of one’s identity and faith as a Catholic—this is what the extra effort of attending the traditional Mass wins for you. Is it worth it? Can we say that this is a “reasonable” demand for modern people?

Maybe that is the wrong question to ask, for the truth is better than we expect or deserve. The tradition makes foolish, unreasonable demands because it aims not at our comfort but at our divinization. Its aims at passion, death, resurrection, and ascension, and efficaciously accomplishes them. We would do well to follow this narrow way that leads to abundant life.

Returning to that conversation between St. Peter and Jesus: what did Jesus reply? “Every one that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall possess life everlasting” (Mt 19:29). Something like this is true for us, too, especially today. Everyone that has left comforts and real human goods behind—be it a short drive, the social camaraderie, smooth relations with family or friends, the sense of being “normal” and mainstream, the naïve security of thinking “it’s all good”—shall receive a hundredfold, and discover in the glory and peace of the sacred liturgy a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven.

 

NOTES

[1] I recognize that there are a few shining exceptions, such as the Brompton Oratory, where many visitors might mistake the Sunday Ordinary Form Mass as a Tridentine Solemn Mass. But such communities count for less than 1% of the usus recentior “in the wild.” The fact that a self-consciously contemporary ars celebrandi has dominated for decades at every level and that it enjoys the support of most members of the hierarchy means that we are never likely to see the Oratorian approach greatly extended.

[2] Good sacred music and some of the other good things mentioned in this sentence can be found at a growing number of Ordinary Form liturgies, but the number of these is still a tiny minority against the backdrop of the global Church—even after decades of attempted liturgical “course corrections” under Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Anyone who reads or travels extensively will know that in most places the liturgical reform is still stuck in the 1970s, and, alas, there is a strong push on the part of an aging and dying generation to make it irreversibly stuck in the 1970s.

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