The following pairs of letters are developed from real correspondence between myself and various discerners. Each exchange is with a different person. Many young Catholic men will be able to relate to their concerns.
Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,
I’m a junior in high school and I’ve been discerning becoming a diocesan priest. I come from a very charismatic parish with no Latin Mass near. I discovered the Latin Mass about two years ago, and since then have become very traditional in mentality and have made a careful study of the Latin Mass. Over time, I discovered a traditional community online and fell in love. When I explained to a priest my love for the Latin Mass and my desire to join this community, he said it was “all a matter of personal preference” (as if to say, there is no better or worse way of worshiping). This confuses me. For example, I think chant and polyphony are the proper way to praise God in the Mass, but my parish is into music from the 90s. Is this just “my own personal preference” on how to worship God? That seems so relativistic.
Or take praying toward the east: I agree with your article, which lays out convincingly the harm that versus populum does to the people and to the priest. This is so obvious. But then why doesn’t the Church just go back to ad orientem? Is no one capable of seeing its importance? And what am I to do on Sundays when I go to the Novus Ordo Mass (it’s all we have here) and the priest is looking right at me? It’s so distracting, especially when he is speaking to God and looking at us at the same time.
Another example: I was taught to believe communion on the tongue and kneeling is the best way to receive Our Lord, but another “legitimate option” is on the hand, standing up. But a priest I know says receiving on the hand is harmful to faith and reverence (which it sure seems to be). So, again, this looks like a bunch of personal opinions and preferences. If everything comes down to “personal preference”—which I really doubt it does, but this thought is hurting my discernment process—then what reason would I have to desire to join a traditional community? Shouldn’t I just go with the local diocese and trust in Providence? I’m hoping you could shed some light on my confusion, or maybe more accurately, on the confusion in the Church.
Thanks for your letter. I understand the struggles you are going through, having been through them myself. The basic problem with your spiritual director’s perspective is that it is relativistic. It does not take into account why the Church did certain things for nearly 2,000 years—and then suddenly abandoned them. Had we been wrong all that time? Was “modern man” really so different, so changed from what he had been, that he needed a different kind of liturgy than his forefathers had? Would not the solution have been to keep patiently catechizing and educating Catholics about their own great heritage?
So far from being merely “personal preferences,” every liturgical symbol, action, ceremony, text, or piece of music is a theological statement, expressing a worldview and inculcating habits of soul. We believe as we pray, and we live as we believe. That is why these issues cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand as “aesthetics” or “preferences” or “matters of taste.”
However, in a period of confusion and uncertainty, it is easier, in the sense of less conflictual, to say: “Oh, you can do this or that or the other thing,” rather than taking a principled stance: “This is the right way to do it.” Communion in the hand is a great example. It was introduced as an abuse and was originally opposed by Paul VI. Then he caved in and said “If the bishops want it, that’s okay.” The bishops who pushed for it the most actively were the progressives and modernists who no longer believed in transubstantiation and the Real Presence, but wanted to see “the body of Christ” re-envisioned as primarily the “assembled people.” At the end of the day, there is a vast difference in theology, spirituality, and mentality between the old ways of worshiping and the new ways. Once a person sees this, he can never “unsee” it: all the traditional practices hold together in support of the Catholic Faith of the ages, while all the new practices hold together in support of a new version of “Catholicism for modern man.” Pope Francis has done us the favor of showing boldly what this new version actually is: what it teaches (and does not teach), what its priorities are.
Your instincts and intuitions are right—and you are not alone. There are millions of Catholics in the world today who either worship already with the traditional liturgy or are aware of its greatness and of the challenge it poses to the fashionable postconciliar consensus; and their average age is rather young, as opposed to the average age of those who strongly support the “spirit of the Council.” It is particularly the young who sense that something has gone wrong with the horizontal, community-centered, feeling-based model of worship, and who strongly resonate with the traditional approach, which so reverently expresses and honors the holy mysteries of Christ.
You bring up sacred music, and it is indeed an especially clear example. Gregorian chant and polyphony are objectively superior for the sacred liturgy, and for our spiritual maturation we need what they offer us. There is always a good reason why the Church worshiped as she did over the course of many centuries—and as she still does, wherever the traditional Mass is offered. You may find here a thorough explanation of why chant is the perfect music for Catholic worship; also have a look at this and this.
Meanwhile, the practical question is the hardest one: How do I endure a less than optimal liturgical situation? There is no easy solution to this problem short of actually moving to a better place (as many Catholics decide they finally must do), but here are some recommendations.
1) Faithfully attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, doing your best to unite yourself to the sacrifice of Christ the High Priest, and following the best customs you can, such as receiving Holy Communion kneeling and on the tongue.
2) Try to get to Latin Mass from time to time. I do not know how far away the closest one is, but this will be important for your discernment and your spiritual growth. Sometimes watch the Latin Mass at the FSSP www.livemass.net/ site. This is a good way to enter into the spirit of the liturgy.
3) See if you can do a vocations retreat with one of the traditional seminaries or communities, or a retreat at Clear Creek monastery for a week. This could be a life-changing experience.
4) Practice lectio divina with the old missal. Get a traditional daily missal, and as your prayer time, preferably in the morning, read the texts of the day’s Mass and mediate on them.
5) Additionally, or alternatively, start praying some part of the old Divine Office, such as Prime in the morning, or Compline in the evening. A most useful printed resource is available here, although one can also find the traditional office online.
It sounds like the priest you mentioned is a well-intentioned person who lacks a good formation in liturgy, which is all too typical of most priests formed after the Council. For the sake of maintaining a certain kind of “peace,” they tend to adopt a “live and let live” attitude: “If that’s what floats your boat…” From a distance I can only make a suggestion: while this priest may well be able to help you with general spiritual matters, such as developing virtues and uprooting vices, he may simply not be able to help you in your vocational discernment, if the Lord is calling you to join a traditional society of apostolic life or religious community. He won’t understand what the big deal is, and as a result, may subtly try to influence you to a more “mainstream” option.
For someone who sees the beauty, the fittingness, the holiness of traditional liturgical worship, a “mainstream” option is no option at all; it would more likely, especially in our times, spell the end of a vocation. It is better to join an order that is thoroughly and consistently traditional than to attempt to “thread the needle” of being a diocesan priest who is constantly under pressure to conform and compromise, and who may rarely have the opportunity to offer the Mass of the Ages.
Warm regards, in Christ,
Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,
My experiences as a Catholic have taught me that the Traditional Latin Mass is a perfect fit for the priesthood, like a hand in a custom-made glove. Every prayer, reading, and action in the old missal defines what it means to be a priest of Jesus Christ. Priests are sent by God to renew the sacrifice of Calvary every day at the altar. A private Mass at a side altar reminds us of how much grace there is in the Holy Sacrifice, perhaps even of the humility of Christ’s earthly life; a Solemn High Mass mirrors the heavenly liturgy described in the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb. 12:22–24). I understood when I was younger the priest’s significance, but it did not become really clear to me until I began attending and singing for the Latin Mass regularly in college.
It is incredibly unfortunate how much of this is lost in the Ordinary Form. As one who travels regularly, I have attended Mass in a very large number of places, and the casual atmosphere that prevails in most cases (which you criticize at length in Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis) weighs down on me and makes me anxious about the spiritual formation of the Mass-goers in the pews. You’re a church musician: do you understand what I am getting at? A casual atmosphere during Mass leans dangerously toward spiritual relativism, a failure to recognize any difference between the sacred and the casual. If anything, most church buildings and liturgies nowadays seem to inculcate only the latter, almost as if they meant to exclude the former.
Here’s a question I’d like to pose. What advice would you give to a young man who is discerning a priestly vocation to an order—say, one of the great Oratories—where both forms of the Mass are offered daily? Do you believe that the dual access to the Classical Rite and the (“Reformed”) Modern Rite would instill in a seminarian, alongside rigorous seminary formation, a true sense of sacred liturgy and the “priest-victim” identity which is otherwise lacking in the average parish Mass?
When you write “the Traditional Latin Mass is a perfect fit for the priesthood, like a hand in a custom-made glove,” and so on, I could not possibly agree more! It has been said that nothing forms a priest more than his daily Mass. If this Mass is well-suited to forming the inner man in spiritual discipline and the sweetness of the contemplation of Christ, then what great priests can and will emerge from it! But if it betrays that purpose by dissipating itself in the “closed circle” of the worshiping community and by a paucity and inadequacy of texts and ceremonies, what an impoverishment it will cause—something that can be overcome only by a few and only with great difficulty.
As goes the Mass, so goes the priest; as goes the priest, so goes the Church. It is really as simple as that. This is why the liturgical reform was the devil’s masterstroke. What he had not succeeded in achieving for 2,000 years—a foothold at the very heart and center of the Church’s life on earth—he accomplished in the 1960s under Bugnini and Paul VI. The “smoke of Satan” that the latter bemoaned was not simply wild doctrine and lax morals. Whether he saw it or not, it was the fracturing of the very symbol of Roman Catholicism, the encapsulation of its creed, the expression of its intense Eucharistic piety, the unifying force of its age-old solemn sacred worship, which had always been revered and never violently dismantled and reconstructed. The change was not merely cosmetic but profound and endlessly far-reaching, as I explain in detail in The Once and Future Roman Rite.
All that you say about Church music, too, makes perfect sense. There is an inherent unseriousness in much of what goes on in Catholic churches, especially in the musical styles, and this, too, is the devil’s way of diverting the attention of the faithful from what really matters—the life-and-death seriousness of our immersion in the life and death of Christ—towards the surface and the periphery, towards feelings, community awareness, politics, or whatever.
As we know, it is possible for a priest to offer the new rite reverently; but as Martin Mosebach points out, its fatal flaw consists in the fact that it is merely possible to do this, not dictated by a fixed law of prayer predetermined in the texts and rubrics (lex orandi).
You are right that a sound Oratorian community, by cultivating a maximum continuity of ritual between old and new, would instill in seminarians a sound and orthodox understanding of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the priest-victim identity. Nevertheless, the essential difference between Vetus Ordo and Novus Ordo is not in the ars celebrandi but in the very texts and rubrics of the missals themselves, which are notably different (have a look here, here, and here for just a few examples of the thousands that could be given). For this reason, I believe that the most internally consistent and coherent choice is to apply to a community that is exclusively devoted to the usus antiquior. By doing so, one becomes a lifelong apprentice to the best school of the spiritual life, a custodian of the greatest treasure of the Roman Church, and a beneficiary of the same spiritual powerhouse that formed generations of saints. It is good for the individual priest and good for the entire Church, which must learn to live again from the altar and for the altar, in a truly unbroken continuity with our liturgical tradition.
I have worked closely with dozens of priests and corresponded with hundreds more. The diocesan ones will often say—and it’s quite understandable—that you should become a diocesan priest and help “turn the tide” of the battle by patiently setting the right liturgical example, slowly introducing traditional elements, and eventually bringing in the old Mass. The problem is, many young priests get “crucified” as they try to do this, and they become broken men. There are some good places, but one is always taking a huge chance on the next bishop, whoever he may be; and some of Francis’s appointments are positively frightening (McElroy being only the most notorious). The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, and others like them have strong canonical protection in their approved constitutions, the strength of a immemorial rule of life, and the peace of following what is objectively best. Their parishes are well-known for vitality by every metric. If I were discerning a vocation, this is what I would want to “get in on”: the vanguard of the movement of restoration, blazing a “sustainable path” for the future.
The battle over these things, as you know, has intensified after Traditionis Custodes, which was issued not because bishops asked for it, but because the ageing hippies of the Vatican II era are frightened to death when they see the spread of Tradition in dioceses across the world, and they have enough intelligence to see that the TLM is, so to speak, the “Trojan Horse” that brings Tradition back. Where it exists and exercises its gravitational influence (to use a metaphor from Fr. Z), the evils of the postconciliar era begin to dissipate, and Sacraments, devotions, families, vocations, all flourish anew; where it does not exist, the Church continues in its horizontal, humanistic, secularizing death march, in just the way these wicked men desire. Let us move as far away from them as possible, and work in the opposite direction.
Lastly, no doubt you are wondering, as are so many others: Can I rely on the continuing existence of the “former Ecclesia Dei institutes,” when it seem as if high officials at the Vatican are waging an escalating war against Tradition and may seek to suppress those communities or force them to adopt conscience-violating compromises? I do not have a crystal ball, and no one knows if, or to what extent, the current rumors of “TC 2.0” are valid, and what will actually come out (or not). Moreover, we must all pray and fast this Lent for the reversal or mitigation of any such measures. But I am convinced, on the basis of my decades-long association with traditional priests, that they, and their communities, will not simply buckle like aluminum foil or throw in the towel when a communiqué arrives by email. There is a staunch fighting spirit in these men and in these communities—even if they maintain an external appearance of equanimity and meekness, as they should—that will carry them through even the darkest times, until a better pope and better bishops abandon the attack on Tradition. I am also consoled by personal friendships with bishops who have told me they will continue to use the Roman Pontifical even if it is (illegitimately) “forbidden.” I am not saying there could not be a terribly messy situation in the future; but I am saying that in spite of any such messy situation, it is still better to entrust oneself to a fully traditional community.
Warm regards, in Christ,
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. Today he is a full-time writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism who has written many books and publishes on a wide variety of sites. His work has been translated into twenty languages. Visit his personal website at www.peterkwasniewski.com, his Substack “Tradition and Sanity,” his publishing house Os Justi Press, and his composer site CantaboDomino.