I had just entered the seminary when Cardinal Ratzinger’s book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, came out. I had an English copy expressed to me and brought it with me into the chapel as my spiritual reading during our daily community Holy Hour. One of the older men knelt next to me as I was engrossed in Ratzinger’s chapter on Rite and whispered, “Do you want to get kicked out of the seminary? Change the book cover now.” All of my attempts to not publicise the fact that I actually knew the Old Latin Mass had apparently been blown out of the water by this defiant act of wanton schism. Suddenly seminarians began to knock on my door and counsel me how to survive the seminary, and so I exchanged Ignatius Press’ book cover for one entitled “The Pastoral Letters of Paul VI.”
Apparently it was too late. I was a marked man. Not surprisingly, the superiors were made aware of my “problem,” but for the most part, they left me alone. I refused to be duplicitous about my love for the Latin Mass, and I also went along with the liturgical customs of the house without trying to reform or denounce them. I did from to time steal away from the house to go to a Latin Mass, carefully folding my cassock up into my overcoat and hiding my collar with a scarf, feeling all the while a little bit like Superman waiting for a small cubiculum where I could transform into my true self. Only once was I ever “discovered” as I was serving a Low Mass for a curial prelate in the private chapel of a Roman noble family that was having an annual open house, as it were. Nothing was ever said.
My deacon year, however, I had a very strange experience which made me realize the odd dynamics that are often at work in seminaries when it comes to the Latin Mass. We had a Lenten tradition called “fraternal correction” in which any member of the house could call another member of the house on the floor for anything which he considered wrong. I had escaped four previous Lents without feeling the need to engage any of my brothers in this somewhat contrived version of what we did every day living together, nor having to feel the brunt of someone else’s issues at my expense.
Not this time.
One of my confreres came up to me in the magazine room and expressed his concern over the fact that I was a Lefebvrist. My superiors were already content with the fact that I had told them I was more than happy being a priest in the contemporary Church, as she is today and not as she was at some mythical time in the future, so I was rather annoyed at this sincere desire to save me from my own schismatic self. I attempted to try to explain that not everyone who is attached to the pre-Vatican II liturgical tradition is a schismatic, but was apparently unsuccessful. One of my superiors attempted to come to my aid. He said, “You think Christopher is a Lefebvrist because he likes Latin and Gregorian chant. Well, then I am a Lefebvrist too. And so is the Church, because she made it very clear at Vatican II that we were supposed to have Latin and chant in the Mass.”
The problem was that I realized that neither my superior nor my confrere knew who Marcel Lefebvre was, or anything about the genesis and the complicated nature of the traditionalist phenomenon. Neither had any experience of what we called back in the day the “Indult” Mass, and they would not have known anyone who actually was a priest of the SSPX, if it had not been for one of our alumni who had just jumped ship to them a few years before.
The whole experience left me rather sad. It made me realize that there are many good men in the Church, who are products of and involved in seminary formation who do not understand why anyone, least of all a seminarian, would be interested in the Extraordinary Form. There is no knowledge at all, or only partial circumstantial and anecdotal knowledge — often negative — that they have of others who expressed an interest in that liturgy.
Shortly after the abortive attempt at fraternal correction, I had an exam with a famous Italian liturgist. He was famous for giving everyone perfect scores, and all he asked was that you come in and talk about one chapter from the books he assigned us to read in class. Five minutes, and you were done and had a nice advance on your GPA. There was a chapter in one of his books which compared the Ordinary of the Mass in the older and the newer forms. So I began to talk about that chapter. “How do you know anything about this?” he asked angrily. I replied that it was in the book, and tried to show him where it was in the book that he had told us to read in class, but he would not be moved. And so began a 45 minute oral exam in which he grilled me on everything in the books, which I had studied and knew. I was dismissed from the exam and given a barely passing grade. Imagine my surprise when he showed up at the seminary to give a talk to my class on the liturgical reform. He started off with, “Well, of course, none of you know anything about what the Mass was like before Vatican II.” My class knew about the exam from hell I had just had with him and started snickering. When I saw the speaker looking for the cause of the giggling, I calmly said, “Well, I actually served the Old Latin Mass this morning before I came to your exam today.”
I would never counsel a seminarian to do the same. Nor do I offer anything I have ever done as a model! But what I gained from that experience was that I could not dispassionately engage a famous liturgist about the Old Mass with something as objective as what the differences are between the two forms.
So in my seminary experience I encountered two phenomena: a lack of knowledge and a positive hatred of one form of the Church’s liturgy. Since then, we have had Ratzinger elected Pope, as well as Summorum Pontificum and Universae Ecclesiae. The nature of the game has changed, even if there are some who are unwilling to admit it.
Reasons Why Seminaries May Fear the Extraordinary Form
But a question must be asked: Are there any legitimate reasons why a house of priestly formation should be leery of the Extraordinary Form? As far as most seminaries go, Ecclesia Dei Adflicta has not landed, much less Summorum or Universae. The day to day liturgical life of the seminaries changed very little after Pope Benedict XVI took office, even as seminarians in some parts of the world have done an admirable job of trying to educate themselves about the rite. Some seminaries offer a few Masses a year and some optional training in the Old Rite, but I am not aware of any diocesan seminary in which it is a normal part of the life.
Much to their credit, seminary rectors and faculty realize that they are preparing their men for ministry in a Church in which they will find a variety of liturgical expressions. Whether that pluralism is always legitimate or not is a good question, but young priests have to be capable of serving in parishes where the Good News of Pope Benedict XVI has not yet reached. Some might be afraid that emphasis on the Extraordinary Form might render them incapable of reaching the people in the pews.
Also, the more that curious seminarians delve into the Extraordinary Form, the more they will have questions – not only about the mechanics of the form, but about the whole liturgical reform itself. These are uncomfortable questions, and seminary faculty must have not only a wide learning to answer those questions, but much patience to accompany seminarians through their questioning.
Seminary superiors also are loath to divide the community in any way. There is a fear that encouraging the Extraordinary Form might split seminarians in their fraternity and cause them to break off into cliques of liturgical preference, and that this division would be magnified in parish life. Parishes, rectories, and schools would feel the weight of EF-happy clergy intent on changing how they “have always done” things until the biretta-wearing, Latin-talking upstart comes to town.
Seminary staff are also aware that the enthusiasm of youth is often not tempered by the virtue of prudence and seasoned by the practical knowledge that comes with experience in parish ministry. One of the phenomena that has come about is the seminarian who has taught himself all he knows about the Extraordinary Form. The autodidact often knows less than he thinks he does, and, with the best intentions in the world, annoys people unnecessarily. I was reminded of this recently as I was sitting in choir at an Extraordinary Form Solemn Mass. Although the clergy were seated in their proper order, a seminarian spent his whole time fretting about giving the signs to the senior clergy he thought were ignorant of when to sit, stand, bow, and use the biretta. As it happens, he was frequently wrong and I spent the whole Mass distracted by his trying to be a Holy Helper.
Many seminarians have a genuine love of the Old Mass, but the tradition has not been handed down to them in a living organic way. And when one tries to resurrect the tradition by way of books, videos, and self-help, there are too many holes in the fabric to make a rich vesture in which to clothe the Church’s liturgy. As most seminarians’ experience of the liturgy has been more or less exclusively the Ordinary Form, there is also the inescapable temptation to graft a Novus Ordo mentality onto a liturgy whose mens is quite different.
There are not a few people responsible for the formation of priests who see all of the above phenomena and think to themselves, “We don’t want to touch this with a ten foot pole.” And of course, what does a good seminary rector do when he knows that Tradition-unfriendly Bishops will pull their guys out of their seminaries if they begin to teach the Extraordinary Form?
Reasons Why Seminaries Should Welcome the Extraordinary Form
None of the above phenomena, which are real, should impede seminaries from a joyous welcome to the Extraordinary Form within their daily life. By this point, it should be patently obvious to everyone that a significant proportion of the men interested in the seminary are also, if not positively enthusiastic, are at least not unfavorable to the Extraordinary Form. Of course, this is true only in certain countries and in certain regions of those countries. But even where there is little or no interest, there are still reasons why seminaries can welcome the Extraordinary Form.
The most important reason is that the Magisterium has made it very clear that there are two forms of the same Roman Rite and that both are equal in dignity. If all priests of the Latin Rite have the right to celebrate both forms, it follows that seminaries should train all priests in both forms. Then, they will be ready to fulfill the requests of those faithful who desire the Extraordinary Form and they will broaden their own pastoral horizon.
The enthusiastic welcome of the Extraordinary Form into seminary life will also unmask the tension that has been growing over EF-friendly seminarians in houses of formation. If they are not formed properly in the seminary to be able to offer the Extraordinary Form, many will embark on an auto-didactic parallel formation which will keep their minds, hearts and often their bodies out of the seminary formation environment. When seminarians begin such an autodidactic parallel formation, the tendency is to develop a form of duplicity to be able to engage in such formation. And given the state of the clergy in today’s Church, no seminary can afford to give seminarians a blank check to get their formation elsewhere.
A Plan for Integrating the Extraordinary Form into Seminary Life
But how can the Extraordinary Form be integrated into seminary life? First of all, all of those involved in priestly formation must come to accept what Pope Benedict XVI has done for the Roman liturgy: he has declared that there are two forms of one Roman Rite, and every priest has a right to celebrate both. If that is true, the question must be asked: Why is every seminarian in the Latin Rite not trained in both forms? Some seminaries have offered some limited training to those who are interested in it, but that still makes it seem like the Extraordinary Form is a hobby for some priests, or some kind of eccentric movement barely tolerated within the Church, and not of equal value with the Ordinary Form.
Yet before any seminary can integrate the Extraordinary Form into seminary life, seminaries must offer a comprehensive training in the Latin language and sacred music. These two subjects, which were once part and parcel of every seminary training, have been relegated to a few optional classes in many places, when they should undergird the curriculum.
Many seminaries, in an attempt to prepare their men for the reality of life in the parishes to which they may one day be destined, offer Spanish masses or folk masses or other kinds of “liturgical styles” for seminarians to participate in. Whether or not this is a good type of formation is not the scope of this article, but it also brings up a question: If Ordinary Form and Extraordinary Form are two forms of the Roman Rite existing side-by-side, for the universal Church, how can they not both be celebrated side-by-side in the seminary? For the community Mass of a seminary, one wonders why Low Mass, Dialogue Mass, Sung Mass and Solemn Mass cannot be part of the weekly rotation of types of Masses celebrated in seminary communities.
There are indications that, in many seminaries, the men themselves are pushing their seminary rectors and faculty to recognize the validity and the possibilities of the celebration of both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms in their communities. There is open discussion of this topic, with much less fear than there was in my time – which was not all that long ago. The openness and transparency with which the liturgical questions can be asked, confronted, and resolved bodes well for the future. Far from producing one-sided priests who leave the seminary as bitter liturgical Nazis bent on reforming their parishes to their liturgical opinions, the frequent celebration of the Extraordinary Form in seminaries can foster an atmosphere of serene liturgical formation in which candidates for ordination can better appreciate both forms and learn how to more effectively open up the riches of the liturgy for the People of God.
What Can Happen When the Extraordinary Form is Integrated Into Seminary Life
I was recently at a Cathedral down South on a weekday and I wanted to celebrate a private Mass. As I was vesting in my Roman chasuble and my altar server, a seminarian, was preparing the altar for my Extraordinary Form Mass on the feast of Saint Dominic, a newly-ordained priest was vesting in a Gothic chasuble and a layman was preparing another side altar for his Ordinary Form Mass on the feast of Saint Jean-Marie Vianney. My newly-ordained priest friend has not yet learned the Extraordinary Form, but is interested. We both went to side altars at the same time to offer two forms of the Roman Rite, with clergy, seminarians and laity in attendance. It wasn’t something we planned, it just happened that way. Later that week, my newly-ordained priest friend sat in choir at an Extraordinary Form High Mass that the seminarian and I helped to sing, and I concelebrated the Ordinary Form in the same Cathedral where he was ordained. The Director of Religious Education for the Cathedral, a young woman theologian and student of liturgy, happened to be present at all of these occasions, and she commented on how, in our own way, we were making real Pope Benedict’s vision of the Roman Rite in two forms. No one was confused, no one was angry, no one was ideologically motivated to criticize the other.
The younger clergy have a tremendous opportunity to be conversant in the two forms of the Roman Rite, and in doing so, build bridges where previous liturgy battles had separated the faithful from each other. Seminary superiors are right to want to avoid at all costs further liturgical polarization in the Church. But continuing to marginalize a form of the Roman Rite which has been restored to its full citizenship within the Church will only continue to polarize people. Giving the Extraordinary Form its due in priestly formation will be the way forward beyond opposing camps into a Church where both forms can co-exist side-by-side in harmony.
This article originally appeared at Chantcafe.com. It has been modified and reprinted with the author’s permission.