Ever since the new rite of Mass was introduced in 1969, battles over liturgy have ensued.
But something has changed: we have reached a critical moment in Church history, namely, the widespread recognition that simply because a pope says or does something does not necessarily mean it is in the best interest of the Church or the faithful. It is therefore an opportune time for us to consider again whether the changes in the Mass that were forced upon the Church in 1969 were in fact good simply because the pope gave them to us.
The misleading terms of “Ordinary” and “Extraordinary” form — which came from Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum — provide euphemistic cover to an unprecedented liturgical dissonance within the Roman Rite; two liturgies, one sacred and time-tested as the fruit of organic development, another created by a committee with a clear rhetorical purpose at odds with the historical understanding of liturgy throughout the Church’s two thousand years.
I am aware that many readers here continue, whether by choice or because they have no other option, to attend the so-called “Novus Ordo” or “Ordinary Form” of the Mass. They read our articles and share our concerns about the state of the Church in most respects, but for some, our preoccupation with the shape of the liturgy exists as a stumbling block. And I ask those readers in particular to stay with me, if they are willing, so that I can try to better explain why this battleground is where so many of our efforts are spent.
In recent days, I’ve found myself in a number of discussions about various topics. Oddly, it seems the “traditionalist” Catholic view about the importance of liturgy often winds up being part of the debate. In one example, in part of a larger discussion about the corruption in the institutional Church, a man said to me, “You are much like a dear priest friend who loves the TLM (Traditional Latin Mass) and thinks its return will solve the human problems of the Church. His bitterness is in danger of crushing his Faith. Yours is in danger for the same reason.”
We were not talking about the liturgy, so why do so many such arguments inescapably find their way there?
You’ve no doubt heard the sentiment my interlocutor is referring to: “Save the liturgy, save the world.” This is of course an oversimplification, but not a gross one. It would be a critical error to understate the significance of liturgy in our lives. As I wrote in my essay, “Why Liturgy Really is the Key to Everything,”
[A] proper understanding of liturgy grounds us in a correct knowledge of our place in the universe. Liturgy that emphasizes Our Lord’s Sacrifice and places us mentally and spiritually before the Cross on Calvary humbles us and makes us receptive to our absolute dependence on God for all good things, especially our salvation. Liturgy where priest and people alike are oriented toward Heaven and where sacred things are veiled and shrouded and reverenced in an appropriate way teaches us who we are — and what duties we have — in relation to Him from Whom all good things come and in Whom we must trust when we have no choice but to walk by faith rather than by sight. Liturgy should make us feel small, like entering the great edifices of Christendom.
The attack on the liturgy that we have witnessed over the past half-century can be understood as nothing less than a diabolical attempt to strike at the heart of our most important and intimate connection with Our Creator — and also to confuse and disorient us through this loss of perspective. We have been given over to idolatry – the idolatry of self, such that we see the world only through the lens of our own desires. Christ’s sacrifice has been replaced with food and fellowship, His altar of oblation turned into a table, His priesthood adulterated by those persons who intrude upon the domain of the priest but do not possess the ability to act in persona Christi, the universal orientation of priest and people toward God turned inward so that we are, in essence, all just talking to ourselves, and nearly every act of reverence for the sacred has been stripped away.
Christ remains present in this reinvented, banalized, man-centered liturgy, but He is ignored, forgotten, abused, and upstaged. Like Cain, we no longer offer God our best, but keep it for ourselves. Anyone who attempts to offer God what He deserves, like Abel, is met with envy, contempt, and even violence.
The architects of the Church’s “new and improved” liturgy knew exactly what they were doing. And they have been successful. They have, with a single stroke, moved the entire liturgical edifice of the Church to a foundation of sand. And now that this edifice is crumbling to the ground, and the faith along with it, they swoop in, telling us that the other truths of our faith are nothing more than “ideals” too hard to live up to, that because things have strayed so far, we must now find ways to accept and work with situations “as they are.” By destroying our understanding of our relationship with God through the central act of prayer of the Church, they have undermined all else besides. Now, after half a century of demolition, they are dismantling what’s left of the faith almost unopposed.
Mass: It’s Not About Us
Humanism is unquestionably one of the defining characteristics of the post-conciliar Church. And it absolutely prioritizes the interests of man over those of God – the exact thing Our Lord accused St. Peter of when He said, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mt. 16:23)
For example, how would you feel about this sentiment if you heard it from the pulpit? “According to the almost unanimous opinion of believers and unbelievers alike, all things on earth should be related to man as their center and crown.”
What if it wasn’t from the pulpit? What if it was from the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, paragraph 12?
Does anything about that assertion strike you as odd? If so, you’re not alone. Christ is the center of all things, even on earth. Not man. This inversion in philosophical understanding helps to explain so many of the problems we see in the Church today. This sentiment, expressed time and again in both word and action, has only grown stronger in the intervening years. We’re at the point now where a papal document — Evangelii Gaudium 161 — says that love of neighbor is the first and greatest commandment, when the scriptures make absolutely clear that it is love of God that is the first and greatest.
We are turning inwards. We have begun, whether we mean to or not, to worship ourselves.
Of course, we were warned that this would come. The Permanent Instruction of the Alta Vendita — an Italian group closely associated with freemasonry in the 1800s — made clear their intentions in 1859, when they spoke of their aims in infiltrating the Catholic Church:
“In a few years the young clergy will have, by force of events, invaded all the functions. They will govern, administer, and judge. They will form the council of the Sovereign. They will be called upon to choose the Pontiff who will reign; and that Pontiff, like the greater part of his contemporaries, will be necessarily imbued with the…humanitarian principles which we are about to put into circulation… Let the clergy march under your banner in the belief always that they march under the banner of the Apostolic Keys. You wish to cause the last vestige of tyranny and of oppression to disappear? Lay your nets like Simon Barjona. Lay them in the depths of sacristies, seminaries, and convents, rather than in the depth of the sea… You will bring yourselves as friends around the Apostolic Chair. You will have fished up a Revolution in Tiara and Cope, marching with Cross and banner – a Revolution which needs only to be spurred on a little to put the four corners of the world on fire. ” [emphasis added]
The Novus Ordo, by design, strips away the ethos of sacrifice from the liturgy, and turns its attention inwards, towards man. Towards community and meal sharing. Towards turning an altar of sacrifice into a supper table. Towards the placation of theological differences between religions. Towards inclusivity, and other human concerns. In its purest form — often referred to by those who say it can be “celebrated well” — it can shed some of the most problematic accidentals we most commonly see: versus populum, full vernacular, laity in the sanctuary, banal contemporary music instead of sacred, communion in the hand, communion standing, and so forth. Nevertheless, even offered mostly in Latin, ad orientem, it retains the changes made to the essential prayers of the Mass, strips away the rubrics and gestures that promoted such great sacramental reverence, takes away the supplication of the priest (prayers at the foot of the altar) and people (the multiple confiteor), dilutes the offertory, and makes use of non-Catholic prayers interwoven througout. It essentially — as its architect Annibale Bugnini said it should — strips away the stumbling blocks for non-Catholics to find the liturgy approachable. Which means the distinctly Catholic identity of the Catholic liturgy has been surgically removed. (For those interested in comparing the prayers in the two forms, see this side-by-side text.)
I say this not to offend, but because I believe it to be unequivocally true: The so-called “Ordinary Form” is an inferior liturgy, not only to the one it sought to replace, but to the other rites of the Church. Go to a Byzantine or Ukrainian or Melkite or Chaldean parish and you will find liturgies redolent of one another, and of the the old Roman Mass. You will find nothing that reminds you of the Novus Ordo — but you will find such reminders in many Lutheran churches, some of which use variations on the same liturgical text.
There is no easy way to say it: the new Mass is an artifice; it is a modern construct created out of whole cloth, not the fruit of some organic theological development across the span of centuries. Ratzinger famously characterized it as a “fabrication, a banal product of the moment”. But even Pope Paul VI, who was directly responsible for promulgating it, implicitly acknowledged its invasive and counterintuitive nature in his general audience of November 29, 1969:
“This change will affect the ceremonies of the Mass. We shall become aware, perhaps with some feeling of annoyance, that the ceremonies at the altar are no longer being carried out with the same words and gestures to which we were accustomed—perhaps so much accustomed that we no longer took any notice of them. This change also touches the faithful. It is intended to interest each one of those present, to draw them out of their customary personal devotions or their usual torpor.
We must prepare for this many-sided inconvenience. It is the kind of upset caused by every novelty that breaks in on our habits. We shall notice that pious persons are disturbed most, because they have their own respectable way of hearing Mass, and they will feel shaken out of their usual thoughts and obliged to follow those of others. Even priests may feel some annoyance in this respect.”
The truth is, many of the faithful have never stopped being annoyed, and the young faithful who discover the Church’s perennial liturgy discover this same annoyance anew. What the faithful were drawn out of was not “torpor,” but authentic devotion. Reverence. Supplication. They were given a stone instead of bread, a resounding gong, a clanging symbol, not a sign of love and expression of true worship of and devotion to the God who so loved us that He offered everything through His death on the cross for the expiation of our sins – a sacrifice made present on every Catholic altar, but not treated with the same awe and wonder by every liturgy.
Many arguments have been made that this or that aspect of the new liturgy is actually more traditional, more in line with historic Christianity. These arguments will always be debated, because the information we have about liturgy in apostolic times is somewhat limited.
But as Martin Mosebach writes in his Heresy of Formlessness,
“If, however, we think correctly and historically, we should realize that what is an expression of veneration in one period can be an expression of blasphemy in another. If people who have been kneeling for a thousand years suddenly get to their feet, they do not think, “We’re doing this like the early Christians, who stood for the Consecration”; they are not aware of returning to some particularly authentic form of worship. They simply get up, brush the dust from their trouser-legs and say to themselves: “So it wasn’t such a serious business after all.” Everything that takes place in celebrations of this kind implies the same thing: “It wasn’t all that serious after all.” Under such circumstances, anthropologically speaking, it is quite impossible for faith in the presence of Christ in the Sacrament to have any deeper spiritual significance, even if the Church continues to proclaim it and even if the participants of such celebrations go so far as to affirm it explicitly.”
The return of sacred liturgy to the Church will not solve all “the human problems of the Church,” it’s true; but it would be a significant step in that direction. A people who worship God in a fitting manner are much more likely to recognize the importance of honoring His precepts that extend beyond the confines of their Sunday obligation. It is not because of a concern for personal preference or the Latin Language or a love of the old-fashioned that traditional Catholics — many of them too young to remember when the old Mass was the normative liturgy of Roman Catholicism — are so drawn to what it represents. It is a bulwark against the seductions of the world, an experience that transports us from our quotidian existence across time to the foot of the Cross on Calvary and leaves us trembling in awe of what was done on our behalf, motivating and inspiring us to carry that mission out of the parishes and into a broken world – a world in need of the full power and majesty of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice.