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Why I Couldn’t Go Back… to the Novus Ordo

On March 8, 2012, the Jesuit magazine America published an article by Fr. Peter Schineller entitled “The Tridentine Mass: Why I Couldn’t Go Back.” For years, I’ve noticed that America actually pays to promote this article in online searches so that it will influence public opinion (they are evidently worried about the direction the youth are going in). That planted in me the seed of the present article, which is intended as the other’s antithesis.—PAK

For the first eighteen years of my life, I exclusively attended the Novus Ordo.

I grew up in a typical suburban parish on the East coast that celebrated the Boomer Rite. The sanctuary was covered in carpet and Extraordinary Ministers. I remember the priests; they were all more or less nice guys and more or less heretical. One of them started an Ash Wednesday homily by wiping off the ashes from his head and saying that Christ came to do away with “this kind of stuff.” Another one left the priesthood to get married and work as a professional psychiatrist. Wanting to be more involved, I became, in succession, an altar boy, a lector, and an extraordinary minister. My faith was active but confused (just how confused I will leave for another occasion).

Later in high school, I joined a charismatic prayer group that introduced me to committed, conservative lay Catholics who had the courage to uphold Humanae Vitae. Music played a big role in this reversion. I wrote my one and only guitar song. But quite by chance, as it seemed, I also discovered Gregorian chant, which began to exercise a fascination on me. I began to learn about St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Padre Pio. A friend laden with medals introduced me to St. Louis de Montfort and The Secret of the Rosary. After a rocky year at Georgetown University, I started over again at Thomas Aquinas College, where for all four years students could enjoy, and still enjoy, the company of the legendary unicorn: the reverent Novus Ordo in Latin, with chant and polyphony.

It was at TAC that I discovered the TLM—somewhat in secret, like Elizabethan recusants. In the early nineties, this Mass was “permitted” only one Sunday a month. We had a chaplain who privately offered the old Mass whenever he could get away with it. Trustworthy students told one another assignations in whispers. First I attended the Low Mass; not long after, a High Mass. My friends and I were haunted with questions: “Why was this abolished?” “Who took it away from us?” In grad school came my first experience of a Solemn Mass; years later, my first Pontifical Mass. Each was a more splendid revelation of the glory of Roman Catholic worship. The ascetical-mystical elements of the faith suddenly made sense, reunited with their origins, finding their harbor.

In my first job out of grad school, as an assistant professor in Austria, we had the old Mass daily for a while, at the simultaneously cruel and contemplative hour of 6 a.m. When this happy spell ended, my family and I made a point of driving a good distance on Sundays, either to Vienna or Linz, to get to a Latin Mass. When we moved out to Wyoming, availability was as spotty as the cell phone reception, and this time, we were five minutes away from the college chaplaincy Mass but four hours’ drive from the nearest parish with a TLM. When school was in session, we enjoyed the blessing of three traditional Masses a week, but when school was out and the chaplain gone, we’d have few to none.

Throughout all the periods narrated, for a good 25+ years I “stuck it out” with the Novus Ordo as a cantor and choir director (although always in situations with access to the TLM as well—I could not do without it). With the intimate knowledge a music director comes to possess, I gradually came to see what a profound rupture the reformed liturgy is at every level, and the evil of the rupture grated on my mind more and more. It’s an artificial liturgy, as Esperanto is an artificial language, or aspartame an artificial sweetener.

One of the reasons I decided to leave Wyoming in 2018, as much as I loved it there for all kinds of other reasons, was an urgent longing for a fully traditional parish with a daily Tridentine Mass. It was time to make a decisive break. Now that I’ve been living for almost three years in that haven, I could honestly never go back to anything else.

Over these thirty-three months, I have attended a Novus Ordo Mass only once, as a favor for someone. Having been away from it for so long, the experience was far more jarring than I could have imagined possible. It felt as if my eyes were fully opened to the magnitude of the contradiction, not just difference, between the two rites. And they are two rites, even if the convenient legal fiction of two “forms” was felt to be necessary to medicate a schizophrenic situation.

Mind you, I am not talking about “abuses.” Legally speaking, there had been no abuses in this particular realization of Paul VI’s polymorphous prayer machine. It “did the red and said the black,” sans altar girls, extraordinary ministers, or strumming guitars. The faithful knelt for communion and the priest even wore a fiddleback chasuble. No, it was about the spirit of the thing, its Gestalt or total form. I was put off not by any particular thing, but simply by the thing itself. What was wrong was the Novus Ordo.

Static and arid because of the constant flow of words—from the priest, the lector, the congregation—the liturgy skipped along the surface of the sacred like a flat stone thrown skillfully across a lake. The sense of mystery utterly evaporated, or rather, never condensed to begin with. Only the occasional chant gave it a touch of sacrality, but this was more like “atmosphere” provided by mood music than an integral part of the action. The chant seemed like a foreign import to the rite rather than an organic part of a single flowing motion. Above all, the Mass was lacking in unity: it did not unfold, but rather plodded from one discrete thing to the next, like a sequence of setting-up exercises. The modular sequence of generically pious texts starved my prayer of oxygen, as if the liturgy were grudging me both ordinary and extraordinary means of life support. There was no time to breathe, to reflect, to savor, to be carried beyond this earthly realm to the edge of the heavenly fatherland.

Afterwards, I thought to myself: no wonder the Church is sickening and dying. It is just as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:30, about those who assist at the Holy Sacrifice without discerning what they are doing, whom they are receiving into their midst: “Therefore are there many infirm and weak among you, and many sleep” (1 Cor 11:30). Somehow this one Mass, out of thousands I’ve attended, crystallized it for me—clarified all the reasons I have shaken the dust from my feet.

I would never be able to give up the blessed silence of the contemplative low Mass or the stirring integral chants of the flowing High Mass, in exchange for the bumpy vernacular verbosity of the new Mass. The communion of prayer, the fellowship with the Church on Earth, the Church in Heaven, the Church in Purgatory—I don’t want it to be shattered by the next barrage of verbiage.

I don’t care to have the priest always trying to “connect” with the people in the pews; he is there for one reason, to connect us with God, and to connect himself with God. When he stands there facing us, at that moment prayer dies and God departs. I don’t want his eye contact, his practiced smiles, his best imitation of a pastoral Mr. Rogers, or (in worst case scenarios) the congratulations meted out to various and sundry, with the eruption of applause.

I don’t want to see Father give in to temptations of optionitis, like a well-intentioned alcoholic thrust upon a well-stocked liquor cabinet.

I don’t want the nearly fatal shock of discovering that this weekend the young priest who “does a reverent Novus Ordo” is sick or out of town or on vacation, and Mass will be said by a visiting priest from an ashram in India, a Jesuit retreat center, or a home for retired iconoclasts.

I’m forever done with seeing unvested lay readers walking up from their pews into the sanctuary, as if reading the Word of God were nothing more special than reading a story from the paper, as if—contrary to the unanimous testimony of ancient Israel and its continuation and fulfillment, the Catholic Church—no special office or consecration, no special holy garment, were required on the part of the one who dared to touch the book and take its aweful divine words upon his lips.

I’m through with seeing—and be assured it will come back the moment COVID departs—the army of old ladies march up to take charge of the distribution of Communion, for all the world as if they owned the place and had a right to handle the Body and Blood of God. It always made me sick to see this pseudo-priestly caste, in its clueless way, take up like bingo cards that which would have brought fear and trembling to any Christian in the centuries when men had faith in the All-Holy.

I want to have nothing to do with the Hobbesian Peace of All against All. (That’s one silver lining of Covidtide: the handshake of bonhomie has vanished.)

I would not give up the freedom to pray, to meditate, to let myself be drawn into Christ my Lord, for some embarrassing jamboree of communal self-celebration, with its straightjacketed way of “actively participating.” I never knew what participation could be until I discovered the traditional Mass. This taught me, at a level deeper than catechesis, what the Mass really is and how I can enter into it through adoration, contrition, supplication, and giving thanks.

Now that I have enjoyed a foretaste of heaven and caught a glimpse of angels’ worship, now that I have reconnected with centuries of my predecessors, on their knees gazing up to the high altar, wrapped in a mantle of a thousand years of ritual, I could never, ever go back.

Image credit: Banner, photo by a member of the FSSP; Middle, photo by Allison Girone. 

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