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I came across an article recently suggesting it is time to update the Traditional liturgy. I came to it through a tweet by Phil Lawler that read “How the Extraordinary Form could be made more accessible– if traditionalists would allow it.”
The article, written by Fr. Peter Stravinskas, made the argument that both Sacrosanctum Concilium and Summorum Pontificum called for changes to the traditional liturgy. In the name of mutual enrichment between the Novus Ordo and the Usus Antiquior, Fr. Stravinskas laid out alterations that he believes would enrich the Mass of the Ages.
I won’t embark on a point by point response; Fr. Albert Marcello has done a fine job doing just that. Though there are a few suggestions that Fr. Stravinskas makes that are so uncontroversial that they have been adopted already, such as the maintaining the integrity of the Sanctus, Fr. Marcello ultimately concludes that almost all of the changes suggested by Fr. Stravinskas would ultimately change the Latin Mass so much that it would cease to be the Traditional Mass and would instead effectively become the Novus Ordo.
For what it’s worth, I’ve seen a Traditional Latin Mass celebrated in the way Fr. Stravinskas describes, employing many of the changes he desires and I can speak for personal experience that no one wants the result: it is simultaneously too traditional for a typical suburban Novus Ordo going Catholic and far too novel for anyone attached to the Traditional Mass. It’s also worth noting that if one is so inclined, all the changes described by Fr. Stravinskas can already be found in the Liturgy of the Anglican Ordinariate; there is no reason to modify the Usus Antiquior in order to answer “the contemporary liturgical version of Tertullian’s question [“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”]” which no one is asking. Instead, I want to focus on a few bigger picture concerns that Fr. Marcello does not raise, but that I believe are equally important in thinking about the suggested changes that Fr. Stravinskas puts forward.
Again: Now is not the time to tinker with the Mass. The Mass of the Saints has served us well not just from the time of Pope St. Pius V but from its foundation by Pope St. Gregory the Great. The Tridentine Mass has served countless generations, produced the vast majority of saints, and has been the lynchpin of Western Culture. Given the current state of the Church, where:
is now really the time to make changes to the one solid experience Catholics have left?
The seems fair because even Fr. Stravinskas gave a homily suggesting “that the present pontificate might be a gift of the Holy Spirit to cause a correction to an unhealthy and unbridled ultramontanism that prevailed in many quarters as the ‘papolatry…’” When everything seems to be up for grabs, including the belief that those in a state of grave sin may be admitted to the Eucharist, what confidence should one have that any changes made to the Mass would not be ruinous?
The response of the Church to the rise of Protestantism wasn’t to immediately attempt to make the Mass more accessible. Rather, the Church convened the Council of Trent to get her house in order and then, over seven years after the close of the Council which made clear the Church’s teaching, Pope St. Pius V issued Quo primum. It would be exceedingly unwise in the current ecclesial climate to undertake any changes to the Mass, especially ones as extreme as what Fr. Stravinskas has suggested. If Pope St. Pius V’s development of the liturgy is the gold standard by which to judge liturgical reforms, the changes under Pope Paul VI stand in stark contrast as a reminder of what happens when the Church makes liturgical changes from an unsure footing.
The crisis that faces the Church now is one of continuity, a point that Cardinal Ratzinger famously made in his Address to the Roman Curia on December 22nd 2005 before his elevation. The Church faces a time of amnesia, where she seems to have forgotten who she is and where she came from. The typical Catholic liturgical experience isn’t just foreign to the continuous practice of the Faith; it is often times completely contrary to the liturgical sensibilities of the Church. Many of the practices that Catholics experience every week as normal were positively condemned less than 100 years ago.
When there are changes to the words of consecration, when communion in the hand becomes the de facto norm for reception of our Lord, when laity take over the role of the Priest as the minister of communion, when Cardinals demand that only women serve the altar for them, and when all manner of profanation becomes common, what Catholics need is not to “update” the Mass but to do everything in our power to bring about continuity. Were the prevailing sins a moral rigidity marked by constant, ubiquitous Jansenism and an over obsession with the past, one might be more willing to entertain changes to the Tridentine Mass, but as it stands, the current air of complete discontinuity with the past is the grave threat the Church faces right now. Making the Mass of the Ages look more like the Novus Ordo is absolutely the last thing faithful Catholics need.
Fr. Stravinskas’s suggestions also seem to ignore the recent liturgical history regarding changes to the Mass. Though I did not live through the tumult that surrounded the change from the Traditional Mass to the Novus Ordo, I know it is a wound that many still feel. Given what happened so recently to the liturgy, I don’t see how Fr. Stravinskas could be confident that a similar destruction of the rite would not take place.
One need only look to the correspondence between Evelyn Waugh and John Carmel Cardinal Heenan to see what a marked shift took place. In their correspondence, Cardinal Heenan shares Waugh’s concerns with the changes that are being made. He writes in 1962 that “In my Cathedral, by the way, nobody will be looking in anybody else’s face (except perhaps, surreptitiously, two young lovers). The High altar is off centre and there will be no people behind it.” A month before that letter was written, construction began on the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King.
Cardinal Heenan, speaking in 1967 decried the constant changes to the liturgy saying:
I hope that this will be the last change for a long time. Bishop after bishop in the synod rose to complain that his people are thoroughly tired of the constant changes. Don’t imagine for a moment that your bishops approve change for the sake of change. We are most anxious to have done with the confusion which alterations in the Mass have brought about. Above all we want you to be left in peace to worship God in the way you know and love.
Yet by 1969, Cardinal Heenan’s position has significantly changed again:
We have all heard people say ‘Why can’t they leave the Mass alone? Why all this chopping and changing?’ … Here is the answer. It would have been foolhardy to introduce the changes all at once. Some enthusiasts said that the bishops were ‘dragging their feet’. But it was obviously wiser to change gradually and gently. If all the changes had been introduced together you would have been shocked. Now the final stage of the reform is about to be reached and you will experience no difficulty.
It is hard not to read the shifting position as if the Cardinal were calmly explaining to the frog why he put him in cold water before lighting a fire beneath him. Given recent history and the ever shifting liturgical opinions that still swirl around the Church, it is hard to see how any changes could be undertaken without great fear that they would include novelties that even Fr. Stravinskas would find unwelcome.
Ultimately, it seems that Fr. Stravinskas doesn’t understand what attaches lay Catholics to the Usus Antiquior. He says regarding the suggestion that the dismissal be changed: “Perhaps the Last Gospel could be retained as an optional text, given its historical value.” The Last Gospel isn’t present because it has “historical value.” It is not an artifact in a museum to be gawked at. The Last Gospel concludes the Tridentine Mass because it is the Evangelion, the Good News that the infinite, omnipotent, uncreated creator of all that is became incarnate, taking on our frail human nature, in order that man might be saved. Thus, the Last Gospel isn’t simply an optional historical datum that one may jettison at a whim. Rather, it is the very heart of the Christian faith, and thus, it is proclaimed at the end of every Mass. What a privilege to be given the opportunity to bend the knee to the announcement of the Incarnation of our Lord. [ed. note: Amen! Amen! Amen!].
[ed. note 2: this “amnesia” over the last Gospel is in fact caused by the fact that nobody genuflects at the incarnatus est in the Credo anymore… how your editor could write pages herein on this very point!]
Elsewhere, under the heading “Modify the Rubrics,” he says “SC calls for the modification of signs and symbols that are duplicative or arcane. One thinks immediately of the multiple Signs of the Cross during the Canon.
Just as the OF admits of a certain laxity, the EF can lean toward an “unhealthy rigidity or rubricism.” Setting aside the fact that St. Thomas offers an explanation for every single sign of the Cross present in the Canon suggesting they are neither merely duplicative nor arcane, it is worth noting that Catholics attend the Latin mass because of the repetition. Just as the repetition of the Ave Maria is the means by which we dwell in the presence of God when we pray the Rosary, so too is the repetition of the Sign of the Cross in the Mass an invitation to be united to our Lord in his crucifixion and thus, to the entire Trinity. Romano Guardini, in the Rosary of our Lady, says:
One might object that this repetition leads to an exteriorization of prayer. This may happen, of course; but then one has made a mistake and we are using the Rosary in the wrong way. But exteriorization of prayer does not necessarily happen, for repetition can have a real meaning. Is it not an element of all life? What else is the beating of the heart but a repetition? Always the same contraction and expansion – and yet it makes the blood circulate through the body. What else is breathing but a repetition? Always the same in and out – but by breathing we live. And is not our whole being ordered and sustained by change and repetition? Ever anew the sun rises and sets, night follows day; the round of life begins in the spring, rises, reaches its summit, and sinks. What objection can one raise against these repetitions and so many others?
I can see no argument, nor was one given, as to why the repetition of the Sign of the Cross in the Canon of the Mass is so inimical to rightly ordered religious devotion.
How would such an argument not also cut out the Rosary, the Divine Office, and the prayer of the Seraphim before the throne of God. What is it about repeating the Sign of the Cross that is so different from every other form of repetition that is so essential to the devotional life? Are the fifty-two Signs of the Cross really that much more “duplicative” and “arcane” than 150 Ave Marias?
[ed. note: see Suffering the Ignorant Orthopraxis of Our Day for a retort of this being “arcane” and for an exploration of some the attitudes that animate the animus for the Sacramental above all others.]
I know of no Catholic who is attached to the Latin Mass for its historical value. I do not go to Mass because it is a pedagogical tool meant to instruct me on the past. I go to Mass to receive the infinite grace of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. I go to Mass to receive the body, blood, soul, and Divinity of our Lord in the Sacrament of the altar. I go to Mass to fulfill the obligation I owe God to worship him in the way he requires. I am attached to the Latin Mass in particular because I find it to be a clearer, authentic expression of the timeless faith of the Catholic Church. I love the Tridentine Mass because I can easily see that it is a Divine sacrifice performed by the priest on my behalf; I want him to duplicate the recitation of every part of the Mass for me. I attend the Usus Antiquior because there I encounter transcendence precisely because of the Latin and the repetition. I take my children to the Latin Mass because I understand that repetition is just as important for them as it is for me.
I am sure Fr. Stravinskas had only the best intentions in suggesting these changes. In virtue of celebrating the Traditional Mass, he sees it from a completely different perspective and necessarily has a different insight into the practice and observance of the Mass. Yet, it is important for him to hear from those who do not celebrate the Latin Mass, but nevertheless are attached to it, not out of some misplaced nostalgia, rigidity, or false belief that the Novus Ordo is invalid, but rather out of a true love and devotion to that very same Mass that sustained St. Thomas, St. Bellarmine, St. Catherine, and St. Theresa Benedicta. Again, if anyone is inclined towards the changes suggested by Fr. Stravinskas, they can all be found in the liturgy of the Anglican Ordinariate.
I must confess that Phil Lawler’s gloss on the article left me confused and annoyed. I respect Phil greatly. I’ve had the privilege of inviting he wife to speak at a local parish and I’ve been encouraged by his willingness to be frank about the issues facing the Church. His suggestion, however, that those who love the Traditional Mass are the barrier to wider adoption because they refuse to adopt changes that would fundamentally alter the rite is utter nonsense. His claim strikes me as the same wrongheaded incantation heard so often that if only the Mass were made more accommodating with modern instruments, childish language, and greater lay involvement, the pews would be full. He would not suggest such drastic changes to the Novus Ordo, so I am at a loss to understand why he thought drastic changes would be appropriate for the Tridentine Mass.
Likewise, it is now ordinary to blame traditionalists because they have become easy scapegoats. Having no influence since the Council, treated like second-class Catholics at best or sedevacantist lunatics at worst, forced to meet in gymnasiums and hotel ballrooms at odd times just to find the same Mass as any Catholic at any other point in time, some have developed odd behaviors and a distrust for the Church’s ministers. Can you blame them?
If tomorrow, everything you knew about the liturgy was thrown out, despite repeated assurances from Princes of the Church that nothing of the sort would or could happen, would you not give pause the next time someone came with promises and assurances? The vast majority of traditionalists I have known are kind, generous people who truly love God and desire nothing more than to worship him in continuity with the faith. There are legitimate critiques to be made, but blaming traditionalists for wanting to keep the Traditional Mass intact is simply beyond my understanding.
What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? If this is the quality of the arguments Athens is proffering today, then the answer must be: “not much.”
Ed. Note: For more on the idea of adding foreign concepts to the Mass in the name of being with the times, see What Really Killed the Catholic Church in America.
This article, Stravinskas wants to Change the Latin Mass: The Problem isn’t Traditionalists is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.
Landon DePasquale is the former Director of New Evangelization at a large Catholic parish. His interests include Philosophy, Theology, and pipe smoking. He and his wife are the proud parents of three kids.
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