A major feature of my childhood in the 1970s was the bitter animosity in our parish between those who loved the new English liturgy and those who hated it. (My parents loved it.) The rancorous liturgical battles made me intensely curious about the old Mass. A friend of my parents had a Maryknoll Missal on their bookshelves—Latin on the left, English translation on the opposing page—and I would pour through it, trying to figure out how it differed from the new Missal and to gain a sense of what sitting in Mass must have been like before the Second Vatican Council.
Along the way I fell in love with the Latin language.
I took four years of Latin in high school, then majored in Latin and Greek in college. That led to a Ph.D. in medieval church history (and more Latin) and a 15-year academic career. I also developed a secondary expertise in the history of the Western liturgy. All thanks to that Maryknoll Missal.
The rancorous liturgical battles made me intensely curious about the old Mass.
My exposure to the Tridentine liturgy was purely literary until my mid-20s, when I finally attended the Latin Mass at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago. Since then, I have been to three others.
I have also left the Catholic Church.
In graduate school I felt an overwhelming call to ministry but was deeply in love and wanted to be married. I saw no conflict between these vocations and a pile of historical reasons why there should be none. I chose marriage and remain married to the same person 26 years later. I have been a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) for 30 years now and a “recorded minister,” as we say, for nearly 15.
Today, the liturgy wars I witnessed in my childhood parish are also fought online. Timothy Kirchoff wondered recently in America why Pope Francis suspected fans of the Tridentine liturgy of being psychologically rigid. He was puzzled and perhaps offended that enjoying the pleasures of the old Mass cast suspicion on him and those like him.
Today, the liturgy wars I witnessed in my childhood parish are also fought online.
The aesthetic pleasures of the extraordinary form are considerable. During the Reformation and again after Vatican II, enormous stock was placed in the ability of the congregation to understand and participate in the words and action of the liturgy. But across the world and its great religions, ritual that is celebrated in foreign or antique languages, shrouded in mystery and difficult to access, continues to attract great loyalty and admiration from adherents. Rituals that lead adherents into a different landscape of sound, sense and meaning invite believers into an experience of transcendence.
I like aesthetic pleasures. I am a classical pianist and executive director at a professional symphony orchestra. It is not clear, however, whether aesthetic pleasure should be a key feature of worship grounded in the agape-feast of the Gospels rather than the Temple of the Old Testament. Nor is it clear that mystery and inaccessibility are desirable features of a liturgy intended to nurture us into mature followers of Jesus Christ, who are entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation and who have received every spiritual gift. Apart perhaps from the Book of Revelation, the New Testament gives no encouragement to the aesthetic enhancement of worship, no special instructions about the use of unfamiliar languages, complex poetic scripts, distinctive architecture, sophisticated music, iconography or statuary. These can enrich worship, no doubt, but they can also distract, distort, obscure and, at worst, generate a fetishism that has nothing to do with the Great Commandment or the Great Commission.
I do not believe the mass abandonment of Catholicism after the council was chiefly a reaction against the new liturgy.
Younger Catholics (and non-Catholics) who are attracted to the aesthetic joys and richness of the Tridentine liturgy have missed something else, too. Many Catholics of my parents’ generation were happy to jettison the Latin Mass because it was intimately associated with a culture of clerical domination, physical and sexual abuse and unwarranted intrusion into private and family life. Many chafed under a spirituality that treated the faithful like ignorant children subject to the strictures of a punitive God. For some, these things could never be unwound from the liturgy around which they revolved.
That is not the whole story, of course. Plenty of people had good and wholesome experiences of the preconciliar church, and these are not to be discounted. But I do not believe the mass abandonment of Catholicism after the council was chiefly a reaction against the new liturgy. Most of the former Catholics of my parents’ generation who left the church did so because they finally felt free to turn their backs on overwhelmingly negative experiences. They have far more in common with George Carlin than with the disgraced schismatic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
I have joked with friends, I’ll come back to the church when it restores the old Mass—celebrated by women priests.
Further, advocates of restoring the Tridentine liturgy over the last 40 years have also advocated for the return of a preconciliar culture, theology and mindset. They often believe fervently that the Second Vatican Council is at best an aberration and the vernacular liturgy an abomination. They have not advocated the extraordinary form as an expression of liturgical diversity in the body of Christ but as a beachhead from which to recapture stolen territory. The briefest perusal of the paper and electronic publications of the mutually-hostile Societies of St. Pius X and St. Pius V finds powerful, if extreme, examples.
I left the church not because of which liturgy was being celebrated, but because of who was (and was not) permitted to celebrate it. The pleasures of the Tridentine liturgy are considerable, and in a different universe I could imagine enjoying them regularly. As I have joked with friends, I’ll come back to the church when it restores the old Mass—celebrated by women priests.
But the dangers of the Tridentine liturgy are also considerable. It was the center of an ecclesial culture that younger Catholics may know little about and could probably not tolerate. Behind the movement for its restoration stand forces that many modern Catholics might find considerably destructive.
The fruit is alluring. But proceed with caution.
Correction: Dec. 1, 2017
The name of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.