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Jonathan CulbreathJuly 27, 2021
Worshippers attend a traditional Latin Mass July 18, 2021, at St. Josaphat Church in the Queens borough of New York City. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Pope Francis has dropped a bombshell on the traditional Catholic community with his latest declaration in “Traditionis Custodes” severely restricting the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass (also known as the “extraordinary form”), a move that reverses the policy of Pope Benedict XVI’s “Summorum Pontificum.” Many Catholics are now devastated to lose access to a treasured rite that has nourished their spiritual lives for decades, yet they have no way to communicate their anguish publicly, in a way that might inspire sympathy from the ecclesiastical hierarchy. In what follows, I wish to give voice to their anxiety, but without falling into the traps of dissension, animosity and contempt that so often ensnare “traditional” Catholics.

It is no secret that among traditionalists there is a rather loud and unpleasant group of Catholics who seem to be addicted to the sensationalism of ecclesiastical politics, and eager to stir up conflict within the body of Christ. For the past 50 years or so, the church’s hierarchy has viewed these Catholics as a threat to the unity of the church. Pope Benedict’s measures in “Summorum Pontificum” were explicitly established for the sake of healing divisions and beckoning traditional Catholics toward greater reconciliation.

Many Catholics are now devastated to lose access to a treasured rite that has nourished their spiritual lives for decades.

Those measures have seen limited success, especially since the election of Pope Francis in 2013, and then the election of Donald J. Trump in 2016, many traditional Catholics have only intensified the rancorous and contemptuous attitude for which they were renowned, as though they were making every effort to confirm every stereotype that had been projected onto them. Pope Francis’ express intention, as he explained in a letter accompanying his recent pronouncement, is to respond to this increase in divisive fervor. Indeed, Francis correctly identifies a rot that has spread within traditional Catholicism when he writes:

Regrettably, the pastoral objective of my Predecessors, who had intended “to do everything possible to ensure that all those who truly possessed the desire for unity would find it possible to remain in this unity or to rediscover it anew,” has often been seriously disregarded. An opportunity offered by St. John Paul II and, with even greater magnanimity, by Benedict XVI, intended to recover the unity of an ecclesial body with diverse liturgical sensibilities, was exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division.

But it should be clearly and resolutely proclaimed that these loud traditionalists, who have exploited Benedict XVI’s magnanimity to further widen existing divisions, are a minority among Catholics who attend the traditional rite. Many others who also attend the traditional rite of the Mass do not share these same habits or spend hours a day on the internet surfing for controversy. These good-hearted faithful merely wish to live as Catholics who attend the traditional liturgy. It is unfortunate that the public perception of all Catholics attached to Mass in the form it took prior to the liturgical reforms of Pope Paul VI should be so totally sullied by the image of a vocal minority who have no business inciting paranoia and stirring up animosity toward the pope and bishops who rule the church. The liturgy is not a banner for any political cause, nor should it be too rigidly associated with an insular faction of Catholics who place themselves in needless opposition to the hierarchy.

The liturgy is not a banner for any political cause, nor should it be too rigidly associated with an insular faction of Catholics who place themselves in needless opposition to the hierarchy.

The traditional rite of the Mass is worth preserving for its own sake, apart from all the partisan agendas that might be associated with it. Its inherent value makes it worth saving from the abuses and politicization for which it is so often used by traditionalists. With its centuries of accumulated symbols, rituals, gestures and song, the traditional Roman rite represents a marvelous achievement of the type of inculturation that Pope Francis himself praises, for example, in “Querida Amazonia.” As an artistic achievement alone, the traditional Mass represents the pinnacle of Western culture, a culture that, like many of the indigenous cultures to which the Holy Father rightly directs so much of his caring attention, has been pillaged and run over rough-shod by a relentless form of consumerism and technological capitalism.

As Pope Francis writes in “Laudato Si,” “a consumerist vision of human beings, encouraged by the mechanisms of today’s globalized economy, has a leveling effect on cultures, diminishing the immense variety which is the heritage of all humanity” (No. 144). Much that is sacred gets unjustly discarded by this “throwaway culture.” The traditional liturgy is a victim of an ideology that makes man the manufacturer of his own destiny, claiming that he is the absolute lord of nature, who may use nature for his own purposes according to a one-sidedly technological, utilitarian and consumerist paradigm. Pope Francis constantly reminds us that the Catholic tradition stands above such a paradigm. The liturgy, which is a part of this grand tradition, is not something to be discarded like an old product once there is supposedly no more market for it. I presume this is what Pope Benedict had in mind when he proclaimed in the letter accompanying “Summorum Pontificum” that “[w]hat earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”

The liturgy, which is a part of this grand tradition, is not something to be discarded like an old product once there is supposedly no more market for it.

Moreover, as Pope Francis himself has taught in “The Joy of the Gospel” and elsewhere, the beauty of worship is one of the most powerful tools of evangelization that is available to the church. Intellectual argumentation and apologetics are certainly important, but to a large degree what the people of our age are looking for (especially the young, among whom I count myself) is for an experience of sacredness and beauty that touches the heart and penetrates the soul with a profound sense of God’s transcendence. This works a deeper conversion than theological abstractions and rigid dogmatism can do. As such, the Second Vatican Council clearly gave special importance to the role of the liturgy in evangelization when it proclaimed that the liturgy “is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church” (“Sacrosanctum Concilium,” No. 2).

In the letter accompanying his latest motu proprio, Pope Francis rightly exhorts the bishops to ensure that the celebration of the liturgy under their supervision be made to accord more fully with the spirit and directions of Vatican II in “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” “without the eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses.” Implicit in this exhortation is the acknowledgement that almost everywhere one goes, the liturgies celebrated in typical Catholic parishes do not exhibit the sacred beauty that alone can inspire the deepest religious sentiments. They do not exhibit that sense of being apart from the ordinary world, something holy and transcendent, that should visibly affect the senses upon entering a church and sitting down for Mass.

As Pope Francis taught in “The Joy of the Gospel” and elsewhere, the beauty of worship is one of the most powerful tools of evangelization that is available to the church.

Though it is easy to preach fine words about the beauty of sacred worship, too often these words remain mere words, while we continue to experience liturgies that are pale and blasé; liturgies accompanied by secular forms of music that are little different from what one might hear in a movie or at the grocery store; in churches that look like more like conference halls or theaters than places of worship and contemplation; in an overly vernacular tongue that represents everyday speech; with a minimum of ritual complexity and symbolic detail; with a minimum of holy silence and contemplative stillness; etc. Such liturgies resemble something more like a group therapy session than actual worship. This is not the sacred experience that was intended by Vatican II: “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle” (No. 8).

What Pope Francis does not seem to acknowledge, however, is that one is far more likely to witness the full glory of the liturgy in those enclaves where the traditional rite of the Mass is celebrated, with all the smells and bells (literally) and sacred chants that speak of nothing else but divine transcendence. In such places, it is easy to find a visible reflection of the openness to transcendence that, according to the teaching of Pope Francis himself in “Fratelli Tutti” and elsewhere, characterizes a truly healthy society. Indeed, in such places, it is much easier to find precisely the experience of sacredness and transcendence that Vatican II itself ascribes to the liturgy.

Of course, I do not deny that it is possible to celebrate the Novus Ordo in a similarly rich manner, evoking the transcendence of the supernatural with all the visual symbolism and sensory stimulation that the liturgical ritual can offer. (The arguments commonly peddled by traditionalists regarding the inherent structural limitations of the Novus Ordo versus the Vetus Ordo can be entirely bracketed here.) But such a way of celebrating the Novus Ordo is rare, and when it is done it is often with the inspiration and example of the traditional liturgy as it is commonly celebrated. Wherever this happens, it is a blessing that even traditionalists should embrace with joy.

I do not deny that it is possible to celebrate the Novus Ordo in a rich manner, evoking the transcendence of the supernatural with all the visual symbolism and sensory stimulation that the liturgical ritual can offer.

Yet for most Catholics, the simple fact is that it is not possible to have such an experience of the sublimity of worship except in places where the traditional Mass is celebrated. The simple irony is that the traditional rite as it is commonly celebrated is more in accord with the spirit, if not the published liturgical books, of Vatican II than the Novus Ordo as it is commonly celebrated—and that this is unlikely to change in the near future. Why, therefore, should this ancient and hallowed ritual be taken from the faithful or made less available to them, when it so admirably embodies the sacredness, beauty and transcendence that are proper to the liturgy, even according to the high ideals of our Holy Father? Why not rather welcome it among the diverse expressions of the richness of our faith?

I humbly suggest that the traditional Latin Mass should not be perceived as a banner for any political faction within the church, that it should be separated from the many pathologies that affect such factions—and that continuing to make it more available, rather than less, is a more effective way to invite traditional Catholics to renounce their divisive ways and pay due reverence to the Catholic hierarchy and especially the pope. Rather than deprive them of their cherished liturgical spirituality, invite them to participate more fully in the Catholic family as a whole. Most of them are simple Catholics who happen to love the older rites yet still wish to be treated lovingly as sons and daughters of the Holy Father.

Therefore, my hope, which I would express to the Holy Father (whom I love and respect dearly) if I could, is that this ancient treasure might not be lost, like so many other traditions and ways of life in a world enthralled by a relentless and destructive consumerism. If I could face the Holy Father myself, I would implore him that, in a world where people’s lives are constantly disrupted by the forces of unbridled market economies, political upheavals and technological innovation, he would not deprive his flock of one of the last remaining traditions that still lends stability, assurance and a sense of the divine presence to their lives.

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