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Saturday, June 4, 2011

Some thoughts based on recent observation of the traditional Latin Mass

In the past four years, I've seen some things vis-a-vis the traditional Latin Mass that make me think folks who say its return as the Catholic Church's primary liturgy will magically improve things are possibly missing something.

I should start by noting my love for this form of the Divine Liturgy. In 1996, after my first time ever attending this form, my future mother-in-law (God rest her soul) asked me, "So: What did you think?" My response was, "Why did they get rid of so many beautiful prayers?"

When we lived in California for seven years, we lived in a diocese where the previous bishop had not done anything in the slightest to prevent the most egregious liturgical abuses from becoming "tradition." At best, our options for Mass were "not as bad" and "essentially tolerable" and "good, relatively speaking." However, if you wanted truly good liturgy, where the Mass was done as if everything associated with and in it truly mattered (because, given what it is, it does), you had one option: the traditional Latin Mass offered at a parish run by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, better known as the FSSP.

The Mass there was magnificent. Beautifully, reverently, and somlemnly celebrated, it also featured gorgeous, soaring, soul-lifting music, and meaty, thought provoking homilies. It was special. How I miss it.

Having experienced that parish, I truly understand those who say the TLM (i.e., traditional Latin Mass, pre-Vatican II Mass, pre-1969 Mass, Tridentine Mass, etc.) is the way to go. If it's done like that, you bet your bottom dollar it is.

However, having had the opportunity since then to assist at TLMs said by non-traditional order priests, my opinion is more tempered. When the TLM is in the hands of someone who's a) doing it simply out of the kindness of their own hearts, i.e., as a service/act of charity for those attached to the TLM or b) who's not capable or equipped to offer a High Mass or c) worst of all, begrudgingly (even angrily) doing it because they have to, it's underwhelming to say the least. One certainly gets no sense of the reverence and awe-inspiring power of the extraordinary form (i.e., TLM) to move souls.

But one could forgive this sort of thing coming from a diocesan priest. After all, he does not exclusively celebrate this manner of the Mass. It's sort of akin to Our Lord's admonition about serving two masters, isn't it?

What is hard to countenance, however, is when the TLM is done badly or in less than an exemplary fashion by a traditional order priest.

On my family's recent vacation, we did some genealogical gold digging in a remote part of a Midwestern state. It turns out the area had a TLM community run by a good traditional order in union with Rome, and so that Saturday morning, we assisted at Mass there.

In my experience, a Low Mass done on a weekday normally takes a good 40-45 minutes to celebrate, even without benefit of the readings being proclaimed in English and a sermon. This Mass, with no readings and no homily, took 23 minutes.

Now, granted, Father got in his car and left very quickly thereafter, so maybe he really had someplace to go, and thus hurried through Mass to attend to that. Maybe someone was dying and holding on for Extreme Unction. Who knows? In other words, I'm willing to cut this reportedly good priest some slack.

However, a friend of mine who runs a state's Catholic conference tells me when he was growing up in the late 1950s-early 1960s, he served at the altar for a priest who took great pride in his ability to say Mass in under 20 minutes on the days he had his tee time (i.e., days he had scheduled to play golf).

My experience at the FSSP parish I mentioned toward the outset of this piece was, I would argue, an anomaly. I'm pretty willing to bet my underwhelming experience of TLMs celebrated by diocesan clergy or the type of priest my friend had as a boy or the traditional order priest we experienced that Saturday morning were the norm in the years leading up to the Council. Not in all places, certainly, but in many places. If not, why were so many so awfully eager to give up the Mass of Ages? If it had uniformly moved the faithful, they never would have countenanced the saccharine counterfeit offered them in the wake of Vatican II. Why was there a liturgical reform movement in the first place? (And, yes, I know this movement was largely driven by theologians, but were there no calls for such change by the laity? Given the impetus for reform at the Council, anticipated in some form by Pius XII's Mediator Dei, I can hardly thing this was the pet project of the ecclesial glitterati alone.) Therefore, what makes us think that returning to the TLM will be the wand that begins to magically cure all that ails Holy Mother Church?

OK, you can't make -- or make as many -- liturgical abuses in the extraordinary form. Granted. But isn't doing this Mass in a sloveny, uneven, or excessively hurried fashion an abuse?

What is needed in both the ordinary and extraordinarly forms are priests who know who they are, who know what being a priest fully means, who are unwaveringly committed to becoming that to the fullest extent possible, and for whom the Mass is the fullest expression and highest calling of being a priest. For goodness' sake, Father, you're bringing us Christ! Jesus' very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity! Act like it! Show us by your reverence, your solemnity, your care, your solicitude, your every movement and expression, by your very bearing that this is the moment heaven and earth meld! We are starving for this in the novus ordo and TLM alike!

Sorry about all the exclamation points, but I'm sorely vexed by this. Bad liturgy is killing the Church just as much as bad catechesis and doctrine are. The only reason we will become the remnant, smaller body the Pope has envisioned many times is because people take the Church and all that makes her as old hat.

It doesn't have to be that way, and with the help of committed TLM and novus ordo priests and faithful alike, it won't be. The choice is ours. What road shall we take?

I don't know, what do you think?

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