Fr. Reese and the Dangerous Latin Mass

Spare a thought for progressives. Life hasn’t been all sunshine and roses lately for those who would sing a new church into being. Or so Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., reports in his latest column on the future of Catholic liturgical reform for Religion News Service. There’s a long way to go—his concerns center around eight liturgical issues—and, apparently, an insufficient number of youthful progressives to get there.

What’s happened to the next generation, you ask? Well, to Fr. Reese’s sorrow, they’re off attending the Traditional Latin Mass, just as if Vatican II never happened. Or if not all of them, enough to cause Fr. Reese to beg the Vatican: do something! “The church needs to be clear that it wants the unreformed liturgy to disappear and will only allow it out of pastoral kindness to older people who do not understand the need for change,” he writes. “Children and young people should not be allowed to attend such Masses.” 

Of course, despite widespread abuse in this regard over the last 50 years, neither the Vatican nor the bishops technically have the authority to prevent celebration of the traditional Mass, or to forbid laypeople (of any age!) from attending it. Pope St. Pius V granted to all priests in perpetuity the universal right to celebrate the Tridentine Mass in his bull Quo Primum (1570)—a right reiterated by Benedict XVI in his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum (2007). No pope has attempted a formal, express revocation of Quo Primum; so powerfully worded is that document that any such attempt would be of questionable validity. But authority or no authority, bishops can make life extremely unpleasant for priests who persist in celebrating the traditional Mass and laypeople who support them. It is for a renewal of this ground-level persecution that Fr. Thomas Reese is advocating.

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But it’s still delightful to see Fr. Reese openly admit the power of the traditional Mass to draw souls. Only authoritative force, he believes, can stop children and young people from attending it! The whole point of this Vatican II/liturgical reform business was—supposedly—to appeal to youth, to bring the Church up to date, to get with the times. But it has backfired so badly that the precious young people are voting with their feet and packing into traditional Masses. What’s worse, they’re marrying each other and bringing their numerous progeny to the traditional Mass too! Will the Dark Ages never end?

Poor progressives. What must their pained thoughts be? Perhaps something along these lines: Younger people fail to appreciate the good things for which we aging revolutionaries negotiated and schemed. We brought them fun in church, guitars, pop music, spontaneity, kisses of peace. We brought them Mass in English so for the first time in centuries they could have some idea of what was going on. We turned the priest around so they could feel that the Mass was about them instead of being about the sacrifice of Calvary. We stopped talking about life-changing issues like mortal sin and the social Kingship of Christ and our mission to convert the world to Catholicism. We freed them to live not by the Ten Commandments but by the trendy issues of the day: climate change, immigration, racial issues, social justice. No need to worry about the Kingdom of Heaven in the next life; we can find salvation by building utopia now.

But tradition is the opium of the people. Instead of joyfully building our earthly utopia, on a Sunday you’ll find the ungrateful youth kneeling—kneeling!—in rows, watching the chasuble-clad back of a priest who addresses God in a language He may understand but we progressives certainly can’t and don’t want to. They remain silent through long, boring periods of inaction, and they won’t let their children talk or fidget either—a disturbing throwback to the harsh discipline of a bygone era. The alien strains of Gregorian chant rise up from their midst to mix with incense, that deliberately retrograde substance. Next thing you know, they’ve started praying for the conversion of non-Catholics and buying copies of the Baltimore Catechism

What traditionalists are doing may appear peaceful, but we progressives know it is violent. They are violently tearing the focus of religion away from our utopia of love, tolerance, and well-being. They are setting their sights on something otherworldly, something outside, something higher. Their every genuflection is in rude defiance of the dogma we’ve so carefully instilled in the Church: God is more within than without; He is to be found in ourselves, in the spirit of our times, in the community, in interaction with other human beings. As Fr. Reese says, “More important than the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is the transformation of the community into the body of Christ so we can live out the covenant we have through Christ.”  

What pride these reactionaries have, to think they can simply disregard the monumental theological breakthroughs of the past 60 years and still call themselves Catholic! We need to tweak the liturgy a bit more to make sure everyone understands the new theology: “Too many [Eucharistic prayers] focus exclusively on the consecration of the bread and wine while ignoring the meaning of the prayer,” says Fr. Reese. The consecration of the Body and Blood of Christ is obviously secondary to the Eucharistic prayer, which could reference the Gospel, or a social issue of the day—what’s important is the community and its actions, not the reenactment of the sacrifice on Calvary.

The Traditional Mass is both dangerously popular and naturally resistant to the liturgical improvements needed to achieve our brave new utopia. So, it must go. Inculturation, one of Fr. Reese’s chief liturgical concerns, is a prime example. You can’t inculturate the Traditional Mass. In every place where it has been permitted to develop, it seizes more and more turf, becoming the foundation and inspiration for a new, specifically Catholic, local culture. We don’t want the liturgy to be the source of culture; we want it to be subservient to a culture that preceded it and dominates over it. This is why we’re so keen on the Amazonian Church.

“Each bishops’ conference,” writes Fr. Reese, “needs to be encouraged to gather scholars, poets, musicians, artists and pastors to develop liturgies for their specific cultures.” Stubborn traditionalists will doubtless say, “Well, what about the scholars, poets, musicians, artists, and pastors who, in 1971, begged Paul VI not to destroy the traditional Mass, which had inspired ‘a host of priceless achievements in the arts—not only mystical works, but works by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs.’ Is that inculturated enough for you?”  

But they don’t get it. The signatories of this letter to Paul VI (among others, pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, art historian Kenneth Clark, soprano Joan Sutherland, and novelists Agatha Christie and Nancy Mitford) were the wrong kind of artists. Whatever their personal religious beliefs, their work was inextricable from—and built upon—the culture created by Catholic Europe, by the Mass of all time. We progressives want liturgy to be inculturated in non-Catholic cultures, not Catholic ones. We need to get away from what Fr. Reese calls Catholicism’s “European base.” Decolonize (or is that dechristianize?) the liturgy! 

All this is a bit tongue in cheek. But real Catholics would be foolish to write off columns like Fr. Thomas Reese’s as meaningless blather. Progressives have specific goals for the Church. When they kindly outline their game plan, we should listen carefully and consider: do we want the Church to wind up where Fr. Reese wants it to go? If not, each point of their plan tells us where we need to fight.

They want inculturation? Don’t sit on the fence, trying to please everyone; instead, firmly adopt the position that a Catholic culture founded on and inspired by the Catholic Mass is the best kind of culture. They want more ecumenism? Consider how ecumenism prevents souls from receiving sanctifying grace and keeps them outside the Church of Jesus Christ, and have nothing to do with it. They want the Traditional Mass to die out? Consider carefully how the Traditional Mass prevents them from achieving their goals, and then support the Traditional Mass steadfastly. It is our bulwark, built for us from the earliest centuries by popes, saints, martyrs, and all our Catholic ancestors. When we stand behind it, we are safe—and truly Catholic.

[Photo Credit: USCIRF and Liturgy Guy]


  • Jane Stannus

    Jane Stannus is a journalist and translator. Her writing has also appeared in the Catholic Herald of London, The Spectator USA, and the National Catholic Reporter.

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