Mischaracterization of the TLM, Then and Now

Part Five of a response to Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy's critique of the traditional Latin Mass.

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Essay four looked at how Cavadini, Healy, and Weinandy (CHW) treat inconsistently the traditional Latin Mass (TLM), other rites in communion with the Roman Church, and such idiosyncratic offerings of the Novus Ordo (NO) as that characteristic of charismatics. This fifth and final essay shows that CHW falsely portray the response of the laity to the TLM prior to Vatican II and seem to have little awareness why the TLM is experiencing such growth now. It challenges CHW to take a close look at the reasons why some devotees of the TLM have misgivings about the Vatican II Council which doesn’t at all seem to have impacted their fidelity to Church teaching—which is far greater than the commitment of those who attend the NO. Finally, it observes there is little reason to believe that the Reform of the Reform will be guided by Sacrosanctum Concilium or the time-honored principles the Church has developed for worthy liturgy.

It must be acknowledged that even those who love the TLM recognized deficiencies in how the Mass was said in the middle of the twentieth century. Fr. Bryan Houghton, a diocesan priest who retired early from parish ministry so that he could continue to say the TLM, puzzled over the ready acceptance of the NO by priests. He mused:

But there was a problem to which I found an answer difficult. All priests had said the old Mass daily and with due decorum and even with apparent devotion. How came it that ninety-eight percent were perfectly willing to change it—and this not at the behest of the Council or of the Pope. A pure permission was given, and they all jumped to it like the Gadarene swine. Besides, I had been dean for a number of years and knew the priests of my deanery very well. Only two of them were sufficiently stupid to think themselves brilliant—and consequently welcomed the opportunity to express their personality. The rest, in private, were against the changes. However, only one, a Dominican, stuck to the old Mass. What made the others change? Obedience, apathy, fear of reprisals, anything for a quiet life—all those sort of motives undoubtedly played their part, but the fact remains that they cannot have loved the old Mass. It was just a ritual which could be changed like a pair of pants. But if they did not love the Mass it must be that they were incapable of adoration. They must consider Mass as something they do, not as something God does.

“Lex credendi, lex orandi”—faith rules prayer and prayer faith. I had no doubt about the faith of my fellow priests—except one, perhaps—so the trouble must lie with prayer. Here, indeed, I found us priests singularly lacking. We were much too busy saying Mass, saying our breviary or doing something, to spend a moment in prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament. We encouraged the laity to do so, but rarely did it ourselves. Now I come to think of it, during my seminary course at the Beda I received plenty of instruction on ascetics, on how to perfect myself; but none on prayer, how to adore God. What little I know about the adoration of God I had picked up by reading the mystics—such as Gertrude of Helfta and Teresa of Avila—or spiritual writers such as Augustine Baker, Surin and Grou.

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Bryan Houghton, Unwanted Priest: An Autobiography of a Latin Mass Exile, ed. Gerard Deighan (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2022), 68–69.

It would seem the solution to the problem of priests not saying the Mass with a full consciousness of its meaning would be that recommended by Houghton—and by several popes: teach them how to pray and the importance of Eucharistic adoration. These are virtues that must be learned and practiced in spiritual reading, meditation, and personal prayer. Imposing a new rite of Mass and a new breviary is not at all the obvious solution to the problem. 

Although many priests may not have been so attached to the TLM (I suspect, as Houghton intimates, that it was because they did not have good preparation for it), there is an abundance of evidence that the TLM captured the attention and devotion of its attendees and powerfully nurtured their faith. Indeed, the same Fr. Houghton who describes what he regarded as the sad state of priests’ spiritual life and the effect of that on the TLM says this about how his parishioners, by contrast, responded to it in 1969:

I wonder how many Catholics attend Mass on any given Sunday in England and Wales? Not far short of three million, as far as I can make out. Even in Norfolk and Suffolk, where we are notoriously thin on the ground, the figures soon mount up: over three thousand at Norwich and Ipswich, over a thousand at Bury and Yarmouth, and in numerous parishes around the five hundred. Obviously—the figures themselves prove it—we love our Mass: that incomprehensible ceremony in which the only thing we understand is the utter mystery of the True Presence of Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread and wine.

We love our Mass as it is, with its Latin mumbling, strange silences, sudden bells. Well, it is all going to be changed for us before this month is out—on November 29th….

Humans are not prone to change, and least of all in the ritual of their religion. In fact, in many religions the ritual long outlives the belief; men continue to perform the traditional acts of worship when they have long since lost any positive faith in why or what they are worshipping. So, of course, the overwhelming majority of practising Catholics in this country will be desperately sorry to see their Latin Mass go. The traditions of a thousand years and habits of a lifetime cannot be chucked overboard without the passing tear. For my own part, I rather think that the last time I cried was in 1936; I shall probably do it again on November 29th.

Of the priests I have talked to, slightly over half are in favour of the change, especially among the younger clergy who are not yet sick of the sound of their own voices. Of the many, many hundreds of laity, I have only found four individuals in favour, and they highly educated and thoroughly unrepresentative. 

This is, I think, a point of some importance. The English Mass has not come about in response to any popular demand; it has been imposed by the hierarchy. It is an act of pure clericalism if ever there was one. Houghton, Unwanted Priest, 93–94.

Houghton expresses great sympathy for the laity, who were not consulted about making the changes and who were not consulted about how the changes affected them: 

This issue was that the new reforms in general and of the liturgy in particular were based on the assumption that the Catholic laity were a set of ignorant fools. They practised out of tribal custom; their veneration of the Cross and the Mass was totem-worship; they were motivated by nothing more than the fear of hell; their piety was superstition and their loyalty, habit. But the most gratuitous insult of all was that most Catholics had a Sunday religion which in no way affected their weekly behaviour. This monstrous falsehood was—and still is—maintained by bishops and priests who, for the most part, have never been adult laymen. Every day the Catholic workman had to put up with the jeers of his colleagues, as the more educated with their sneers. Every night they took their religion to bed with them. 

I am not in a position to judge other priests’ parishioners. I am, however, in a position to judge what were my own. No words are adequate for me to express my admiration for the conscious faith and piety of my flock, both in Slough and in Bury. This is where the trouble lay. The reforms were based on criticism; I was unwilling to take any action which might make me appear to criticise the wonderful people whom I was ordained to serve. I was perfectly conscious that I learned more about God from them than they were likely to learn from me. Houghton, Unwanted Priest, 811

Peggy Noonan writes of her experience of the TLM in the fifties with her aunt, an immigrant from Ireland:

If we were together on a Sunday, she took me to Mass. I loved it. They had bells and candles and smoke and shadows and they sang. The church changed that a bit over the years, but we lost a lot when we lost the showbiz. Because, of course, it wasn’t only showbiz. To a child’s eyes, my eyes, it looked as if either you go to church because you’re nice or you go and it makes you nice but either way it’s good.

Jane Jane [as they called her] carried Mass cards and rosary beads—the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, the saints. She’d put the cards on a mirror, hang the rosary beads on a bedstead. I look back and think, wherever she went she was creating an altar. To this day when I am in the home of newcomers to America, when I see cards, statues and Jesus candles, I think: I’m home.

She didn’t think life was plain and flat and material, she thought it had dimensions we don’t see, that there were souls and spirits and mysteries. Peggy Noonan, “Home Again, and Home Again, America for Me,” Wall Street Journal, November 23, 2022.

Children loved the TLM then and children love it now. My parish regularly has fifteen or more altar boys each Sunday for the TLM; at least two-thirds are under twelve years of age. They come from large families who arrive half an hour before Mass and stay half an hour afterwards (some of that spent in prayers of thanksgiving and others in playful fellowship with their peers), with the Mass being at least an hour and a half long. 

The TLM of Today

I am sorry to say that the criticisms of CHW do not seem to stem from any prolonged personal experience of the TLM as offered today. I truly wonder how many traditional Masses the authors have attended or how many devotees of the TLM they have spoken with—who are mostly young people who have spent their whole lives worshiping at NO liturgies and who have found something in the TLM that they did not find in the NO.

We have been told endlessly that many of the elements of the NO are there because they “appeal to the young,” but the exodus of young people from the Church indicates the NO has been a failure in that regard. Most Catholics over 60 have never attended a TLM; one wonders how many would switch over were they to experience it. In a way, the TLM is exotic and requires an openness to the unfamiliar and even the arcane; nearly everyone who attends, even those who do not adopt the TLM as their mode of worship, speak of it being dramatically more reverent and transcendent than even the best of the NO liturgies they have attended. Those won over by it find themselves doing a deep dive into why the TLM “does what it does” and into why it was replaced by the NO. They find their faith deepening in that process.

CHW choose to focus on what was (purportedly) once the case rather than on what we have now in the TLM. What seems of greater importance to reading the “signs of the times” is not what the TLM once was or might have been, but what it is today in our midst, as a living force that speaks to people in a powerful way, including not only lifelong Catholics but converts and religious seekers. Its attendees are not “desperate” for an alternative. Again, much of the “restoration” that SC called for has happened in the TLM.

I have attended a wide variety of NO Masses over the last 55+ years, here and abroad, and believe I have more than a decent data base on which to compare the two experientially. I grew up with the TLM until I was 16. Many times, the liturgy was not at all inspiring; sometimes it took only 19 minutes for a Mass to be said. But I have to say, when the NO was introduced, it did not strike me as an improvement. It, too, was largely uninspiring. In spite of the desiccated form of the TLM I attended (and my experience was perhaps not typical), I had a sense that the TLM had hidden treasures; to be sure, I found even the desiccated form more transcendent than the NO. At any rate, CHW seem to have read only about the kind of TLM I experienced and not the grand version available to many throughout the centuries and which is certainly the norm today. 

If the TLM once was what CHW say it was, it is no longer that in our times—now it is beautiful and riveting, hardly boring, and the attendees are fully engaged. Some follow in the missalettes or their own missals, others seem to be in a serene contemplative state. Most come early and stay late and yearn for the day when they can find a TLM wherever they find themselves. After all, the TLM is basically the same wherever we go (a wonderful unifying feature!), whereas one never knows what one will find in churches that offer the NO—travelers often vet possibilities before they get on the road since they don’t want to subject themselves to some quirky liturgy or even one with an invalid Eucharist.

Why should the faithful be denied access to a mode of worship that is, with some regularity, indescribably beautiful, simply because some people think it was once boring? And why must they be compelled to embrace a liturgy that nearly everyone agrees has not had a good track record for reverence? Indeed, the authors recommend a large number of changes to the NO in order to improve it. Why are they so surprised that so many seek a better liturgy when the one they have been offered needs so much improvement?

CHW’s portrayal of how the TLM was used or experienced prior to Vatican II is tendentious. They acknowledge that many were fed spiritually by it but in general characterize the laity who attended it as the proverbial lumps on a log who were mere spectators, who “had little sense of asking forgiveness of their sins during the opening penitential rite, nor did they consciously offer themselves to the Father in union with Jesus during the offertory.”

How can they possibly know that? They make claims about what those who attended the TLM knew or didn’t know about the Mass: for instance, they claim that, “hardly anyone, even priests, were cognizant of… [the] theological significance [of the ad orientem posture of the priest].” This kind of remark seems a gratuitous and condescending characterization of the attendees, and hardly worthy of mention in a serious critique of the TLM; surely people’s engagement in the Mass varies from time to time and from place to place. At various times, concern about the level of understanding of the Mass has been remarked upon by popes who have urged greater instruction of both priests and laity, but they have not called for a new rite in order to make it happen.

Moreover, do CHW think attendees at the NO have any idea of what might be the theological significance of the versus populum posture? And let me note, nearly every attendee at today’s TLM could tell you why the altar is “ad orientem.” But not knowing the reason for the postures does not negate the impact they have; at the TLM it is very clear that the Mass is being offered to God; at the NO it can appear that the congregation is the audience and the priest the performer, without much notion of a holy offering to God at all. At the TLM the personality of the priest is very muted by the fact that his back is to the congregation, while in the NO, as Ratzinger noted, the priest himself can sometimes become the focus of the attention of the congregation.2

Rejection of Vatican II?

CHW claim that along with a devotion to the TLM often comes a rejection of Vatican II, and that that is a reason for ending the availability of the TLM. Do we have any studies that indicate such an alliance? Even so, is that a good reason for abolishing the TLM? On the other hand, we do have evidence that the majority of the attendees of the NO do not believe in the Real Presence3 and that they contracept and think homosexual acts are not immoral. Should we thereby abolish the NO because of what its attendees do or do not believe?

CHW make claims that seem completely impressionistic. They bemoan the fact that many of the faithful have little knowledge of Vatican II (VII) and state: “This ignorance is especially found among those of the younger generation who are tempted to join the Tridentine movement.” Is that group really more ignorant of VII than other young people? My guess is that in fact the young people who attend the TLM have much greater knowledge of the content of VII than the young people who attend the NO, for they read books by such astute churchmen as Bishop Athanasius Schneider, whose critique of VII is founded on a deep and penetrating knowledge of theology and of VII.4

Schneider is not being irresponsible in raising questions about some of the positions taken in Vatican II. It is concerns like his and those of Fr. Thomas Guarino5 that need to be addressed, not dismissed. Why do CHW want to send the message to a very select group of those who dare question the Council that what is most valuable to them will be taken away from them, especially at a time when pro-abortion atheists are welcome to serve on the Pontifical Academy for Life?6

CHW suggest that there are those who “promote the Tridentine liturgy as a way of disparaging the Council.” I think the more frequent occurrence is that those who discover the TLM wonder why it seems to be a hidden treasure and strive to learn about it. They have been told that the NO is what the council wanted, and when they discover that is false, they begin to question other things they have been told. From their own experience of the NO they begin to question whether VII was such a good thing if it or its “interpreters” produced the NO.

They also discern a connection between innovations of the NO with theological dissent and, again, begin to wonder about VII. For many, it is their discovery of the TLM that has strengthened their belief in a large number of teachings of Vatican II that many Catholics doubt, such as the definitive revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the unicity of the Church and its necessity for salvation, the reality of Hell, the privileges of the Virgin Mary, and so forth.

Reverence for the Eucharist and Acceptance of Doctrine

CHW somewhat ironically but most revealingly comment not only on the abuses of the NO that many have experienced over the years, but also on the call of the U.S. bishops to restore understanding of the Eucharist. Neither at that point nor later in the series do they consider the possibility that (at the very least) irregular offerings of the NO, if not the NO itself, might have contributed to the diminution of the understanding of the Eucharist and respect for it.

Few comparing the two liturgies would not readily observe the much greater reverence displayed in prayers, movements, and gestures toward the Eucharist in the TLM, where the Eucharist is received by people kneeling and on the tongue and where the priest, accompanied by an altar boy with a paten, distributes the Eucharist; these are all visible signs of something phenomenally supernatural happening. In the NO, on the other hand, the use of lay readers (sometimes children), the presence of lay ministers of the Eucharist often in quite casual garb, and the reception of the Eucharist on the hand and through an assembly line process, all diminish the grandeur of what is happening.

I haven’t seen studies on the matter, but I am confident that a survey of the beliefs of those who worship at the TLM would discover a nearly universal belief in the Real Presence, compared to the 30 percent belief among attendees at the NO. The failure to note a likely causal effect of the NO on Eucharistic belief suggests at the outset a regrettable unawareness of the relation between liturgy and belief—a relation that has long been recognized, all the way back to the adage, adapted from Prosper of Aquitaine, that the lex orandi is the lex credendi.

There are, however, studies that compare the beliefs and practices of those who attend the TLM with those who attend the NO:

TLM Survey Results

Those numbers should give pause to anyone who argues that the TLM should not be available to all.7

Moreover, there is data that show that the TLM is a marvelous tool for evangelization—for drawing in converts and reverts and retaining the faith of young people: The TLM is made up of around 20% converts. The Novus Ordo has a much more modest number of 2% converts. The reverts in the TLM were also an elevated number of 25%. I’ve not been able to locate a percentage number of reverts who attend the Novus Ordo. Only 16% of the respondents attributed their preferred TLM attendance to their parents.8

A Reform of the Reform?

One has to admire the honesty of the authors in their acknowledgment that not infrequently the NO has been a disaster; it has featured priests dressed in “rainbow” robes and women in diaphanous costumes dancing around the altar—charges that never could be made against the TLM. These and other not uncommon “abuses” of the NO don’t deter the authors from intimating that the NO should now be the only available liturgy for most in the West.

They recommend changes, but essentially, we are being asked to surrender a mountain of gold for a handful of dust that they promise us can be shaped into a worthy liturgy. Indeed, it would take a vastly more concerted global effort, with total buy-in from the clergy at all levels and also from the laity, to bring about the kind of consistently high-level NO that CHW are looking for. In short, the probability of the NO being “done well” is distressingly low. 

CHW believe that the NO can be so reformed as to avoid the problems they have noticed. A full paragraph is given to the need for the congregation to dress more modestly and fittingly and to be attentive to small “rubrical” actions which help orient all that is being done to the “heavenly” realm. Those who want to see fitting, modest dress and attention to small rubrical actions need not look to some future church but need only come to any TLM where such behavior is routine. Indeed, much of what CHW call for to improve the NO is already present in the TLM, which leads some to conclude that the NO becomes better to the extent that it becomes more like the TLM, or, in other words, the more like the liturgy envisioned in Sacrosanctum Concilium

If we have any hopes that the proposals made by CHW will result in an improved NO, our hopes are dashed when we read that: “One way to foster this understanding would be by providing an opportunity for the faithful to bear public witness to their love for the Eucharist, perhaps in one or two brief testimonies after communion. While such testimonies may need to be monitored and even rehearsed, they would not only benefit the congregation but would also confirm more strongly in the speakers their own love for the Eucharist.”

SC tells us that all changes to the liturgy must be organic: to what element of any liturgy that has ever existed would such a practice correspond? Every Catholic loves a good evangelization, conversion, or miracle story, but there are abundant opportunities that exist and more could be created for sharing those in the parish hall or at a conference. Behind this proposal is a concept of the liturgy as man-made and malleable to any discerned momentary need. 

What CHW don’t consider is the possibility that the NO should be reformed not in accord with the perceived needs of the moment but in accord with the vision of SC for the liturgy. It is surprising that strong advocates for Vatican II are not insisting on such a reform. As noted earlier, CHW acknowledge that the Fathers at Vatican II did not at all have in mind the NO that was composed under the guidance of Bugnini. Indeed, the crafters of the NO were clearly motivated more by the “spirit” of Vatican II than the letter.

Reformers of the NO should be more motivated by the letter of Vatican II than the spirit. The NO reformed in accord with the vision of Vatican II would have the priest praying ad orientem; there would be a communion rail where the congregation would kneel for communion; there would be no Eucharistic ministers; there would be only one Eucharistic prayer; Latin would still have a primacy of place and the music of the Mass would be the Latin chant or something similar. Most of the changes made in the NO do not correspond with the principle articulated in SC that all changes must be “organic,” a principle that disallows novelty. There would be much more unity between the Roman liturgies had the principles of SC been honored.

My intent in this series of essays has not been to demonstrate that the TLM is superior to the NO or to point out all the excellent features of the TLM or to critique the NO: it has been to show that the critique of the TLM by CHW fails miserably. My hope is that those who read the CHW series do not take the claims made there at face value and deny themselves and their families the extraordinarily spiritually satisfying experience of attending a TLM. 

Most people are hesitant to attend because they don’t know Latin and “won’t be able to follow.” The fact is that most of those who attend the TLM don’t know Latin and even if they did, it helps them follow only some parts of the Mass. Much of the Mass is said silently and often the music continues while the priest is saying his prayers. They will need to learn a very different way of attending Mass; one that resembles time spent in Adoration more than time spent at a NO. The experience is much more contemplative: the atmosphere, the silence, and the beautiful music invite the congregation to enter into a state of receptivity to God’s voice.

Individuals do not need to slavishly try to “keep up” with the prayers of the Mass; they may linger on the beauty and content of a prayer and be led by the prayers to become truly contrite and truly full of gratitude for God’s mercy on us, our loved ones, and all human beings. I pray that Catholics everywhere have easy access to the TLM so that they can experience the beauty of our tradition, one that has the power to reinvigorate our Faith. 

Vatican II was a council that wanted the Church to return to its sources; making the TLM widely available fits much more with that vision of ressourcement than the abolition of it. Vatican II was not meant to be a “great reset,” an opportunity to remake the Church in accord with whatever are the trends and tastes of the time. Those who ratified the documents of Vatican II, looking to find ways to advance the Gospel, to promote the love of Jesus in the modern world, did not mean to force Catholics to abandon their heritage—especially when it turns out that this heritage speaks powerfully to modern man.

Editor's Note: Crisis Magazine invites Dr. John Cavadini, Dr. Mary Healy, and Fr Thomas Weinandy to respond to Dr. Smith's series.  Dr. Smith wants her charges refuted if they are false. There are few greater questions to be resolved than how we are to worship Our Lord.

Articles in this Series:

Part I: Sacrificing Beauty and Other Errors (February 6, 2023)
Part II: Misrepresentation of Mediator DeiSacrosanctum Concilium, and Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI (February 13, 2023)
Part III: The Genesis of the Novus Ordo and “Theological and Spiritual Flaws” of the TLM (February 20, 2023)
Part IV: Unity, Charismatic Masses, and Africa (February 27, 2023)
Part V: Mischaracterization of the TLM, Then and Now (March 6, 2023)


  • Janet E. Smith

    Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a retired professor of moral theology.

  1. The two other books in the series also give a good picture of how the TLM was received in some places: Mitre and Crook (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2019) and Judith’s Marriage (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2019).
  2. CHW claim that Mass versus populum resembles more closely the Last Supper. The Church, however, has never regarded the Mass as a reenactment of the Last Supper but as the living commemoration of the Sacrifice of Calvary, which was anticipated the night before in the institution of the Holy Eucharist and of a priesthood distinct from the laity. Thus, the Mass looks back primarily to Good Friday, not to Holy Thursday; it was Martin Luther who first called the worship service a “supper.” It seems CHW are not aware of scholarship that discusses how the Last Supper was not conducted as a tête-à-tête between Christ and the Apostles and cannot serve as a template for the modern versus populum arrangement. See Peter Kwasniewski, “The Possibly Dubious Liturgical Legacy of Leonardo’s Last Supper,” New Liturgical Movement, December 16, 2019, summarizing the research of Msgr. Nicola Bux.
  3. See Gregory A. Smith, “Just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with their church that Eucharist is body, blood of Christ,” Pew Research Center, August 5, 2019.
  4. Bishop Athanasius Schneider, The Springtime That Never Came: In Conversation with Pawel Lisicki (Sophia Institute Press: May 23, 2022).
  5. Rev. Thomas G. Guarino, The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).
  6. See Edward Pentin, “Pontifical Academy for Life Appoints Pro-Abortion Atheist Member,” National Catholic Register, October 18, 2022.
  7. See Fr. Donald Kloster, “National Survey Results: What We Learned About Latin Mass Attendees,” Liturgy Guy, February 24, 2019.
  8. Fr. Donald Kloster, “Latest data show Latin Mass continues to flourish in the US despite Vatican suppression,” Lifesitenews, Feb 20, 2023.

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