On the Cusp of Something Great

Elizabeth Scalia, raised between Rites, welcomes back the Old Latin Mass, and wonders if its return might help improve the New.
A magnificently voiced organ and the clear treble of the girl’s choir combined to sound like angels from on high. The billowing incense seemed to charge the church interior with holiness and mystery, and we knew our innocent prayers would be swiftly borne up to heaven on those spicy, fragrant clouds.
The priests and altar boys wore festive, gorgeous red beneath their impeccably starched or delicately laced surplices, and all around us was beauty, joy, order, meaning, mystery — and something else: a sense of confident and grave purpose.

At this first Holy Communion, circa mid-1960s, we girls in identical veils and the boys in their blue suits, genuflected before entering our pews, and believed ourselves embarked upon a well-plotted journey with few surprises in store. Before us was an altar. A priest — his back to us — performed a sacrifice. We did not fully grasp all of it, but we understood sacrifices were pleasing to God; we comprehended that even though this spring day was “about us,” we were taking part in something vastly larger than ourselves. Schooled in reverence by dedicated sisters, we knew we would kneel in turn at the altar rail, respond “Amen” to the proffered declaration “the Body of Christ,” and then self-consciously stick out our tongues. Thus, we would receive into ourselves — through a great and holy Mystery of God — the real, physical Body of Christ, the God-man on the cross who fed the multitudes with bread. Now, He would feed us of Himself.

Returning to our seats, allowing the Sacred Host to melt within our mouths, we had been instructed to speak in secret to Jesus the deepest longings of our hearts, to thank Him, to make Him welcome.
I knelt at my seat, thanking and welcoming Jesus, as I’d been taught, and suddenly I was in the grip of something I had never felt before — an indescribable sweetness, an overwhelming sense of . . . what, exactly? I could not have then articulated the ringing sense, deep within myself, of “holy, holy, holy” like the peal of a bell. It vibrated up from my core, powerful enough to bring tears, and I did not hide them. I was not alone; beside me a pretty strawberry-blonde named Aileen also wept. Hearing her sniffles, I turned my head and we exchanged soggy smiles in perfect understanding. Something beautiful had happened, and everything leading up to it within the preceding hour — the music, the reverence, the bowed heads of our parents, the precision of the altar boys and the seriousness of the priests — had contributed to this singular moment, and had reinforced it, too.
Afterwards, still sobbing, I was led away from my classmates by Sr. Mary Alice, my second-grade teacher, who knelt before me and asked what was wrong.
“Sister, you have to make me repeat the second grade!” I told her.
“But why, dear?” She asked.{mospagebreak}
“Because I want to do that again!” I wailed. “And I can only make first Holy Communion in the second grade!”
Sister assured me that, while I could only make my first Holy Communion once, I could now receive Jesus in the Eucharist “every Sunday — every day if you want! You will always have this — the Mass and Holy Communion!”
On that cloudless day, “you will always have this” seemed like a promise one could take to the bank. After all, “this” had been going on, more or less unchanged, for 2,000 years. Taking that into consideration, I was somewhat mollified.
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How did it happen, then, that a short time later I found my favorite childhood hymn (“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creaaaaaation”) replaced by a congregational rendering of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” our doubtful voices urged on by a swaying man wearing blue jeans and strumming a guitar? Why was our priest preaching, not about sacraments or sin or salvation, but about the wisdom of Paul Simon’s Mrs. Robinson, which told us that — coo-coo-catchoo — Jesus loved us more than we knew?
Talk about having a rug pulled out from under you. Seemingly overnight, the genuflections were passe, the organ was silenced and its loft emptied. The chants, which had brought chills and stillness — even to us children — were forgotten. The altar rails were down, the women’s heads uncovered, the sisters mostly gone, and our priests were facing us at a “table.” The Holy Mass that had so recently moved Aileen and me to ecstatic tears had suddenly become unrecognizable, and almost nothing about these changes was explained.
I was a grown woman before a kind priest told me that the lifting of the Friday ban on meat was not — as I had come to think of it — the equivalent of a doctrinal tooth extraction that replaced something with nothing and left a gaping hole in my understanding. Who knew that the Council’s intent was to free the faithful to choose their own, more personally meaningful — and therefore more worthwhile — sacrifice to perform on Fridays, in remembrance of Good Friday?
I suspect the news that the powerful men in Rome had actually meant to treat the faithful like adults capable of self-discipline would have been very welcome and inspiring in that era of liberation and self-discovery, but I’ve never met anyone who was taught it. Lacking that, most Catholics wondered why things that used to matter suddenly did not, opening wide the doors to doubt, and then forgot about a useful spiritual exercise. Suddenly Friday became just like any other day, and thus time became less sanctified — as did most things.{mospagebreak}
We youngsters riding on the cusp of change grew up anxious, never quite knowing what to expect at Mass. Would we be clapping hands today? Will there be bells at the consecration? Are we always going to recite the Eucharistic prayer along with the priest like we did last week? Should I bring my tambourine?

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My memory of the Traditional Mass is cloudy and vague, and I suspect a bit romantic, but I recollect the first translations of the Novus Ordo very well; they were more exact, and more spiritually focused than what eventually followed. We easily learned our vernacular responses, which were pretty nice:
“The Lord be with you.”
“And with your spirit.”
“Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof; speak but the word, and my soul shall be healed.”
And then we learned them again:
“The Lord be with you.”
“And also with you.”
“Lord I am not worthy to receive you; but only say the word, and I shall be healed.”
Small differences brought significant changes in meaning, and we sensed it. The liturgy kept evolving, the emphases kept changing, and every reform and bizarre new experiment was described as being “in the spirit of Vatican II.” To many of us things often seemed arbitrary, impermanent, and disordered. Weighed against the aura of mystery, gravity, and unambiguous purpose that we remembered, the attractions of Mass in the vernacular — and there were many — seemed to rise in the balance. In short order, Masses became so individualized and unpredictable that it became easy to walk away from a church that seemed to fit itself to times and trends, rather than transcend them.
And so we left in droves. A great number of us have never found our way back into the pews; those who have often squirm a bit, wondering: Is the so-so liturgy, the casual-Fridays atmosphere, and the truly deplorable three-chord campfire music really as good as it can get? Is this really the best and most reverent worship we can offer to the Almighty?
For those of us whose religious formation was transitional, the implementations of Council recommendations were successive earthquakes and aftershocks, inflicting huge cracks upon our foundations. We, who had only begun to absorb and appreciate our Catholic identities and traditions before everything changed, have been straddling a spiritual chasm ever since. One foot catches on the pre-Vatican II soil of tradition, vertical worship, mystical awe, and order. Maybe, we concede, it was a bit sterile and distant; perhaps there was a little too much order. Our other foot is planted post-conciliar, amid informality and determined outreach. It’s warmer, more accessible, and less exalted, but — well, it’s less exalted. We stare into the breech and wonder if the attractive bits we see lingering on both ragged edges can somehow be brought together.
A few years ago a “cuspy” Catholic neighbor and I, exchanging memories of the Tridentine liturgy and bemoaning the sort of knockabout, sloppy Masses we had been suffering through, decided to attend an “Old Rite” Mass in the area. We came away from it feeling surprisingly less satisfied than we had hoped. The Mass was beautiful, indeed, reverent and purposeful, but “I didn’t like his back being to us,” my friend complained; “I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, and I felt like he didn’t care whether we were there or not!”
“I didn’t like the head covering,” I admitted, “it distracted me and I wanted to pull it off.”
“But still, I liked kneeling to receive the Eucharist,” she said.
“Yes, and the silence after Communion. You never hear Holy Silence at Mass anymore.”
“Yeah, but I hated not making the responses. I forgot that the altar boys did that . . .”
Perhaps our memory nags us into craving more than we actually want.
We drove home imagining the “perfect” Mass. It would be the Novus Ordo, after all, but with a more inspired, less horizontal translation. There would be more “The Church’s One Foundation” and less hand-clapping. The Eucharistic responses would be in Latin — “and,” said my friend, “if after all these years, someone can’t compose a singable Gloria that doesn’t plod, let’s just go back to chanting it, can we, please?”{mospagebreak}
The Novus Ordo isn’t going anywhere, but many Catholics who appreciate its music, relaxed standards, and the dicey creativity of parish liturgists are wary of Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum. They worry that the “traditionalists” who have longed for greater availability of the Tridentine Rite and more traditional worship will try to inflict what they perceive to be dead forms onto the newer Mass.
In truth, their worries, while probably excessive, are not baseless. Many Catholics perceive over-corrections within post-conciliar liturgies and devotions, and the pendulum is, predictably, swinging back. The weaknesses of the vernacular translations of the Mass, particularly from Latin to English, have been recognized and are being addressed. Bishops are gently discouraging the liturgical excesses that a decade ago affected a great deal of Catholic worship and often led to eye-rolling in the pews and angry letters to the Vatican. Most notably, there is an increasing trend among Catholics — particularly young Catholics, who got a taste of a fuller, more solemn liturgy with the funeral mass of Pope John Paul II — to seek out the so-called Old Latin Rite. Summorum Pontificum is Pope Benedict’s happy recommendation that their bishops oblige them in their desires, but whether the promotion of the 1962 Missal and a greater availability of that Mass has any discernable effect on the primacy of the Novus Ordo remains to be seen. For those of us raised in a religious environment that was half Tridentine and half free-for-all, I suspect we will continue to straddle the chasm.
It is doubtful that the re-emergence of the Old Rite will bring a large number of us cuspers back to it, but interest in the Tridentine Mass might actually benefit the Novus Ordo. It may restore some equilibrium to those self-indulgent liturgists who have come to believe that any old thing they can come up with must be a better option than what worked for 2,000 years. A return to seriousness and an appreciation of what came before could help strengthen liturgy that has been too long unsettled (and as the liturgy goes, so goes the worship). In that case, Summorum Pontificum could be a win/win for everyone.

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Not long ago, one of my children — a fairly reverent kid — accompanied me to Mass in a neighboring parish, one we do not usually attend. Referred to as the “choir” Mass, the liturgist chose older hymns almost exclusively, and while the Novus Ordo was used, there was a pre-Vatican II moment that threw us both for a loop. “Angus Dei,” the choir intoned, and suddenly the whole congregation was plainchanting, hauntingly and without accompaniment, “Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.” I was plunged back 40 years into poignant remembrance.
My son leaned over and asked, “What is this?”
“It’s the Lamb of God.”
“I love this; this is amazing,” he whispered back.
“I know,” I answered, wishing he’d be quiet.
He was right, though. That brief use of Gregorian chant, and the effect it had on us and the congregation, was amazing. It brought the Holy Silence, not outside, but within. It reinforced the solemnity of a profound moment of invitation and revelation. It brought us — willingly, sensibly — to our knees, and rang holy, holy, holy deep within.
“Why can’t we have this all the time?” my son asked.
“You will always have this,” came Sr. Mary Alice’s voice, through the years.
“We do,” I said. “We will, I think. Almost.”

Elizabeth Scalia is a freelance writer who has contributed to numerous Catholic publications and has lately preferred editing the work of others — both fiction and non-fiction. She lives in New York with her husband and children.


  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Elizabeth Scalia is the popular writer and blogger known as “The Anchoress.” She writes a weekly column for First Things and is the managing editor for the Catholic Portal at Patheos.

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