Popularity of Latin Liturgy is Not “Unfortunate”

In an article on the website Millennials, sponsored by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, William Bornhoft accuses “TLM Millennials” of hindering the new evangelization by favoring the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). Bornhoft, a recent college graduate, makes a number of groundless assertions about TLM supporters and about the liturgical reform promulgated at the Second Vatican Council. Ultimately, Bornhoft fails to demonstrate how the Tridentine Mass is an obstacle to evangelization because he does not understand why so many Millennials are drawn to it.

Bornhoft rightly notes that many Catholic Millennials, whether they prefer the TLM or not, are unfamiliar with the documents of Vatican II or the content of the debates among the Council fathers. Ironically, this “poor catechesis” and “lack of proper education” of so many young Catholics is also evident from Bornhoft’s own weak grasp of Vatican II and the history of liturgical reform following the Council. He rejects criticism of liturgical disruptions that followed Vatican II because he assumes the Council fathers called for these innovations. Therefore, any criticism of the Novus Ordo (New Mass) by supporters of TLM is dismissed as ignorant and heterodox and a grave obstacle to evangelization. However, Bornhoft does not know that TLM supporters discovered what went wrong after the Council from their study of history and tradition and this revelation has led them to welcome Pope Emeritus Benedict’s defense of the Tridentine Mass as an authentic expression of the Council and a sign of continuity with the Church’s liturgical tradition.

Despite being a cradle Catholic, I was not familiar with the details of liturgical reform until I spent a semester in graduate school studying Vatican II and the development of doctrine. How the Novus Ordo came into existence was particularly surprising. Even before the Council, the French and German bishops were pushing for extreme liturgical change, and one month into the Council they openly opposed the Roman Curia’s hesitance to adapt extreme liturgical innovations. While a consensus developed that the vernacular could be permitted under certain conditions, especially in non-Western cultures, this change was insufficient for some bishops who favored more radical deviations from liturgical tradition. Bishop William Duschak S.V.D., for example, wanted a new liturgy stripped of all man-made prayers, using mainly scripture, in the vernacular, with the priest facing away from the tabernacle; however, his proposition was for this mass to be allowed along side the TLM. But the fact is that changes like these never made it into the final Council documents.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani was a leading opponent of the progressive faction at the Council. He favored changes consistent with an organic development of liturgy. He felt that the “rite of the Holy Mass should not be treated as if it were a piece of cloth to be refashioned at the whim of each generation.” While some Council fathers favored more radical change, their number was insufficient to prevent from inclusion in the final document statements supportive of organic development in the liturgy.

Directly after the promulgation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Bl. Pope Paul VI issued a motu proprio on January 25, 1964 in which he gave specific instances in which the document could be applied, and explained that many of the decrees would have to wait until new books had been written and that when it came to liturgy, “not even a priest can, on his own initiative, add or subtract or change anything in liturgical matters.” This directive was disregarded, and in France and other places, the vernacular was introduced in the liturgy. The Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was established on March 4, 1964. It was this commission, made up of many of the liberal Council fathers who had been on the Liturgical Commission, that essentially wrote the Novus Ordo. The passages that favored maintaining continuity with liturgical tradition written into the Council documents were largely ignored.

I cannot imagine what it must have been like for liturgy-loving Catholics to experience these sudden and radical changes in the mass, many of which were not even in the Council documents. The first radical change was a completely new liturgy. But the liturgical changes that were not in Sacrosanctum Concillium include eliminating communion on the tongue, removal of communion rails, priest facing the people (and away from Jesus in the tabernacle), an abundance of lay extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, female altar servers, and wide-spread liturgical improvisation. And along with feminism came the abandonment of women covering their heads in church, which had been a tradition since the time of the apostles. The Millennial generation has not had to live through these disruptions, but we have been raised with the results of them. And thanks to Pope St. John Paul II opening up the use of the TLM in 1988 and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI issuing Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum in 2007, my generation has been able to experience the traditional liturgy (that is, without becoming sedevacantist).

Far from being opposed to Vatican II and outside the realms of orthodoxy, as Bornhoft claims, TLM Millennials look at the documents of the Council and wonder why parts of them were completely ignored. Those who implemented the Sacrosanctum Concillium in the revising of the Mass and on the practical side overlooked these paragraphs from the document:

That sound tradition may be retained, and yet the way remain open to legitimate progress careful investigation is always to be made into each part of the liturgy which is to be revised…. Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing (Sacrosanctum Concilium 23).

Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites (Sacrosanctum Concilium 36).

The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.

But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action, as laid down in Art. 30 (Sacrosanctum Concilium 116).

To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence (Sacrosanctum Concilium 30).

Many planners of Novus Ordo Masses are under the illusion that Vatican II made Latin and Gregorian chant optional. The promulgation of a new Mass opened the door to years of liturgical experimentation and abuse not permitted by Vatican II. Millennials like Bornhoft do not even know enough about the Council and liturgical reform to recognize the legitimacy of the practices suppressed. For instance, he dismisses use of Latin in the name of Vatican II not knowing that the Council explicitly called for its continuation. Many Millennials don’t recognize the difference between liturgical abuse and orthopraxis—that is, correct liturgical action. Many priest and liturgical planners even refused to follow the clear rubrics of the Novus Ordo in the years following the Council. TLM Millennials rightly object when they see any departure from liturgical norms. Protestations over liturgical abuse are hardly heterodox.

TLM Millennials embrace a legitimate part of Church tradition, and Bornhoft’s objection to their preference ignores what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said in Summorum Pontificum:

There is no contradiction between the two editions of the Roman Missal. In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What 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. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.

How I came to love the traditional liturgy is similar to the experience of other TLM Millennials. It mirrored the experience of the Israelites in the book of Nehemiah: Upon their return from exile they wept after having read the law for the first time.

Like the Israelites, I mourned. I mourned for the loss of the traditional liturgy. But rejoiced having entered into a deeper, richer, even more personal relationship through the structure of the old liturgy. I remember liturgies where I had the care of a young infant and all I could do was sit and watch and listen. Liturgical innovators of the recent past may object to my lack of “participation.” Yet such protests would fail to appreciate how beautiful sacred music, composed in the Church’s ancient past, can lift us up in prayer. I went from pacing with a child in the very back to kneeling at the sanctuary and receiving the Eucharist on my tongue. The tradition drew me to itself. It was not about me at all; it was about it. Further, that is what liturgy is about. It is not about whether it is “accessible to man.” It is about man worshiping God.

Bornhoft says that Summorum Pontificum “created—unfortunately and unintentionally—a subculture of young Catholics skeptical of contemporary Catholicism and the reforms of Vatican II.” While Bornhoft acknowledges the growth and popularity of the TLM, he insists that most people will not be willing to “attend an hour-long mass in a language they don’t understand.” He does not explain how a presumably unappealing liturgical “subculture” could possibly undermine the new evangelization. If TLM Millennial criticisms of the Novus Ordo “threaten to intensify divisions within the Church,” why wouldn’t Bornhoft’s criticism of the Latin liturgy do the same? Bornhoft sees no irony in his criticism of Pope Benedict for defending the TLM and his charge of heterodoxy against TLM supporters for following suit. TLM Catholics are not part of a “subculture.” The Tridentine Mass enjoys a legitimacy equal to all the liturgical rites of the Church. The number of adherents to the Mass does not change its spiritual value to the Church. Like Pope Benedict said, the Church has room for all of her traditions. Both rites are acceptable, and it is okay to prefer one over the other, just as it is okay to prefer Dominican theology over Franciscan or Jesuit.

Liturgy develops just like theology. In the early and medieval Church, most cities had their own rites; each liturgy varied from city to city. The Church in Rome, from time to time, would take one of the aspects of a city’s liturgy and incorporate it into the Roman Rite, and from there it would spread throughout the rest of the Western Church. This is what the Church means by “organic development of the liturgy,” a slow acceptance and rejection of liturgical actions that are disseminated throughout the whole Church. It was at the Council of Trent that all rites not older than 200 years were suppressed, and the Tridentine Mass, which we now call the Extraordinary Form, was established as universal for the Roman Rite.

But looking at all of the different rites still present in the Church, and now the two forms of the Roman Rite, these liturgical differences—including conflicts among them—are not unfortunate; rather, they are how the Church grows and develops. It may be that the Roman Rite will not always have two forms of liturgy. It may be that they will develop into each other or one will be suppressed while the other changes to be more in accord with what all Western Catholics need. But it is not unfortunate that young Catholics are experiencing God in the liturgy, discovering how beautiful liturgy can be, and preferring the liturgy that was organically developed over 2000 years to the one written in the 1960s.


  • Susanna Spencer

    Susanna Spencer received her MA in Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She happily cares for her three young daughters and her husband in St. Paul, MN. You can learn more about her at her blog Living With Lady Philosophy.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...