‘Some of us are owed an apology’: Traditionalists and the Latin Mass


June 11, 2008

Thomas Woods Jr. has been involved in the movement to liberate the Old Mass for well over a decade. Late last year, he released Sacred Then and Sacred Now: The Return of the Old Latin Mass, explaining the historic liturgy and the pope’s reasons for reinstating it.

Brian Saint-Paul spoke with him recently about reactions to the motu proprio, Pope Benedict XVI’s vision for the Mass, and whether the liturgical wars are finally over.

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Brian Saint-Paul: How has the motu proprio been received worldwide?

Thomas Woods Jr.: The reaction has been mixed. Some bishops have enthusiastically received it – including some American bishops, I might add. Of course, none of them are a surprise. Archbishop Raymond Burke, for one. But then, who else would you expect to see showing fidelity to a major new initiative of the pope? In other quarters, the motu proprio has been received like the return of the Wolf Man.

Were there specific individuals?

Well, Bishop Rafaele Nogaro in Italy prohibited his priests from saying it, which he had no authority to do. So we had that sort of thing going on internationally.

In the U.S., we have some bishops who are deliberately misunderstanding the document. I wrote a piece on this last year for Inside the Vatican. Now it’s a serious charge to say that they’re doing this on purpose, but these documents are written for a layman to understand and there’s no reason there should be any problems.

But there have been bishops who pretend that the motu proprio was just a grudging concession to old fogies who refuse to get with the times. And there are people who have said that the pope is requiring that you be an expert in Latin before you can offer this Mass.

The charge I’ve heard most often is that this requires a stable and consistent group of enthusiasts in the parish. And that of course eliminates most Catholic churches in the U.S.

Yes, that’s right. Because most people who would really want the old Mass are already so alienated from their local parish that they have no connection with it to begin with.

The very thing that required the motu proprio in the first place is now being used to disqualify it.

There’s been talk — almost since the document came out — that a clarification would be on its way. What I understand from my sources is that it’s all ready to go, but no one quite knows when it will appear.

In the short run, we have had some important statements recently, such as the comments of Cardinal Hoyos, who is president of the Ecclesia Dei Commission and the former prefect of the Congregation for Clergy. He said that priests should be making the Extraordinary Form (the term Benedict prefers for the traditional Latin Mass) available even without any initiative from the congregation. That clearly contradicts the idea that there have to be X number of people who are interested before the Mass can be allowed. I mean, is this liturgy a treasure of the Church or is it not? If it is, then as one of my friends puts it, we shouldn’t be treating it like a radioactive moon rock. That’s just common sense, it seems to me.

Are there any indications that the return of the old Mass might help bring back the Society of Saint Pius X? There have been ongoing discussions, but as far as I can see, they’re just not interested.

You know, anyone who tries to predict what the Society will do is fooling himself. There are a few commentators who really have the pulse of the Society, but it’s like trying to do orange juice futures — either you have an instinct for it or you don’t. I must have predicted the imminent return of the Society at least five times in my life, so I refuse to do it anymore.

They were upset about the Good Friday liturgy change. But on the other hand, they received the news of the motu proprio with genuine joy, and I think Bishop Fellay understands full well the courage that it took on the pope’s part to release it. Especially when you consider how little enthusiasm there is for this even among the pope’s own friends. We already knew the Left wasn’t going to like this. But his own friends had no interest in it either. I think the Society understands what he’s put on the line here.

I refuse to join in the chorus of condemnation of those who attend their chapels, by the way. Most members of the Society are perfectly decent people whose local parishes are serving them something that doesn’t even rise to the level of a caricature of Catholicism. Many are parents of young families trying to cling to the Faith, and they don’t want their children raised in an atmosphere of institutionalized irreverence. They don’t know the canonical ins and outs of Archbishop Lefebvre’s ordination of bishops or any of that. They just know that they’re getting the Catholic faith there.

That’s why Rome has been much kinder toward the Society faithful than some Catholic magazines have been. You’ll get people in Catholic publications who boast of their orthodoxy but who say that the people who attend these Masses are schismatic. I’ve even heard some people say their Masses are invalid, a theologically ignorant statement. At worst, the Mass could be illicit. But obviously if matter and form are present, the Mass is valid.

People in the Society have experienced a kind of callousness that you never see shown toward Protestants or Muslims or other groups. They’re treated like men from Mars.

Like troglodytes, missing a chromosome.

Exactly. And most of the people who do attack them so uncharitably — and in ignorance of what Rome, and even the pope himself, have said on the subject — are the same ones who complain about how uncharitable Society people are. Physician, heal thyself!

Where does Benedict stand on this?

Well, I’m sure Benedict wants the Society regularized. He was a key architect in the 1988 agreement that almost solved the entire problem. It was agreed that they’d be permitted to ordain one bishop, hold onto all their property and continue to administer the traditional Sacraments . . . pretty much everything they had already been doing, except now with the blessing of Rome. I personally think it was a good agreement, but at the last minute, the Society rejected it.

I do know that Cardinal Ratzinger broke down and wept when he heard that the agreement had been rejected. His heart was really in this in a way that even most of his biggest supporters still don’t understand.

For their part, some members of the Society believed that when Rome gives you an agreement like that, you have to take it and trust the Holy Ghost to work it out. They left the Society and approached Rome on their own. So Pope John Paul II established the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, an order of priests dedicated to the traditional Latin Mass, which we now refer to as the Extraordinary Form. Other orders followed later.

You’ve been a traditional Catholic for some years. In writing your book Sacred Then and Sacred Now, did you come across anything you found new or surprising?

I planned to write the book based on my already-existing knowledge. After having worked as an editor of The Latin Mass for 11 years and reading every article we ever published three or four times — well, eventually it stays in the old noggin. As far as new material is concerned, most of what I learned involved the pope himself. I delved deeply into the pope’s liturgical writings — even some relatively obscure material of his from liturgical conferences around the world. I was surprised by how consistent his point of view has been. He’s been making these arguments for a long time now, and I was able to classify his points into a few categories.

One set of arguments deals with the idea that you could dispense with a liturgical rite and replace it with a new one. Nothing like that had ever happened before in Church history, he says. He’s very concerned about the perception that gives about the continuity of the Faith.

Benedict is also interested in preserving the sacred and avoiding improvisation in the Mass, and believes the old liturgy has an important role to play in both areas.

I was also surprised by how bold some of his statements have been. He told a group of traditionalists that he understood the sensibilities that attracted people to this liturgy, because “they are, to some extent, my own sensibilities.” Once a statement like that is made, it can never be unmade. It makes me think that maybe some of us are owed an apology by people who have been calling us disloyal for years. Who’s going to be first in line to lecture Pope Benedict? If he’s right to say these things now, how were we wrong to say them ten years ago?

The Catholic Church isn’t a George Orwell novel, in which something is celebrated one day and condemned the next. That’s the Protestant caricature of Catholicism. So I was pleased to see just how much the pope’s own words vindicate those who fought to get this great treasure back. The pope may not endorse everything that people who support the old Mass have said, but the core of his argument is the same. And that’s a seismic shift in the life of the Church.

We’ve heard anecdotal evidence that the old Mass has a special attraction to young people and converts. Do you think there’s an evangelical quality to the traditional liturgy that even a reverent Novus Ordo lacks?

I think so, and I was glad to see the pope himself acknowledge this in the letter to the bishops. Archbishop Burke has said the same thing. In my own experience, the typical “reverent Novus Ordo” — which I’d take if nothing else was available, incidentally — tends to contain all kinds of things that would be considered abominations 50 years ago.

Such as?

The very presence of laymen in the sanctuary sends me up a wall. What are the key ingredients in a mature piety that our world most needs? Wonder and reverence. Plato said the beginning of philosophy is the attitude of wonder. But we feel that since we’ve sent a man to the moon and invented the iPod, we’re too great to kneel before God.

It’s this same kind of self-centeredness at work in so many parishes, even if people don’t realize it. Instead of showing reverence for sacred things and places, the attitude is: If I want to traipse around the sanctuary, then that’s what I’m going to do. For I am man!

Now I do not mean to imply that that’s the motivation behind most of the people who are volunteering in the sanctuary — these are decent lay Catholics who have been catechized into doing this. But the sanctuary was once considered a special place reserved for the ordained or those directly serving the ordained in a natural progression oriented toward ordination. I do not believe we have become better Catholics for having abandoned that thought.

What else?

Lay Eucharistic ministers have been a problem. Rome repeatedly issues clarifications that this is not supposed to be an ordinary thing, much less described in parish bulletins as a “ministry,” and those clarifications wind up in the waste basket. For heaven’s sake, why would they be called Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist if they had been envisioned as a regular feature of parish life?

In the book I quote Father James McLucas, a former chaplain at Christendom College. He says that the priest as a celibate man doesn’t lose his need for intimacy with another, but that that need is channeled into a unique relationship with God and the Eucharist. He alone touches the Eucharist, and thus enjoys a unique monogamous relationship that no layman has. That’s what grounds his celibate commitment. The phenomenon of laymen running around the sanctuary and even distributing Holy Communion robs the priest of this and makes him a mere adjunct, dispensable once the consecration has taken place. Are we surprised that young boys don’t find the priesthood as mysterious or compelling when Mrs. Jones can do just about everything the priest can do? Why sacrifice the exclusive relationship you’d have with an earthly spouse if you’re no longer going to have an exclusive relationship with God in the Eucharist?

So even these things, which could be considered part of a reverent Novus Ordo, are problematic. Also, even the most reverent Novus Ordo gives me a sense of alienation in knowing that if a saint from the past were to join me in the pew, he would not recognize much of what I was doing. He wouldn’t recognize Eucharistic Prayer 2, for example. Now of course some parts of the Extraordinary Form are newer than others, and there has been evolution over the centuries. I know that. But there has never been, as the pope noted, as radical a change as we saw in 1969-1970. So the idea that I’m at a Mass that feels like it cuts me off from the Communion of Saints . . . that doesn’t seem as evangelical.

How do you see the interrelationship of the old and new Masses of the Roman Rite working practically? Can they comfortably co-exist? And what do you think will happen when Pope Benedict leaves us?

That last question is very hard to predict, especially since I don’t know of anyone else in the College of Cardinals who is as interested in this issue. So I’m not sure what kind of vigor this would be promoted with. I would like to see the two forms of the Roman Rite co-exist without a
cross-pollination that would be intrusive. I do think there are some ways that the Extraordinary Form can improve the Ordinary Form.


The practice of having the priest facing East, for one. We now know that this was the ancient practice, contrary to what some scholars once claimed. Or even just the way the old Mass might help undermine the childish idea of improvisation at Mass. These are good things. But I wouldn’t want to see the two forms interacting in ways that just cause more problems. Co-existence is probably the best way to address the liturgical wars in the Church.

It’s fine for the Roman Rite to have two forms. Think about how long the Dominicans had their own liturgy. Or the Ambrosian Rite, and all the Eastern Rites. This is one of those areas in which diversity is a good thing. We have great diversity in our ancient liturgies, just as we have great diversity in our spiritualities and our religious communities. And none of that has undermined the unity of the Church.


  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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