The Pope’s Blast from the Past

The latest blast from Rome about the Tridentine Mass has roused all sorts of justified reactions. Many bishops—ranging from those concerned about souls to those worried about finances—have found various ways of ignoring it or setting it aside—at least for the moment. The more legal-minded have looked at different aspects, ranging from whether or not it is ultra vires in the light of Quo Primum to whether, as it does not exist in Latin, it has any legal force at all. Those more concerned with content have looked into its shrill tone, self-contradictions, and—shall we say—factual lapses.

For many non-Traditionalist Catholics, it seems to tear a mask of accompanying humility off the Holy Father to reveal a bullying, vindictive countenance underneath. Others wonder how a pope can violently contradict his predecessor on every point—even while that predecessor is still alive. Some have pointed out that it is still less than what the Holy Father has given the Chinese Catholics to endure.

While understanding and to some degree sharing all of these reactions, this writer must admit another—weirdly similar to that he felt toward the other great catastrophe of the past few weeks, the fall of Kabul: a painful feeling of mal-nostalgia. Even as the collapse of our client state in Afghanistan has brought back to me flashbacks of the fall of Saigon during my freshman year in High School, so too with this papal decree.

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From as far back as I can remember, St. Paul VI and his allies had been changing things in the name of Vatican II. These were usually enforced in most parishes by a young “Vatican II priest,” who overruled whatever objections that pastor might have had, systematically terrorized pious little old ladies who quaveringly questioned what was going on, and whose inane and often false explanations were enforced with brute power.

Rather than rehearse the whole sorry tale of the stages whereby these clerical hatchet men accomplished their goals, let it be said that by 1976, in America at least, in most places the Mass was a feeble shadow of itself, Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction had been banished, and the Catholic school system had become a reliable method of robbing children of their Faith (and so defrauding their parents of their tuition money).

In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, this dreary pattern was the order of the day. The only Latin Masses in the area were being said in semi-secret by the redoubtable Fr. Schell at various hotels in the San Fernando Valley. The most popular processional hymn was “Put Your Hand in the Hand of the Man,” and the soul-killing Christ Among Us was the catechetical book of choice for High School students. 

I, however, was very fortunate. My parents were both devout and well-educated in their Faith and much else besides; my father, in addition, was French-Canadian, with the integral Catholicism that characterized our people before the Quiet Revolution destroyed us. He would read the various religion books handed to my brother and me during our education and correct their many errors. 

By sheer accident, James Francis Cardinal McIntyre became my confessor; he introduced me to Dom Marmion, Thomas à Kempis, and many other Catholic literary giants. My Catholic high school had not yet purged its library shelves of Belloc, Chesterton, Attwater, and a host of others whom I discovered. Thanks to the Cardinal’s recommendation, I met the Anglo-Catholics of St. Mary of the Angels, Hollywood, who were part of the tiny seed from which the Anglican Ordinariate would eventually bloom. 

They, in turn, introduced me to the late Fr. Feodor Wilcock, SJ, and the church of which he was pastor, St. Andrew’s Russian Catholic Church in El Segundo. When I went to college in 1978, the Catholic Chaplain at New Mexico Military Institute, Fr. Kevin Moynahan, reinforced all of that. Having been an armor officer in World War II and then a Trappist monk, he went into the diocesan priesthood when his order abandoned silence. All of these influences conspired to keep me Catholic at a time when the Traditional Faith was virtually underground. 

It did not stay that way. Slowly, gradually, it broke back above the surface. John Paul II popularized Eucharistic and a host of other devotions (such as the Rosary) that had been dismissed as passé, as well as canonizing and beatifying a host of important holy personages. The increasing growth of the Society of St. Pius X spurred first the Indult and then Ecclesia Dei—which in turn led to an explosion of traditional orders and communities. 

Benedict XVI recognized both the inherent good of the Church’s traditional liturgy and the evil and illegal manner in which it had been suppressed. His diplomatic way of attempting to right the wrong without exposing the perpetrators of said injustice was, of course, Summorum Pontificum—an act which perfectly complemented his moves in establishing the Anglican Ordinariates, increasing the independence and prestige of the Eastern Catholic Churches, and making fresh overtures to the Orthodox. So things stood when he left us.

At his inaugural Mass, he had bidden us to “pray, that I do not flee for fear of the wolves,” a phrase that haunted me throughout his pontificate. When he left the Chair of St. Peter, it was the first thing that came to mind; although I do not pretend to know why he did it. But all through his reign and that of his predecessor, the “Vatican II priests”—at least those who did not leave the priesthood or had not been convicted of sexual and other crimes—had waited. Now old and in positions of power, it was perhaps inevitable that if one of their own was elected pope, they would try to turn the clock back to the days of their power-mad youth.

So, it seems to me, they are doing. But this is 2021, not 1969. Their far-wiser mentors are long gone, and they are left with nothing but the appearance of power. Authority in the Church is given by God for the Salvation of Souls, not for submitting to the Spirit of this World of Darkness. Church history teaches us that prelates of whatever rank who misuse their power fail in the end. It was true for Honorius, for Benedict IX, and for Julius III; and it is true now. Things shall right themselves eventually—but woe to those who put them out of joint. They shall be responsible for all souls lost during their stewardship—and, as many a holy writer assures us, no one goes to Hell alone.

[Photo Credit: Vatican Media]


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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