Those Angry Traditionalists

Ever attended a clown Mass? Me neither. To be sure, I’ve seen lovingly photographed liturgical bizarrenesses from time to time chronicled on the Internet. And I’ve seen some enthusiasts for the Latin Mass often talk as though such stupid liturgical antics are happening everywhere all the time and that they alone stand between the Church and the complete and utter circus-ization of the Mass. But have I been to an actual clown Mass? Nope. Never saw one — and I live in the Archdiocese of Seattle.

Now I agree completely that the Blessed Sacrament is the absolute center of the universe and of all history. If you want to know What It’s All About, look at the Eucharist. And I agree that in the Mystery of God’s Providence, the Eucharist has been entrusted into our fragile hands in the same way that Jesus was entrusted into the hands of the Holy Family. We have an obligation to do our best to celebrate the Mass reverently and worthily.

But there is also the danger that we can forget that the Mass is God’s before it is ours. We can start to regard it as our property. Certainly liturgical abusers are doing this. But “saviors of the liturgy” can forget in their own way as well. They can come to relish liturgical abuses because, well, it’s gratifying to one’s pride to be the Savior of the Liturgy, isn’t it?
When I entered the Church I heard of the dreaded Clown Mass. I got the impression that such things were endemic, and that I was entering a war zone where I would have to struggle every day with unspeakable outrages against the Eucharist.
It’s been 20 years and the worst I’ve had to put up with is listening to “Anthem” now and then.
On the other hand, I have frequently encountered, both on the Web and in real life, people like the one described by a correspondent of mine who wrote me last January:
At the March for Life in DC last week, our group (mostly young teens) came across a marcher holding aloft a Crucifix with a big sign: “Latin Mass=Truth; New Mass= Abortion.” As I respectfully disagreed with him, he brought up receiving the Eucharist by hand, as if that somehow that had to do with saving unborn children.

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That note sums up why I have no interest in becoming a liturgical fussbudget. At the end of the day, my Bible — and the teaching of the Church — insists that the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control, not bitterness about mediocre liturgy and still less blasphemy at valid liturgies approved by Holy Church. People who act and talk like this are going to have to figure out how to be fully Catholic or they are going to disappear. A true Catholic faith evangelizes; like it or not, this is not evangelizing, but shouting “Repel boarders” and then pouring boiling oil on your own archers. Such treatment of brother and sister Catholics is, well, evil and will serve to ensure that Traditionalism (or, at any rate, this kind of Traditionalism) dies out in a generation or so.
When I pointed this out on my blog, I was tartly rebuked by a Traditionalist who reproached me with these words:

Your interest in “correcting” traditionalists is… shall I say… oddly disproportionate to your interest in understanding the things we care about.

Here’s the thing: In the early Church, Christians did not huddle up and demand that those around them understand the things they care about. That’s because the command they had been given was “Go therefore into every nation, teaching them to observe what I have commanded.” They were a missionary Church conquering the world with love, not a Fortress desperately fighting to bring back the good old days. They didn’t hunker down, griping about how converts were screwing everything up, or complaining that things were better way back when, or talking as though faith, hope and love were wimpy symptoms of Kumbaya Catholicism. They endured real persecution of the “roasting on hot griddles” sort and not of the “having to sing ‘Anthem’” variety. And they left a distinct impression on the pagans around them: “See how they love one another.” They did not approach life with the expectation that those who came at them from outside owed them something.

But that is often the impression I have gotten from many (though certainly not all) Traditionalists. Like it or not, discourse among a great many Traditionalists is filled with anger and contempt for Catholics who do not share their burning interest in traditional forms of piety.
So while I’ve never seen a Clown Mass, I have encountered lots of angry Trads who have compared the Paul VI rite to a Black Mass, made clear that “Novus Ordo types” are second class Catholics, spent a great deal of time obsessing over Jews, sneered at John Paul II and Benedict “Novus Ordo Popes” who have compromised the Tradition, threatened people in my parish physically, smeared good priests with nasty rumor campaigns and generally made their claims to be the Guardians of True Catholicism so repellent that I wouldn’t touch the Faith with a barge pole if they were the True Apostles of it they claim to be. And that experience is not just mine. One reader out of many wrote in to concur with an all-too-common anecdote:
[A] friend of mine took a breather from his Latin Mass group one year after a post-Mass brunch turned into a boisterous discussion over whether it was morally licit to pray for God to strike down Hillary Clinton. He said he was well into the discussion when he caught a glance at people sitting at other tables, their mouths agape, listening in shock and disgust to what the traditionalist Catholics were talking about. He realized that HEY, we’re not really being a good witness to the faith.

Yeah. Like that.

In much the same way that I think Muslims need to stop whining about how people perceive Islam and focus instead on why so many people have such similar perceptions, so too I think not a few Traditionalist Catholics should focus more energy on changing whatever it is in their sub-sector of the Church that leaves so many of us with such a bad taste in our mouths.
When the outsider’s principal experience of Traditionalism is of repeated and frequent encounters with mean people who are perpetually angry about remote arcana and loony conspiracy theories, he is not going to feel any obligation or interest whatsoever in “understanding the things we care about.” Telling outsiders to Traditionalism that they need to overlook their experience and stop talking about what they have actually seen and heard will be about as successful as Muslim attempts to force people to not notice the less-than-lovely face that the Religion of Peace shows the world.

Is clinging to anger more important to Traditionalists than actually winning hearts and minds to their cause? If so, then their agenda is doomed and they have paradoxically abandoned the worship of God in the name of liturgical purity. 

Mark P. Shea is a senior editor at and a columnist for Visit his blog at


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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