Why Restricting the TLM Harms Every Parish Mass

Thanks to the inspiration of Joseph Ratzinger’s writings on liturgy, and especially the “rising tide” effect of Summorum Pontificum, a grass-roots movement to restore sacredness to the modern rite of Paul VI was in full swing. It was not Vatican decrees or diocesan reforms that yielded better Masses, but rather the influence of priests who were either trained in the traditional Latin Mass or picked up the “vibe” by reading articles, watching videos, and observing their brethren.

Clergy carried over traditional habits and rubrics into the new Mass. Soon one saw the old vestments returning. The finger and thumb were held together from consecration to ablution. Laity were encouraged to receive Communion kneeling and on the tongue. Some daring clergy started to face eastward as they offered the Holy Sacrifice, making use of the long-neglected Roman Canon and sometimes speaking in a more subdued tone. Latin and Gregorian chant migrated from the Missa cantata to the main parish Mass; at times, even the amice, maniple, and biretta came across the divide. Such gentle, unthreatening reinforcements from an older piety were expressions of that “mutual enrichment” Benedict had hoped would occur, although we have to say the enrichment was going mostly in a single direction: it was the young, half-dressed waif who needed the clothing, not the regally-attired monarch.

Nor is this phenomenon surprising. The Tridentine Mass is like the great old tree on which—in the most optimistic interpretation—the branch of the Novus Ordo has been grafted and from which it lives. The roots bring it water and nutrients; cut off from the roots, it withers and dies. If you take away the Roman template, you take away the knowledge of how a Catholic liturgy looks, sounds, and functions. 

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Over the decades, many have complained about the glaring lack of rubrical detail and of normative structure in the rite of Paul VI: so many options, so many possible realizations, so little that is set in stone and inflexibly followed. This is why Msgr. Peter J. Elliott had to write his own series of manuals—not only to resolve tiny details, as had been the case with preconciliar rubrical guides, but to provide an entire ars celebrandi that the missal and its general instruction lack. All of this was “reverse engineered” from the Tridentine rite. Now that Pope Francis is attempting to cut off that rite as no longer the lex orandi or even the lex credendi of the Latin-rite Church, the Novus Ordo has been set adrift more than ever, orphaned from its own family.

In addition to the already considerable obstacles faced by proponents of a “reform of the reform,” Traditionis custodes now adds the supreme obstacle of an ideological skepticism directed at the millennial tradition of the Catholic Church. What was sacred and great in the liturgy of the past—including, for example, the Latin language, Gregorian chant, a prominent place for silence, certain kinds of vestments and altar vessels, the regular use of incense—now falls under a cloud of suspicion, an implicit disapproval for its “Tridentinism.” “For many,” writes Shawn Tribe of Liturgical Arts Journal, “it is about breaking with everything that has shaped the liturgical and ecclesiastical patrimony.”

That this interpretation will indeed be given to the motu proprio is already obvious from the way certain bishops and groups of bishops are “reading between the lines” by outlawing not only the Latin Mass but also anything supposedly derived from it or influenced by it. The bishops of Costa Rica wrote in their decree of implementation:

In particular today we must remember that our liturgy, celebrated according to the books promulgated by Saints Paul VI and John Paul II, must be preserved from any element coming from ancient forms. The prayers, vestments, or rites that were characteristic of the liturgy prior to the 1970s reform should not be introduced into our celebrations.

After altogether prohibiting the older form of the liturgy in his diocese, Bishop Ángel Luis Ríos-Matos added, for good effect:

I also make provision that in our Eucharistic celebrations, with or without the people present, the Gothic chasuble shall be worn, avoiding the use of the Roman chasuble, biretta, copes, linen tablecloths, humeral veils, burses, maniples, and other ornaments appropriate to such a rite.

Since most of these items have always been allowed in the context of the Novus Ordo, the list of contraband reveals the hierarch’s profound liturgical ignorance; but try to tell a bishop that he is ignorant and see how far you get.

Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock, one of the first and swiftest to cancel diocesan Latin Masses, reminded his people that “elements of the Traditional Latin Mass are not to be grafted onto the Novus Ordo Mass.” Bishop Taylor might simply be referring to a clumsy mingling of the two different forms, but such language welcomes a broad interpretation. 

In past years, I myself was accused more than once of trying to “Tridentinize” the Novus Ordo—for example, if I had the schola sing the Gradual chant instead of the usual responsorial psalm, even though the General Instruction of the Roman Missal allows for that option. It is not so easy to overcome fifty years of bad or shallow liturgical habits. It is even more difficult when the younger generation’s burgeoning love for Catholic tradition has just been declared harmful and quasi-schismatic.

If “acceptance of Vatican II” (in all the manipulable and open-ended vagueness of that expression) is now the litmus test that will separate Catholics who belong to the Church from those who do not belong, and if the liturgical reform exactly as it played out in the late sixties is to be equated with the will of the Council and of “the popes of the Council,” then it follows that the Novus Ordo as it is celebrated today and forever must be as greatly novus and as little vetus as possible. That is why Pope Francis’ statements to the effect that the new liturgy should be celebrated with “decorum and fidelity to the new liturgical books…without eccentricities and abuses” is, in fact, cold comfort; for all the popes have said similar things over the past half-century, and little had actually changed for the better—except on account of the Summorum Pontificum effect.

The next time you’re hankering for a bit of Gregorian chant or a prayer in Latin or the common turning to the east (ad orientem), remember that such “preconciliar” things are verboten: they are old, they have been superseded by the momentum of the liturgical reform. If you try to point out that Vatican II said nothing about getting rid of such things and even spoke appreciatively of them, you will be silenced in the name of the Living Magisterium, which claims to be the sole correct interpreter and implementer of Vatican II.

In other words, your literacy, your education, your sensus fidei, your love of tradition, your desire to be faithful to what the Council actually said—all of this is irrelevant. Worse, it is irreverent. You are not allowed to question the rupture masquerading as fidelity.

How much this contrasts with the teaching—not just the policy—of Benedict XVI is not difficult to see. In his letter to bishops on March 10, 2009, that pope wrote:

Some of those who put themselves forward as great defenders of the Council also need to be reminded that Vatican II embraces the entire doctrinal history of the Church. Anyone who wishes to be obedient to the Council has to accept the faith professed over the centuries, and cannot sever the roots from which the tree draws its life.

Where, pray tell, has the faith been more “professed over the centuries” than in the venerable Roman liturgy itself?

One of the salutary effects of Francis’ act of traditio—a word that can also mean betrayal: the betrayal of his living predecessor and of many of the faithful—may be to deliver modern “conservative” and “traditionalist” Catholics from their false ideas about papal authority, which has tempted them to be morally slothful and intellectually suicidal. Drawing on a broader and deeper tradition than the often-simplistic reception (or rather, extrapolation) of Vatican I, we need to arrive at a truer idea of papal authority, one that does not require us to abdicate our reason or put the demands of faith aside in service of the papal agenda du jour.

An attack on the elder brother is an attack on the whole family. The sooner today’s conservatives realize this, the more quickly they will join forces with their traditionalist brethren in refusing to accept Traditionis custodes and resisting its implementation in every possible way. If they throw their traditional brethren under the bus in the hopes of currying favor and improving their fortunes, they will quickly discover that the revolution consumes moderates as much as it does the standard-bearers of the ancien régime. The drive to impose the spirit of Vatican II will run over the loyal defenders of the sixteen documents (“but we’re only trying to follow Sacrosanctum Concilium!”) as much as it will the Council’s fiercest critics.

Make no mistake: rejecting a whispered low Mass today will mean the rejection of an ad orientem parish Mass tomorrow; rejecting a biretta and maniple today will mean the rejection of the entire ensemble of smells and bells tomorrow. The movement of Adoremus depends on the immobility of Quo Primum. This will seem like a paradox only to one who does not understand that tradition is not a flowing river, always in flux, but a foundation of rock on which the Church’s life can be safely built. Any time the Novus Ordo rises above its 1970s minimalism or mediocrity to the heights of magnificence and mystery, it is owing to the magnetism of a tradition that stands above and beyond it.

[Photo: Priest celebrating a Novus Ordo Mass (Allison Girone)]


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