This appears in California Catholic Daily today and I thought it was worth reproducing:
Do the Old Rite Right
The return of the Tridentine Mass is the reemergence of the stern, old Patriarch just when we were beginning to have fun
Notes from a Cultural Madhouse
By Christopher Zehnder
Since Pope Benedict XVI freed up the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass in his Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum, I’ve heard oft-repeated the comforting assurance, “The Tridentine Mass only appeals to a very small percentage of Catholics. Most Catholics are happy with the rite of the Mass celebrated in the vernacular.”
I call this an “assurance” and “comforting” because one of the greatest fears of “progressive” Catholics is the return of the Bad Old Days before Vatican II -- the days when the “Spirit” did not dash about the Church as freely as It does today. The “Tridentine” Mass, of course, is for many the symbol of that oppressive past, just as wisecracking celebrants, “Glory and Praise,” altar girls, and liturgical dance routines are of the age of liberation. The return of the Tridentine Mass is the reemergence of the stern, old Patriarch just when we were beginning to have fun.
I don’t mean to spoil anyone’s party, but it is, perhaps, premature to say that most Catholics are happy with their typical parish Masses, especially when they’ve never experienced anything else. Anyone who has been condemned for a time to eat institutional food knows that, after a while, one’s initial disgust with it wears off. One may even begin to enjoy the slop. What of those who have never known better food? What would happen if, instead of greasy chicken-fried steak, they were suddenly presented with a well-cooked cut of beef? Some, of course, may want to stick with what they’ve been used to, but others – many others – may find they like good food and come to regard the old fare with a species of disgust.
This has, indeed, been the case for many Catholics whose only experience of the Mass has been through the “liturgical renewal” that began in the late ‘60s. It’s not just Old Folks who attend the Tridentine Masses. The number of young people who come to prefer the Old Rite might increase when and if it becomes more widely available – especially since most younger people who remain in the Church tend to be devoted to “old-fashioned” orthodoxy.
The number of younger people attending the Tridentine Mass might continue to grow, if devotees of the rite and the priests that serve them carefully cultivate its beauties and draw from it the richness that is found in Catholic Tradition.
I myself am not what one would call a doctrinaire devotee of the Tridentine Mass. I prefer, in fact, the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, which I attend on Sundays. I have even assisted at celebrations of the Novus Ordo – said in Latin, with incense and Gregorian Chant – that I would choose over many a Tridentine Mass I’ve attended. And I have been to many Tridentine Masses -- Solemn High Masses, High Masses, Missae Cantatae, and low Masses. I have witnessed profoundly beautiful celebrations of the Old Rite – more beautiful, I admit, than anything comparable in the New Rite – so I know just how exquisite the Tridentine Mass can be. I have even attended low Masses in the rite that have been quietly moving.
If such celebrations became common, I fear the worries of progressives about the liberalization of the Old Latin Mass might prove quite well-founded. But my experience of most of the celebrations of the Old Rite leads me to fear that richly beautiful celebrations of it may prove to be few and far between, at least in California and other states.
For the most part, the Tridentine Masses I’ve been to have been low Masses, hurriedly said and sloppily executed. The priests seem to make it a point to get through the ritual as quickly as they can and the people – despite the Pope John XXIII’s permission of the dialogue Mass – do not make the responses which belong to them. At one church with the indult, the Gloria is often not sung, only the Kyrie – presumably because it would make the Mass last too long. And by the time the Kyrie is finished, the priest is well into the Epistle. Thus, the people are able corporately to express their longing for God but not their praise for Him in that glorious hymn. At another parish that had the indult back East, the priest admitted to me he did not speak the words of the canon, but read them silently to himself. When I expressed my surprise, he quipped, “but that’s the way it was done before the Council!” Presumably he knew, for he had said the Mass before the council.
Poor celebratons of the Tridentine Mass, it seems, characterize illicit celebrations of the rite as well as those under the indult. Some years ago, I attended a Requiem Mass for a relative said by a priest who had refused to say the Mass of Paul VI when it came out and had, ever since, been celebrating the Tridentine Rite at various locations in Southern California. I expected that a priest who had rebelled over the Mass would understand its beauty and celebrate it accordingly. I was wrong. His Mass was like an magical incantation done slapdash. A Druid priest, I think, would have blushed to pronounce his spells the way that priest read the Dies Irae.
Those who love the Tridentine Mass often call it “the most beautiful thing this side of heaven.” Though a Byzantine or a Coptic Catholic might dispute this, his refutation would not come by the way I’ve seen the Tridentine Mass so often said. The Tridentine Mass is indeed beautiful, but like anything done, its beauty is only revealed by a careful attention to the way it’s done. The Tridentine Mass has beauty, but it is a delicate beauty that requires the cultivation of devotion.
Those who love the Tridentine Mass, I think, have to lay aside any preferences arising from memory or personal predilection and seek out what the Church has required of the liturgy since the days of Pope St. Pius X. Some Catholics, for instance, seem to treat the Mass as an avenue for private devotion and so object to congregational responses or singing. But the congregation of the faithful at Mass is not a chance gathering of individuals but the worship of the Church, the Body of Christ, through its Head. The fullest expression of this as a sign comes through corporate responses to prayers and the singing, at least, of the ordinary chants – the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. Private devotion, of course, is necessary, but it’s best when it is expressed through personal engagement in the prayers and ritual of the Mass. Though Pope Pius XII reminded us that exceptions can be allowed, the normal means for devotion is the missal, not the rosary.
Corporate, external worship is what, of course, Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium called for; and, it is important to remember that the Council fathers had the Tridentine Mass, not the Mass of Paul VI, in mind when they approved that Constitution. If we want the Tridentine Mass to be something more than a haven for the disaffected, as its opponents claim it is; if we want it to spread its leaven throughout the entire Church; if, in a word, we want it to be missionary – we must learn to see it through the real liturgical reform that, beginning with Pius X, includes Sacrosanctum Concilium.
The Council called for “full and active participation of all the people” in the liturgy. This, of course, does not mean primarily external gestures, but internal devotion. But being, as we are, creatures of body as well as soul, external actions – praying and singing aloud, crossing oneself, kneeling, standing where appropriate – are not only the natural expressions of interior devotion; they inspire it. More importantly, external participation in the liturgy serves as a sign of the Church, which has Christ as her head and the people as her members. We are, after all, a “royal priesthood, a kingdom of priests and a holy people."
Priests who say the Mass have to themselves, as the Council says, “become fully imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy.” But so do we laymen. We, together with the clergy, have to open ourselves to accept the liturgy’s full potential as a sacrament of Christ’s love for mankind. And if we do, I’m convinced that the Tridentine Mass could become a powerful, if not the most powerful, means by which the Holy Spirit works to reform and renew the Latin Church. And, who knows, a renewed Tridentine Mass, celebrated according to the fullness of tradition, cleansed of the novelties of the 1960s (and the 1950s), might even end up drawing in those who most fear and hate it. The liturgy, after all, is a very powerful grace.