Sunday, October 08, 2017

On the "Latin Mass" ...

St. Josemaría Escriva offering Holy Mass.

Two recent pieces by Matthew Schmitz of First Things that are worth a glance: One in the UK Catholic Herald, and another in the NYT, (what? In the NYT???) on what is colloquially called the "Latin Mass," more formally, the "Extraordinary Form" or the "usus antiquior" or less technically correct, the "Tridentine Mass."
What I find fascinating is the absolute horror, vehement opposition, and worse, that the ancient Mass elicits amongst the clergy, particularly older clergy. I've seen this first hand.
And after five years of liberalization (i.e. free permission given to Roman priests to offer the old Mass) under a sympathetic pontificate, apart from a few dioceses (Charlotte and Arlington come to most immediately to mind), most places in the US still treat the old Mass as something toxic -- confined to the lone FSSP parish (as in here in Atlanta), or banished entirely. There is still a sense that a recently ordained man who expresses too much interest in the "Latin Mass" is "marked," and not in a favorable light. The Catholic Herald piece talks about a crowd of young people in NY drawn to a "on-the-down-low" traditional Mass offered by a young priest ... (hmm -- Athens folks might find something familiar there! :-D) ... and now five more years, with the same legal structure, but a much less sympathetic pontificate, there is no sign that these pesky younger folks are going to go away.
In a city where discretion is mocked and vice goes on parade, the atmosphere of reverence is startling. This mass began a year ago when students and young professionals (most of whom are not thoroughgoing traditionalists) began attending a young priest’s private celebration of the mass. It has been maintained as a kind of secret conventicle ever since, advertised only by word of mouth so as to avoid offending older priests who loathe the traditional mass and are horrified that the young people of New York – the vanguard of taste in every domain – increasingly see tradition as the future.
I've always found this interest in the "old ways" to be a largely Western phenomenon: France, the UK, the US, a few isolated spots in Latin America (Brazil comes to mind especially) ... but to hear of a diocese in NIGERIA where the old Mass is thriving blew my mind. I can't think of anything comparable in India -- there isn't much demand, if any at all, that I can see, from the laity, young or old, and the clergy, in my experience, tend to be formed in a particular kind of post-Conciliar vein that views everything between, say, the death of Jesus and 1965, as a vast swamp of ignorance and error with few bright spots ...
Though traditionalists remain a tiny minority in Nigeria, as throughout the world, their number is growing. Catholic traditionalists see the ancient language of the Latin Mass as a sign of their faith’s stability and unity, an indication that Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. They would like to see it return worldwide, but for now, some of its strongest adherents have been in places like Nigeria, where historical tumult and ethnic strife have given traditionalists special reason to value this aspect of their faith. Six years ago, Bishop Ochiagha buried his friend Emeka Ojukwu, who had led the Biafran Republic in its rebellion against the Nigerian state. Bishop Ochiagha served Biafra as a diplomat and watched the rape and pillage that accompanied its defeat in 1970. 
At that fraught moment, foreign priests were expelled from Nigeria by the government, and the vernacular liturgy was introduced by the Vatican. “The time of the liturgical change was not easy,” Bishop Ochiagha told me. “People thought the church was collapsing.” In one stroke, Catholics were cut off from their past. They also found it harder to pray. “The traditional Mass encourages reflection and prayer,” he said. “The new Mass gives itself to jamboree.”
Yesterday I celebrated a High Mass (only the second time I've done so), at the nuptials of a young couple. The congregation was largely non-Catholic -- from the groom's non-Catholic family, and his secular or non-Catholic college friends. I did wonder what they made of the affair. The schola, from the local FSSP parish, was superb. I'm sure several of the Catholics in attendance were also somewhat bemused, though I recognized several younger Catholics, several ladies with mantillas, who, one could put it, "lean traditional."
As for me, I was struck by how much I was unaware of either the music, or the congregation. The old Mass is much more demanding than the reformed rites, a sung Mass even more so. But there was also a sense of intimacy, of focus, of silence surrounding the sacred action. Though unaware of them at one level, I could feel the people on my back, so to speak, as if I were carrying them all, all their prayers, the joy of the couple, their friends, their anguishes, their griefs ... it's hard to describe. It's not that I'm not aware of these realities when I celebrate the new rite -- it's the form I celebrate I the vast majority of the time. But everything seemed heightened -- the laser focus of the old rite on the sacred action, the Sacrifice of Christ, I think, especially ensures this.
I was exhausted at the end of it. No doubt part of that was nerves -- making sure I hit the right notes in the chant, trying to remember the elaborate ceremonial for the incensation, and so much more -- well actually, that was really it. It was DEMANDING. I jokingly remarked to the servers after Mass -- "gosh going back to the parish to offer the Saturday Vigil seems like child's play!" What costs us more, we value more. There's definitely something to that ...
I still hold to the general "reform of the reform" approach, as the current Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments remarked not too long ago, to the consternation of many. Furthermore, not all young Catholics (by which one tends to mean that tiny sliver of young Catholics that actually is involved in the life of the Church) prefer the old rites. All, in my experience, seem to want orthodoxy, and reverent liturgy rather than goofiness and patronizing attempts to pander to "the youth," ... but that's another conversation.
However, I am all for a greater freedom of access to those who have discovered the beauty of the old rites. If these are as horrible as their opponents describe, why worry? Of course, the fear is that, well, tradition and orthodoxy are far more attractive to the young than they themselves have found them to be ...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was present at the Nuptial Mass mentioned in this post. After speaking with a number of people who were also there, I thought I would share some of the feedback. There were positive comments coming from a lot of former Catholics, who were raised in the Church and, for one reason or another, left for evangelicalism or a secular life. They mentioned that it was the most beautiful Mass they had ever been to. There was also positive feedback from more nominal Catholics who perhaps go to Mass a handful of times per year (and who do not know that weekly Mass attendance is even required). Again, the beauty was the key source of interest for them. They simply did not know that Mass could be so ethereal and poetic.

My takeaway here is that there is a latent "Catholic instinct" in people who have some kind of connection to the Church. Beauty is a universal language that speaks to Catholics and can be a way to re-engage those who have either fallen away or were never catechized to begin with.

Another interesting note- there was someone who loved it who is into Eastern religion and exotic cultural experiences. The Nuptial Mass, with its smoke and Latin proved to be a spiritual experience for someone who seems to crave the supernatural, but who cannot be fulfilled by the modern, Western take on Christianity. We forget that we are, in fact, an ancient religion, with origins in the Middle East- it is okay to have a strange, yet alluring quality to our ritual.

We may consider making polyphony, chant, incense, etc. a part of the New Evangelization effort. While God knows us on a personal level and is the most attuned to our hearts of anyone, He is also the God of the burning bush. People want mystery!