On the Restoration and Promotion of the Traditional Mass
The third anniversary of the election of Pope Francis seems an apt time to take stock of the state of the Traditionalist movement within the Church. While the term may encompass various goals for the Church, I focus here on its essential aim, namely the restoration and promotion of the Tridentine liturgy.
The reign of Benedict XVI was seen as a springtime for Traditionalism. Benedict had an evident affinity for a traditional-style celebration of the Mass. His solicitude for the traditional Mass was concretely expressed by his promulgation in July 2007 of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum (SP). With SP as the foundation, many Traditionalists were confident that Benedict would re-introduce traditional practices on a broader scale as his pontificate progressed, and perhaps even revise the Missal of Paul VI.
Alas, it was not to be. With Benedict’s resignation and the election of Francis, the papacy’s gaze has turned from things liturgical to a myriad of other matters. Pope Francis has said, written, and done much in his short reign; but, as far as I know, he has never directly addressed the state of liturgical affairs. To the great dismay and frustration of Traditionalists, who rightly see the Mass as the heart of the Body of Christ, Francis appears indifferent to the most pressing need of the Church—liturgical renewal.
Francis has, however, let stand SP. Yet as great a gift as SP is for the Church, it is far from the total or final solution to the problems that have given rise to the Traditionalist movement in the first place. On the contrary, in the words of Churchill, SP marks only the “end of the beginning.”
SP is often described as “freeing” the traditional Mass. This description is not entirely accurate. It is true that SP allows any priest to use the 1962 Missal without the need for special permission, but this prerogative only applies to “Masses celebrated without the people”—that is, a priest’s private Mass (SP Art. 2). SP contains a separate provision for public Masses, and it does not provide an unfettered right for the celebration of such Masses. Rather, SP directs pastors to “willingly accept” the requests of “a stable group of Faithful” in a parish that wishes to have the Traditional Mass offered in that parish (SP Art. 5, Sec. I).
This legal distinction is of critical importance to the future efforts of the Traditionalist movement as it seeks to employ SP as the principal tool for re-birth of the traditional Mass. For, in order for the Traditionalist movement to realize its aims, the “Extraordinary Form” of SP must become less out-of-the-ordinary. While it is true (and wonderful) that the number of places in which the Tridentine Mass is regularly offered has grown markedly since the promulgation of SP, it is a fact that the vast majority of parishes provide Mass-going Catholics with no access or exposure to the ancient rite. The Extraordinary Form remains relegated to specific churches at limited times or to usage on special occasions.
Nonetheless, under the framework of SP, the impetus for the spread of the traditional Mass belongs to the laity. Benedict, perhaps, chose this approach to give the traditional Mass the mark of popular piety so that its return would be seen as resulting from the desire of the Faithful, not the imposition of dreaded “experts.” In theory, this is wise, but relying primarily upon the laity presents definite practical impediments.
The most obvious problem is lack of familiarity among the laity with the ancient rite. Thanks to the speed and ferocity with which the Church suppressed the Tridentine liturgy after Vatican II (beginning with the “interim” Missal of 1965), no one under 50 years of age has experienced the traditional Mass as the common Lex orandi.
Those older have mostly forgotten it. They have long accepted the practices that typically accompanied the implementation of the Novus Ordo—elimination of Latin entirely, versus populum worship, Communion in the hand while standing, copious use of “Eucharistic Ministers”—and on and on. In many parishes these practices are as fixed as once was the Canon, and changes to them are even regarded as disruptive to “tradition,” roughly defined as that which has been handed down from Cardinal Bernardin and his successors since ancient times, circa 1975.
Thus, SP has created a church within the Church, where the small but fervent band attached the traditional Mass adheres to a different calendar, often hears different readings than those proclaimed at the Novus Ordo and, in general, experiences significantly different liturgical norms and practices.
This “church within a Church” situation is not optimal. It can lead to a kind of separatism among those attached to the old rite who, perhaps unintentionally, come to look down upon the masses at the Novus Ordo parishes where parishioners are subjected to ugly vestments and “Here I am Lord.” Traditionalists can become cut off from the life of their local parishes, too, because they often must travel to specially designated churches on Sundays in order to hear the Tridentine liturgy.
This situation is not in keeping with Benedict’s hopes for SP, in which he stresses that the two “forms” of the Roman Rite must co-exist as equally valid expressions of the Lex orandi that “will in no way lead to a division in the Church’s Lex credendi” (SP Art. 1). But, in practice, this is not so. The Traditionalists are outside the common experience of modern Catholic life, and the average Mass-going Catholic hasn’t a clue about the traditional Mass or the radical departure from the age-old worship of the Church occasioned by the Novus Ordo and the way it is typically celebrated in many parishes. The divide is rarely noticed, but it is serious, for it is contrary to the very nature of the Church, the first mark of which is its “oneness”—Ecclesia una est.