Let's Move Forward to Embrace Tradition and Beauty

Young Traditional Catholics Do Not Want to Reverse Liturgical Reform But Move Forward

P. Villanueva, ‘Mass in St. John Lateran in Rome’, early 20th century
P. Villanueva, ‘Mass in St. John Lateran in Rome’, early 20th century (photo: Register Files)

As one raised going to the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite who now attends the Extraordinary Form every Sunday, I wanted to respond to Pope Francis’s recent statement about the liturgical reform that happened after Vatican II. He seemed to be addressing Traditionalist Catholics who would like to reverse the changes that occurred to the liturgies of the Roman Rite after Vatican II in a speech in Italy this week to participants in their National Liturgical Week. He said,

"After this magisterium, after this long journey, we can affirm with certainty and magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.” (from the Catholic News Service)

But those who have come to love the EF (Traditional Latin Mass) after being raised going to the Ordinary Form of the Latin Rite (Novus Ordo) know that we cannot—we have come too far. The reforms of the council have become part of the very life and heartbeat of the Church. Liturgy is vibrant, living worship of God—it has always been changing and always will until the end of the ages. The liturgy we have is different than it was in AD 100. It was different in AD 500. It developed all the way up to the Council Trent in the 1500s, when in response to the Protestant Reformation, the Church sought to stabilize our liturgy for a time. That is what the Church needed—clear direction in response to the various Christian sects that were breaking from the Roman Church.

Then the Holy Spirit moved the Church again. Small reforms were made again and again in the centuries following, and then as a result of the Vatican II document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Traditional Latin Mass was stripped to its barest bones—much of the beauty was taken out, and we were given what is now known as the Ordinary Form of the Latin Rite or the Novus Ordo. Ever since then small reforms have been made to the liturgy. The new English translation of the Third Edition of the New Roman Missal from 2002 that rocked the American Church in 2011, is one example of the changes of liturgical practice.

In the enthusiasm for liturgical reform new practices were quickly introduced across the world that the document Sacrosanctum Concilium made no mention of. Sure, there were some Council Fathers that hoped for these changes, but not all agreed with them. Those who loved the due reverence shown by ad orientem Masses with all the people and the priest facing the central tabernacle, communion on the tongue at the people’s table of the altar rail, Gregorian chant (with the document specifically promoted), and even the practice of women covering their heads at Mass (as directed by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11) saw that the Vatican II document did not do away with these. It was merely those with louder voices that cast these traditions aside in most parishes.

Yet, there are some places that these traditions never ceased; such as at my parish in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Church of St. Agnes, were the pastor at the time, Monsignor Richard Schuler read the documents and implemented the Novus Ordo in line with the liturgical practices that had been handed down through the Church for centuries. He followed the rubrics of the OF, which imply that the priest is celebrating Mass ad orientem not versus populum. He kept the altar rail, the physical place where the people can make internal offerings of their lives while they wait to receive communion, intact and in use. He promoted traditional liturgical music in which we worship God with a deep inner prayer. At our parish we have not sought to “reverse” the liturgical reforms and neither do we have to since we had never cast aside the traditions. We have simply held onto the beauty of the practices passed down to us while accepting the liturgical changes made. In addition to the OF Masses offered, we have a well-attended Low EF Mass every Sunday as well.

Yet, most of the Catholic Church has been reeling ever since the introduction of the New Mass, and it seems to me that the waves from the rocks thrown into the water are settling down, and the things worth having are floating back to the surface. A lot of younger Catholics, raised since the 80s are fishing out of the water the beautiful things left to sink to the bottom. So, I say, let us not reverse what has been done, let us move forward.

The pope gave three keys in his speech to having a “living” liturgy. These were to have a focus on the lively presence of Him who ‘dying has destroyed our death, and by rising, restored our life,” to be not clerically focused but “an action for the people, but also by the people,” and to transform one’s life—it should bring us into relationship to God. The pope said that, “There’s a big difference between hearing that God exists, and feeling that he loves us, just as we are, here and now.” (quotations from Crux).

These points Pope Francis made are important and can be fully practiced in the OF and the EF. It is not weak human beings that can make a “living” liturgy, but the action of the Holy Spirit—and by simply gathering in Christ’s name, he has promised to be there (Mt 18:20). Christ makes himself lively and present, we can call upon him to help us at whatever form of liturgy is celebrated. Even at the barest bones liturgy when the priest’s heart is not in it—if he says the right words of consecration, Christ is there. In my experience, each individual at Mass has to choose to focus on the lively presence of God—it cannot be forced. And more often than not a quiet, simple liturgy is much more conducive to prayer and worship than one interrupted by much chatter. Yet, no matter what the liturgy is like, it is up to each individual member of the faithful to enter fully into the Mass.

The pope said that the liturgy should be an action “for the people” and “by the people.” The practice of the priest leading us in prayer with us all facing the same way towards a crucifix (ad orientem), facing reverently Jesus’ Real Presence in the tabernacle, is much more suited to a mass “for the people” than one in which the priest speaks facing the laity (versus populum). When done this way, the priest is no longer the center of attention. He does not have to “perform”, but can simply enter into the person of Christ that he is for the Church at that moment. He is able to allow the liturgy to no be about himself front and center at Mass, but face his Lord and act as Christ at the Last Supper for the people. The people at this time must actively participate by bringing our own internal offerings to the sacrifice—uniting our sufferings and joys and bringing sorrow for our sins which are the very cause of Christ’s death and resurrection. The liturgy should facilitate this internal participation to match the actions on the altar as we all worship Our Lord as a united body.

When we are all able to pray in this way, then our lives are transformed, as the pope says that liturgy should aid in. The liturgy makes us one with Christ. And when we are able to worthily receive him, his grace pours into our lives. These things are not incompatible with the liturgical traditions of the Church. The reform attempted to bring the people back into participation in the liturgy, but the loss of beauty and reverence has made it even harder to enter into the true meaning of the Sacrifice of the Mass. But as liturgy is living and always changing, we need not go back, but move forward.

We have to remember what liturgy is for, first and foremost, and that is to give due worship to God. And since we do not know how to love him as we ought, he gave us a liturgy to be handed down. It is the place of the Church to figure out how to best love and serve God at each Mass when his Sacrifice is made present on the altar. This is difficult to know, so it is helpful to have traditions passed down that have withstood the test of time to know how to best honor God. The very fact that liturgical actions that were widely suppressed with the introduction of the New Mass are returning at the request of the faithful shows that the liturgy is developing. Fifty years is not very long in the life of the church—not long enough to change tradition. If parts of the faithful want to continue traditions, then let’s stop trying to reverse back to the immediate aftermath of Vatican II or the way the Church was directly before the council but move forward together embracing the traditions and beauty that we have never lost.