The Beauty of the Extraordinary Form Comes from Tradition

These two forms of the Roman rite, even if one is richer with tradition, are both part of the tradition now, and I would not have either of them done away with.

Master of Saint Giles, “The Mass of Saint Giles,” ca. 1500
Master of Saint Giles, “The Mass of Saint Giles,” ca. 1500 (photo: Public Domain)

It was recently brought to my attention that Fr. Daniel P. Horan responded to aspects of my blog post from November concerning millennial aged Catholics who consider themselves to be “Modern Traditionalists.” I would like to respond first, to how I was misrepresented in his article, and secondly, explain what I mean by the word “tradition.”

In his article, which seems at first to be about the abuse crisis in the Church, Fr. Horan suggested that I am among the Catholics who blame it on the theological and liturgical reforms that came out of the Second Vatican Council. This group holds that Latin, chant, and having the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite common again will solve the crisis. I believe that there are people who think that, but, I, however am not one of them, especially since this kind of abuse was happening before Vatican II.

I personally hold that this crisis needs to be solved by the Church being completely honest about what happened and by all clergy making weekly Holy Hours of reparation and coming to know the merciful love of the Sacred Heart. (For further details see the book by a Benedictine Monk, In Sinu Jesu.) The laity can help in this process by praying fervently and loving the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus. If we all actually do this, repenting of our sins in the Sacrament of Penance and are truly open to grace—which I know is a farfetched hope that all will do this, but then with God all things are possible—then our Church and the victims could be completely healed. Granted, there are appropriate disciplinary actions that would need to take place as well, but an increase in love of God is so, so important for this to happen.

Now I come to my second point. Fr. Horan was quite disturbed when I described the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (also called the Tridentine or Traditional Latin Mass), as “more beautiful and profound.” However, I believe in objective beauty and truly hold that the Extraordinary Form is objectively more beautiful than the Ordinary Form. Granted one could celebrate the OF in a very beautiful way or one could hurry through an EF without reverence. One just has to read the texts of the EF to see that the richness of the prayers as developed through tradition provide a depth and beauty that worship God in much more moving and profound way.

That brings me to what I mean by tradition, which is an organic, slow, Holy Spirit guided development, not a sudden insertion or radical change in the flow. This understanding comes from St. Paul as he wrote, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received,” (1 Corinthians 15:3) and, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15) Tradition contains the practices and rites passed down from one generation to the next, any changes slowly and carefully considered, all the while guided by the Holy Spirit, whom Christ promised to the Church.

The beauty of tradition is that it does not cast out the years between the early Church and now, but trusts that the Holy Spirit has guided the Church as we have grown in understanding of doctrine and developed our liturgical rites. Soon to be canonized, Blessed John Henry Newman describes the development of tradition in this way: “A true development, then, may be described as one which is conservative of the course of antecedent developments being really those antecedents and something besides them: it is an addition which illustrates, not obscures, corroborates, not corrects, the body of thought from which it proceeds” (Development of Christian Doctrine, Pt. II, Ch. V.6).

The Mass we had after the 16th-century Council of Trent, now called the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, was a standardization of what had been passed down before in order to protect people from the errors of the Protestant reformers. The development of this liturgy developed up to and through the 16th century followed from organic development. For example, in the early centuries one church community started praying the litany of the Kyrie at the beginning of Mass, and then this practice spread to other communities to the point that the pope decreed that it should be done everywhere. These and other practices developed slowly over time giving us evidence that the Church was guided by the Holy Spirit, and they were handed down to us in one beautiful liturgy touched by every century from Christ to the present.

This is not what Fr. Horan means when he talks about tradition, as is clear when he explains, “It was the bishops and their periti at Vatican II that went back to the earliest Christian sources and examined the historical development of rites and rituals through the centuries in order to offer the best footing for what we might rightly call the most ‘traditional’ approach to liturgy.” I agree that it is admirable to go back and study the ancient earliest liturgies, but that is not traditional—which requires maturation and development over centuries. This idea seems to be instead a kind of archeologism, the idea that the ancient practices are better and purer than those we were given through the development of the liturgy over nearly two millennia.

Pope Pius XII warned against archeologism in Mediator Dei:

The Church is without question a living organism, and as an organism, in respect of the sacred liturgy also, she grows, matures, develops, adapts and accommodates herself to temporal needs and circumstances, provided only that the integrity of her doctrine be safeguarded. This notwithstanding, the temerity and daring of those who introduce novel liturgical practices, or call for the revival of obsolete rites out of harmony with prevailing laws and rubrics, deserve severe reproof.” (MD, 59)

The hurried constructing of the texts of the New Roman Missal, as described by Fr. Louis Bouyer, a priest who was on the reform committee, in his Memoirs, did much to depart from the long, slow formation of the liturgy. Many of the changes were based on the personal preference of the individual reformer and sought to simply place in and glorify of the most ancient liturgical texts while stripping down of the liturgy the Church had received from over 1,900 years of development (The Memoirs of Louis Bouyer, p.220-222). As a result, the Ordinary Form is not nearly as rich and beautiful as even the silent Low Mass of the Extraordinary Form.

That being said, Fr. Horan does not clearly understand the nature of tradition when he says that the Ordinary Form “is traditional in that it better reflects the Christian tradition.” It cannot be more traditional since the reformers that constructed it cast out much of what had matured in the liturgy in intervening years for the sake of prayers from an earlier time.

However, as a modern traditionalist I cannot deny that when I look at what has been passed down to me, I see nearly 60 years of the Ordinary Form coexisting with the Extraordinary Form, for, as Pope Benedict XVI said in his letter to the bishops on the event of the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, the EF was never abrogated. It has remained a valid liturgy; it is part of what has been handed down to my generation. As I wrote over a year ago: 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. These two forms of the Roman rite, even if one is richer with tradition, are both part of the tradition now, and I would not have either of them done away with.

I agree with Fr. Horan that we should look forward while being guided by the Holy Spirit. We can do this liturgically by allowing both forms of the Roman rite to inform each other and make careful, deliberate changes when we have a good reason to do so. But most of all we should open ourselves up in prayer seeking the aid of the Holy Spirit and growing close to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. We do not make the Church great. God does.