A new look at the old Mass
By Reverend Kenneth Myers
The silence of the traditional Mass affects our whole week as well. It provides the basis for what is called the “interior life.” This is a heartfelt communication with God in faith and love. Silence draws us into a spirit of prayer and adoration which teaches us how to pray, how to offer a genuine preparation for Holy Communion and a thanksgiving that extends for days, and makes us long for Eucharistic adoration, since the Word of God himself dwells in the Blessed Sacrament in silence. May I venture to say that the traditional rite of Mass is very attuned to the needs of modern men and women because its long periods of silence are great blessings in our noisy and profane world. We may truly say they are “Heaven-sent.”
A careful look at the rubrics for the Mass of Pope Paul VI reveals an interesting fact:it was designed to continue the practice of the priest facing the altar during the Offertory and Canon of the Mass. Look at the “Pray, brethren” and the “This is the Lamb of God,” in your altar missal. The priest is directed to turn towards the people. It was only bishops’ conferences and liturgists who promoted-and enforced-the notion that Mass HAD to be offered facing the people. In doing so the continuous liturgical tradition of the Church was cast aside so that the priest could no longer face the east (ad orientem) in celebrating the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Whatever the motives of those who imposed this new practice on priests and faithful, one may readily see the results: the notion that the Mass is only a meal shared between the priest and the people on an altar now become a table, the idea that the priest is a liturgical choreographer for extraordinary ministers and lectors, the promotion of the priest as the “star” of the show. It is my opinion that the practice of the celebrant facing the people has turned the appearance of the Mass in peoples’ minds from being Christ’s Sacrifice to merely our banquet. When the celebrant can maintain his posture of facing east with the people he stands as a leader and pastor awaiting the coming of the Lord. When the celebrant is forced to face the people, emphasis is laid on him and his personal qualities-or lack of-them and not on the Lord. A young priest friend of mine related the story that when he was visiting a parish in the western United States, a large mirror had been erected in front of the altar so that the people could see themselves during Mass. It is the difference between a God-centered and a man-centered liturgy.
In his book, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy, Msgr. Klaus Gamber offers a thorough and compelling argument for the maintenance of the tradition of the altar facing the Lord, with priest and people standing before it. This book is a fine introduction to an understanding of the Traditional Latin Mass.
But the issue of the priest’s posture at the altar in the traditional Mass says as much about the priesthood itself as it does about the Mass. And this is part of the genius of the traditional rite of Mass:it teaches with great clarity the truth of the priest as a representative of the Lord, a shepherd to his people, a manly leader whom others can trust to lead them to Christ, a mediator in Christ who offers and perpetuates the Sacrifice of our redemption. All of these truths are observable at the traditional Mass. I see firsthand every time I offer this rite of Mass the impact it has on the altar boys. Surely this is the very reason why so many Latin Mass communities across the country are producing numerous vocations to the priesthood. We have five young men from our community in seminaries right now and a number more have expressed their interest in the priesthood. Look at how many seminarians the traditional communities like the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and the Institute of Christ the King have. It is not at all uncommon for a small Latin Mass community to have more candidates for the priesthood than any other parish in the diocese.
There are numerous acts of reverence that are shown to the priest in the course of the traditional rite of Mass which are never to be mistaken as being directed to the man himself, but to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. The Traditional Latin Mass speaks eloquently of what the holy priesthood truly is. It identifies the priest with Christ, and, I might add, makes it very clear to the priest celebrant that he is present at Mass as another Christ. There is no confusing the role of the priest at the traditional Mass with the idea of him being a liturgical choreographer.
Another common criticism of the Traditional Latin Mass is what some refer to as its “redundancies.” For example, at the beginning of the traditional rite of Mass the priest says the Confiteor and then the altar boys repeat it. And, in some locales, the Confiteor is even repeated yet again prior to Holy Communion. The priest prays frequently throughout the Mass for the forgiveness of his sins and he acknowledges the unworthiness of his ministry. At other times he says two or even three prayers in preparation for Holy Communion and in thanksgiving afterward. The priest is incensed multiple times in the course of the Mass. Another criticism, similar to this one,is the notion that some of the prayers “anticipate” what is really yet to come, the most obvious example of this being the Offertory Prayers, which refer to the offerings of bread and wine as if the Consecration has already taken place. The Offertory of the traditional rite is sometimes criticized as being a “mini-Canon.” The problem with these criticisms is that the traditional Mass is not and was never intended to be a perfectly organized, sleek liturgy put together by a committee. Rather, the rite of Mass as it was handed down to us over many, many centuries is a collection of rites and prayers precious to generation after generation. And it is all assembled in a manner so true to human life. We do repeat things again and again. We look back to where we started before we go further and sometimes it almost seems we even start over again at the beginning. Other times we look forward to events with such a sense of anticipation that we almost act as if they have already come to pass. The truth is that the psychology of the Traditional Latin Mass really matches human psychology much better than a rite that was developed in committee.
Yet another complaint lodged against the Traditional Latin Mass is its dearth of Scripture texts in comparison with the new rite. I have been celebrating the ancient rite of Mass for fourteen years now so I have some experience with its lectionary and Scripture passages. The desire of the Vatican II decree on the Liturgy concerning the broader use of Bible texts could easily have been fulfilled without disrupting the lectionary that was already in use for many centuries. Additions can be made without destroying the past. (I think that the criticism about the amount of scriptural texts is a facile and misleading criticism for a few reasons: 1. the one-year cycle so perfectly attuned to the rich calendar of saints’ feasts provides a regular touchstone with the scriptures that becomes part of one’s soul; 2. the Mass is not intended to be a didactic moment– even the readings are directed to the worship of God and not, in the first place, to our academic study; and 3. the readings that are included are more relevant and meaningful than the new rite. After all, what connection is there to the reading from Leviticus and the year A, cycle B Wednesday of the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary time? None, unless it is accidental.) And it is a fair enough observation to point out that the vast array of Scripture texts in use in the new rite of Mass can even overwhelm the faithful who may be “scripturally challenged.” One thinks of the Old Testament passage where a father vows to offer a sacrifice to God of the first person he sees-who turns out to be his daughter-and he keeps his vow. A homily at that Mass can never very well ignore an explanation of this passage leaving no opportunity to explain anything else. I must say that I have never experienced an inability to find worthy topics of preaching in the traditional Mass lectionary. It provides ample opportunity to preach about the teachings of the Faith, as well as to simply provide a homily.
In fact, my understanding of Scripture and delving into its meaning has never been as keen as it has become through studying the Scripture texts of the Traditional Latin Mass. I might add that the traditional Mass provides a wealth of passages from the Bible in its Introit, Offertory, and Communion antiphons, as well as its Tracts, Graduals, and Alleluias. These deserve study and prayerful reflection and are almost entirely missing from the new rite of Mass.
We should examine the one notion that is really at the heart of the criticism of the Traditional Latin Mass: namely, those who are devoted to it stand in opposition to the new liturgy and reject Vatican Council II. It is so easy to make this charge and, unfortunately, one can find plenty of evidence to defend the idea. There are groups and publications by the score who attack the Pope and bishops with a relish and virulence that is hard to believe. I have seen cartoons published by these groups that would rival the Know-Nothings’ cartoons of the nineteenth century in virulent anti-Catholicism. Some claim that the Pope is a heretic and the see of Peter has been vacant since John XXIII. Others have an obsession with Opus Dei and rejected John Paul when he canonized St. Josemaria. Still others will try to bait their priests and bishops – the very ones who provide them with the traditional Mass – waiting for mistakes or shortcomings they can turn against the clergy with venom. Believe me, I could fill an entire article with experiences I’ve had trying to deal with individuals such as these, people who are certain every word that comes out of my mouth is a lie and every action is destined to overturn traditional Catholicism. Indeed, people of this mentality will often refer to themselves as “Traditionalists” instead of traditional Catholics. Like heretics and schismatics of years gone by, they take one article of the Faith, magnify it out of all context with the rest of the Faith, create grand conspiracies in their minds, and set themselves up as a new magisterium. But let’s not pretend that such people as these represent all of us who are devoted to the traditional rite of Mass. Let’s not use this as an excuse to condemn everyone who loves the old Mass. Everyone who is attached to the traditional Mass is not a member of some wacky schismatic group.
Permit me to speak of my own experience as a parish priest permitted by my bishop to offer this rite of Mass and serve a community of over 800 people who are devoted to the Traditional Latin Mass. We are Catholics who love the Faith and seek to pass it on to future generations. Our families are large (with seven and even more children). Most of our members are younger than 50 and we have many college students and young professionals who are rediscovering Catholic faith and tradition. We love the Pope, we are grateful to our bishop, and the people show a constant and tender affection for their priest. Since we aren’t allowed to have the traditional Mass most weekdays, those who go to daily Mass attend the new rite but would rather that we have our own Mass every day. We are referred to as the “Latin Community” and the other parishioners who attend the new rite of Mass are called the “regular parishioners.” On the diocesan flow chart we are set at the very end of all diocesan organizations and groups, with the ethnic communities. We have to “set up” and “tear down” before and after each Mass (and that causes numerous servers and sacristans to be scrambling all over the sanctuary while the people are trying to pray). We are treated as second-class citizens even though we provide a very generous financial basis to the parish-to the point that it could not continue to exist without us. This is the story of countless Latin Mass communities all over the country.
I don’t think faithful and obedient Catholics – and that is what we are – deserve to be treated like this. The fact that our people are coming to Mass in a church which is in communion with the local bishop seems to be ignored. If we weren’t concerned about that we could all go elsewhere. The people who come to this church for the Traditional Latin Mass are doing so not only for the sake of the Mass but also because they value being in communion with the bishop, and through him, with the Pope. In the diocese neighboring us a group of people anxious to have the traditional Mass available to them approached their bishop, along with three priests of that diocese, and together these people and priests asked the bishop for permission to have the old Mass. He refused, saying there aren’t enough priests (three were sitting in front of him)and that there are no seminarians coming along to provide more priests for the future (many Latin Mass communities have several seminarians). As a result of this bishop’s unwillingness to offer pastoral care to these people, three illicit communities have formed in his diocese where the traditional Mass is provided by “independent” priests. Whose fault is that?
Some people reading this article may make the accusation that traditional-minded Catholics are attacking the new rite of Mass. I tried for the longest time never to say anything negative about the Mass of Pope Paul VI. In fact, I offer it almost every day because I can-not offer the traditional Mass. I never doubt its validity and I always offer it with as much devotion as I can muster. However, I am not blind. I can make comparisons between the new and the old, and I can see the theological and spiritual shortcomings of the new rite: it’s failure to express the fullness of Catholic Faith about the Eucharist and the priesthood, its inability to raise up heart and mind from the profane to the supernatural, its confusion on the role of the priest, and its unfaithful and banal translations of the original Latin text. How do we hold on to what we believe in without making these negative comparisons? It is a difficult task.
The disturbances of the Faith during the decades after the Second Vatican Council have produced a sorrow words cannot describe in the hearts of many people, both lay and clerical. There is a sorrow and dismay that things are not what we hoped they would be and, in fact, those we trusted to make them right have often neglected their own responsibility. I was ordained in 1980 and found myself sorely disappointed by developments in the Church over the next years. Finally,in 1992, I was first permitted to offer the traditional Mass, and then in 2001 I became the third chaplain of our Latin Mass community. Discovering the traditional Mass, not just as a liturgical artifact of ages gone by, but as a real and lived celebration of the Eucharist offered by me and attended with faith by hundreds of devout Catholics, has renewed my spirit of priestly ministry many times over. I believe it is wise to point out that none of what I have written here is based on a spirit of “nostalgia.” That charge has all too often been made about those who are devoted to the traditional Mass. We aren’t looking for a rosy refuge from a world and a Church which are not the way they used to be in our childhood. We’re looking for real and powerful Catholic Faith and we want to express that Faith in full continuity with the centuries past. It’s not about what we think we remember the Faith was like in 1950, it’s about what the Faith has been in every century.
There are many letters I receive from parishioners explaining their love of the Traditional Latin Mass. One from parents of a First Communion student says how much their little girl loves the old rite of Mass: “Helen has been affected to an extraordinary degree by the Latin Mass . . . We see a marked increase in her fervor – and in ours, for that matter – from this Mass. She is praying intently for a daily Mass.” When the controversy was swirling about “The DaVinci Code,” this little girl said forthrightly, “I love our Lord Jesus Christ and I reject The DaVinci Code!” Here is a letter from a young woman I received into the Church, the child of fallen-away Catholics. She speaks of her first traditional Mass: “When Mass began, I was in such awe . . . Without a complete understanding of what I was witnessing, I could tell there was something very different at the Latin Mass. It was something that I had never experienced before. I could feel there was a truth and deep, holy tradition in this Mass. It was the day that I felt this is where I belong . . . I opened my heart to God and He returned His love to me. I have never felt such peace before in my life. God is good, God is merciful. I am very excited to begin raising our family in the Traditional Latin Mass!”
And just one more letter from a young man who will be married this September: “The Latin Mass, more than any other Mass, has challenged me to go deeper into the Catholic Faith. The solemnness of the Mass, with nothing to distract the mind,focused my mind and heart on the amazing reality of Christ present in the Eucharist. The holiness of the other parishioners challenged me to greater holiness in my own life . . . The historical continuity with the Church through the centuries that the Latin Mass reflects gives me a greater appreciation for the splendor and majesty of Christ’s Body here on earth.”
One of our members is even the first cousin of Madonna. He told me that he discovered the Traditional Mass by accident at a time in his life when he was desperate. One Sunday he discovered the Mass in a church as he walked down the street. He never knew that something so beautiful existed, he told me. He fell on his knees in the back of the church and was converted to a deep faith on the spot. Such accounts as these could go on for some time. These are ordinary Catholics, too young to remember the pre-conciliar days, men and women who have no agenda other than to seek Christ: to know him,love him, and serve him. They aren’t motivated by nostalgia. They simply want to find the Lord and are overwhelmed as they discover, perhaps for the first time, the Traditional Latin Mass.
Recently, a young priest from another diocese told me that a bishop insisted to him that the traditional Mass is “divisive.” It seems clear to me that when we hear statements made like this, we are in fact observing the blind refusal of Church bureaucrats to admit that the so-called liturgical renewal of the last forty years has been a dismal failure. There may indeed be more people running around in the sanctuary but there are far fewer people in the pews-and far fewer priests. Forty years of unremitting liturgical abuses, weak and unconcerned bishops, and the production of a man-centered liturgy, have wreaked destruction on the faith of several generations of Catholic lay people-and priests. Yet those in positions to do something about this rarely voice any misgiving. It’s as if we dare not admit the colossal mistakes we have made. In truth, the emperor is wearing no clothes. Perhaps this is an example of what C. S. Lewis called, “chronological snobbery,” the idea that everything new is great and everything old is awful.
The recent controversy about the possibility of a “universal indult” for the Traditional Latin Mass and a reconciliation of the Society of St. Pius X with Rome, along with the liturgical battles being fought by the American bishops over a proposed new-and somewhat more faithful-translation of the new rite of Mass, reveal the pressing need we have in the Church today to move forward with genuine renewal. The premise that renewal and reform are to be found in changing rituals and externals of our common worship from centuries and centuries past is a profound error. True renewal must be interior: the human heart must be changed so that faithful Catholics may be open to a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ. Recent circumstances in the life of the Church, thanks to Pope Benedict XVI,have put the liturgical questions I deal with in this article on the front burner. It is time for a genuine renewal of faith, a heartfelt return to the fullness of the Catholic Faith, and a complete understanding of the sacramental priesthood. These, and much, much more, are all found in the Traditional Latin Mass.
You can view Father Myers 4marks Folio at: http://www.4marks.com/FrKennethMyers
Reverend Kenneth Myers was ordained for the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1980. He earned a master’s degree in theology from Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, New York, and a master’s in education from Duquesne University. In 1992 he began to celebrate the traditional rite of Mass and in 2001 he was appointed chaplain of the Pittsburgh Latin Mass Community, the largest diocesan Latin Mass community in the United States.