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.

Therefore, building upon the gift of SP, Traditionalism should now seek greater integration of those attached to the traditional Mass into ordinary parish life. The way to do so is obvious, yet fraught: to bring the traditional Mass into the regular practice of as many parishes as possible, particularly on Sundays. Indeed, SP expressly allows “one” celebration of the traditional Mass on a Sunday or feast day in a local church (SP Art. 5, Sec.2).

Now, again, working within the framework erected by SP, this spread of the traditional Mass into the usual roster of masses in a typical parish would have to commence with the laity—the “stable group of Faithful” desirous of such a Mass. In order to encourage the creation of such groups, we should enlist the aid of the many diocesan-level and regional Latin Mass organizations that have already successfully sponsored traditional Masses at designated locations. These groups could solicit interest in, and assist with, the creation of parish-level arms designed to make the request for the traditional Mass mandated by SP.

These parish-based groups would have a special care for the traditional Mass. They would offer a tremendous opportunity to connect families and young people with parish life. Boys and young men would be trained as servers; girls and young women could have a unique role through a sodality type of organization that could process on special occasions and offer other forms of assistance at the Mass. These groups could also provide catechesis to children who often have close to zero liturgical formation and ongoing education to adults in the history and nature of our sacred rites. The parish choir would gain the chance to learn the Church’s venerable and beautiful settings and hymns. If utilized properly, these groups would be a boon to the vitality of any parish.

And while the impetus may belong to the laity, greater integration of the Extraordinary Form into ordinary parish life cannot be accomplished without the support and participation of the clergy, especially the bishops. It is the bishops who must honor the intent and legacy of Benedict by promoting the co-existence of the “two forms” and who can see to it that no priest or laymen need tremble at the thought of a regular, public celebration of the ancient rite.

And it is the bishops who can ensure that there are many priests trained in the traditional Mass, dispensing with the myth that the Tridentine Rite is exceedingly complex (it is not) or that it cannot be used because of lack of knowledge of the Latin language (all priests should have basic Latin regardless and my eight-year-old altar boy son can recite from memory the responses; surely adults can handle it).

Of course, we cannot force the clergy to go along, and there will be no assistance in this project from Rome for the foreseeable future. (Cardinal Sarah, ubi es?) Yet, if the dedicated efforts of Traditionalists were aimed at the parish level, through prayer and penance, we might hope that the parish priests and the bishops would, parish by parish (to paraphrase the estimable Father Zuhlsdorf), come to see the flowering of the Faith the traditional Mass will occasion along with the “enrichment” it offers to the Novus Ordo Masses.

The welfare of the traditional Mass may not merit as much concern as immigration reform and environmentalism, but perhaps the bishops will take note of a broader effort to spread its usage into mainstream Catholic life that enhances and revitalizes their parish churches.

The renewal of Church life—the New Evangelization—can be greatly advanced by the success of Traditionalist efforts. We have made much progress from the sad days of the 1970s and 1980s, thanks be to God, and SP has allowed for a real re-birth of the Church’s ancient and living tradition of the sacred worship of Jesus Christ. These efforts, however, must not stagnate or become stale and contained, regardless of whether they are out of season at the Vatican. The traditional Mass is the patrimony of every baptized person. They have a right to know it and to participate in it (actively of course) for their own spiritual welfare and that of the whole Church.

Christian Browne

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Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004.

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