Worship Worthy of God

July 7 is the tenth anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, a decree that allows priests to celebrate the form of the liturgy of the Mass before it was reformed in 1970. For most Catholics, this will likely fall into the category of ecclesiastical arcana, and pass unnoticed. Yet this same decree’s widespread obscurity—enacted primarily to insure “worship worthy of God” throughout the Church—implicitly shows that Catholic liturgy following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) did undergo significant changes, some marking a departure from centuries of tradition. Successful revolutions, after all, usually involve a loss of memory before the year zero, the inauguration of a new era.

It’s hard today for many Catholics to imagine a Mass spoken in Latin, or chanted in Gregorian chant, with the priest facing liturgical east, because so many Catholics now worship with a different orientation than before the reforms of Paul VI, the pope who brought Vatican II to a close, and implemented the liturgical innovations he felt necessary to bring the Church more in tune with the modern world.

Yet Benedict’s decree has taken root. In the late 1970s, there were, in the United States, less than a dozen communities celebrating the old rite, usually without canonical recognition by a local bishop. Today, there are over 400 parishes (admittedly a small fraction of the total number) that regularly offer the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, as Pope Benedict called it in 2007. This growth is significant for a number of reasons.

One reason is the old rite is suffused with a sense of the sacred. Part of this involves the amount of silence woven into the old Mass. Those who have tasted this sacred silence don’t easily forget it. Many unknowingly yearn for it. Last week at my parish, for instance, I noticed after Communion many in the pews—parents, grandparents, some singles—virtually trying to wrap themselves in silence, with hands to their faces, seemingly saddened, as if they could not reach further into the mysterious embrace to which they had been called. I think I know what they were missing, though I dare not speak for them. I only say, look at this ancient Mass, see what has been taken away from you, perhaps even before you were born.

I realize that when the Extraordinary Form was simply the Roman rite, it wasn’t paradise in every parish in the Catholic Church. There was, after all, the “Here comes everybody” reality, which is how it should be: Christ died for everyone, not simply those sensitive to aesthetic values. But the ancient form of the Mass should hardly be considered only for those with so-called highbrow tastes, for the benefit this liturgy brings is for everyone.

In his recent book, The Power of Silence, Cardinal Robert Sarah put his finger on the fevered pulse of our contemporary culture: “The tragedy of our world is never better summed up than in the fury of senseless noise that stubbornly hates silence. This age detests the things that silence brings us to: encounter, wonder and kneeling before God.” Having in many places lost this sacredness of the liturgy, is it any surprise that, as Cardinal Sarah notes, we see a world increasingly incapable of wonder, of silent awe in the presence of God?

Aidan Nichols, in his Looking at Liturgy, in 1996, explains how a desire to increase the understanding and participation of the laity in the Mass did so on faulty sociological theories. Citing Dominican liturgiologist Irenee-Henri Dalmais, Nichols shows that, contrary to many of the Fathers of Vatican II’s experts, liturgy “belongs in the order of doing (ergon), not of knowing (logos). Logical thought cannot get far with it; liturgical actions yield their intelligibility in their performance, and this performance takes place at the level of sensible realities … capable of awakening the mind and heart to acceptance of realities belonging to a different order.” The theme of noble simplicity, one of the principle axioms of Vatican II’s liturgical reforms, in this light appears somewhat naïve, excluding as it does methods of perception proper to the human person that are wider than Enlightenment epistemology can obtain or even account for.

Additionally, the new form of the Mass today in the vernacular instead of Latin robs Catholics of a universal language of worship as our global village grows smaller. Marked by numerous options, the new Mass also includes opportunities for ad hoc remarks or emphasis by the celebrant (see George Weigel’s “It’s Howdy Dowdy Time!” at First Things for a recent example), standing in stark contrast to the older rite, with its self-effacing demands that the personality of the celebrant yields to the larger sanctity of the Mass itself. Is it any wonder that many Catholics today succumb to emotionalism or sentimentality when it comes to addressing moral issues when our Novus Ordo liturgies are often marked by the same ethos?

In other words, the new rite shows all the marks of the 1970s, while the older rite is rich in the silence of slow time, or, as in a sung Mass, the otherworldly harmonies of Gregorian chant, now a rarity in many parishes that use only the reformed Mass. Which is not to say they are incompatible. Benedict XVI wished each could strengthen the other in a complementary manner. Justice Scalia’s funeral Mass last year, for instance, was a widely-noted model of this, with its Gregorian chanting in Latin of antiphons rich with sacred solemnity.

So the Mass that inspired Dante, Bocaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Fra Angelico, Bernini, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Rubens, Titian, Vazquez, da Vinci, Cezanne, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Waugh, Tolkien, and others too numerous to name, thanks to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, has been on something of a comeback in the last decade. Yet there are bishops who are hostile to the ancient liturgy, as if it is somehow inappropriate for our ever advancing post-modernity.

Nevertheless, given the old rite’s disproportionate shaping of culture and art for more than 1000 years, its demonstrable beauty, and power to nurture souls in tune with natural and supernatural gifts, it is still too rarely known in parishes. This is tragic, and a betrayal of the deepest sources of Catholic life and sanity. As we have learned to our regret, W.B. Yeats was profoundly right in asking, “How, but in custom and ceremony / Are innocence and beauty born?”

Editor’s note: The image above depicts the Summorum Pontificum Pilgrimage Mass with Cardinal Raymond Burke center in Rome on October 25, 2014. (Photo credit: Daniel Ibanez / CNA.)

Michael J. Ortiz

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Michael J. Ortiz is the author of Swan Town: the Secret Journal of Susanna Shakespeare (HarperCollins 2006), and, most recently, Like the First Morning: The Morning offering as Daily Renewal (Ave Maria Press, 2015). He teaches English and Religion at The Heights School, in Potomac, Maryland.

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