"Hello. My name is Steve, and I’m a ‘traditional’ Catholic."
So begins my admission of membership in a disparate group that, as you’ve already read, is far too well known for its bitterness, anger, and lack of evangelical spirit. I don’t like being typecast in this way. Just because I have a profound love and respect for — and even a belief in the superiority of — older liturgical and sacramental forms does not mean that I am an unreasonable malcontent oozing acid from every pore. I am first and foremost a Catholic, and I detest even needing to wear a label to distinguish myself. Unfortunately, I must, for it is still an uncommon thing among Catholics to venerate many of the traditions that I hold dear.
I’ll be honest: There was a time when I was an "angry trad," when I lashed out at others as I clawed for a spiritual inheritance I felt was stolen from me. While this is probably a natural reaction, I now know it gained me nothing. There is no value in promoting the beauty of something when one’s conduct in so doing is itself repulsive.
So why, then, are traditional Catholics so angry?
In his homily on October 21, 2007, the first time his parish would celebrate Mass in the Extraordinary Form following the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum, Rev. Franklyn McAfee, pastor of St. John the Beloved in McClean, Virginia, offered an insight:
What flowed from the promised renewal of the Mass in the late 60s was something entirely new. The American Theologian Avery Cardinal Dulles has pointed out that the new rite of the Mass violated every norm for liturgical renewal prescribed by Vatican II. He said it was the only Mass in history that was put together by a committee. As a result . . . many people stopped going to Mass. Some even left the Church. My parents were shaken but they did not abandon the Church. But my older sister did. In the 50s, more than 80 percent of parishioners attended Mass in their parish church. Today it is far less than 30 percent.
It is not my purpose here to prove causality, but the fact that the change in the liturgy of the Roman Rite and the exodus of Catholics from the Church coincide is hard to dispute. People were hurt, immensely, by the drastic nature of the change. The liturgy on which they had been nourished their entire lives became something unrecognizable — a Mass as alien to them as my first experiences with the old form were to me. Some, like Sts. Padre Pio and JosemaríaEscrivá, asked and obtained permission from Rome to continue saying the older form of the Mass. And a group of intellectuals, artists, writers, and actors from England petitioned Rome not to change the Mass at all. Throughout the Catholic world, there was controversy and upheaval over the changing shape of the liturgy.
Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani asked during the first session of the Second Vatican Council if the gathered fathers wanted to "stir up wonder, or perhaps scandal among the Christian people, by introducing changes in so venerable a rite, that has been approved by so many centuries and is now so familiar?" Following the Council, in his famous Intervention, the good cardinal, along with "a group of theologians, liturgists and pastors of souls," urged Pope Paul VI not to replace the venerable Mass of the Church with the new creation that was the Novus Ordo Missae. Their study showed
quite clearly in spite of its brevity that if we consider the innovations implied or taken for granted which may of course be evaluated in different ways, the Novus Ordo represents, both as a whole and in its details, a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was formulated in Session XXII of the Council of Trent (emphasis added).
Despite all of the objections, exceptions, and petitions, Rome moved ahead with the new rite. The old liturgy was effectively suppressed, leaving innumerable Catholics shanghaied in a new Mass that adopted a different form, different postures, a different language, and a different theological focus than that to which they had been accustomed their entire lives. They felt alienated and forgotten.
When Pope John Paul II issued the apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei in 1988, in which he discussed the schismatic action of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, he also commented that
respect must everywhere be shown for the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition, by a wide and generous application of the directives already issued some time ago by the Apostolic See for the use of the Roman Missal according to the typical edition of 1962.
But it fell on deaf ears. At a conference I attended several years ago, a priest reported the response of one of the American bishops when contacted by a cardinal with whom John Paul II had entrusted the mission of spreading the indult allowing the old Mass: "I am the bishop of my diocese," the bishop said, "Not the Holy Father."
An anecdote from yet another priest concerned a bishop who locked the parishioners of a diocesan-approved traditional parish out of their church during the Easter Triduum, following an edict that no Good Friday services were to be allowed in Latin. The church was locked from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday morning to enforce the edict.
If these are extraordinary examples, it has been a common experience for the average traditional Catholic to have to drive long distances to get to a Mass at an inconvenient time — often the only such Mass available in the diocese. Nothing was done to facilitate their devotion, while every other Catholic special interest group imaginable was happily accommodated.
This repression suffered for four decades by those attached to the older form has lead — it is true — to great bitterness. Not every traditional Catholic is afflicted with it, and among those who are there are many good and faithful people who want nothing more than to be fully a part of the life of the Church. Nevertheless, it would be false to deny that there is an angry, malignant, ugly streak running through the heart of traditionalism that threatens to rot the group to its core. It has grown necrotic in the years spent without sympathetic leadership, without cause for hope, living constantly with the knowledge that something was horribly awry in the life of the Church.
Then came Summorum Pontificum. In his introductory letter, Pope Benedict XVI said, "What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful." Further, in the text of the motu proprio itself, the Holy Father instructed that, "It is, therefore, permissible to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass following the typical edition of the Roman Missal promulgated by Bl. John XXIII in 1962 and never abrogated . . ." (emphasis added).
Never abrogated. The traditionalists who spent decades arguing that the Mass could not be abrogated — that any priest had the right to say it, that it was as much a part of the Church as it had ever been — had finally been exonerated. The Mass that they loved so dearly and fought for so valiantly was finally free, in no small part because of their defense of its status as a Mass immemorial.
However justified it may be, traditional angst has always been counterproductive. If we desire to help build a better Church, one that honors its traditions and pays them the reverence they are due, we must conduct ourselves in a constructive fashion.
Do I believe that the older form of Mass is an objectively better expression of Catholic worship than the newer form? Absolutely — if I didn’t, this would be hardly worth the effort. But I want to argue that position on its merits, and not be dismissed because I’m perceived as a member of a rancorous and unpleasant sub-group of Catholics. Those of us seeking to restore what we believe has been lost have some reputation-building to do if we want to avoid being painted with the broad brush strokes some of our peers have earned for us.
In his wisdom, the Holy Father has reconciled the two Roman liturgies within the unity of one rite. It’s time those of us attached to them started working together, too.