Some years ago, when speaking at a Catholic meeting, I said that the older rite of the Mass — what we then called the Tridentine rite — should be allowed more widely. I received a massive round of applause. At the time, I attended the Mass in that form fairly rarely; I just thought that having it more widely available was a matter of justice, and I knew that many people felt the same way.
When I began attending the Extraordinary Form of the Mass more regularly, however, my reaction to it was not what I expected. I had assumed that I would have a powerful experience of its beauty and find it of huge importance. In reality, after having attended a few times, I realized that I began to miss things: saying the Confiteor (I knew the server waggled his head to indicate that this included me and others present, but I found it a bit remote), hearing the words of consecration, being allowed to join in the Pater Noster. Things seemed rushed. You could pray, as it were, from the outside — making sure that you were standing and kneeling at the right moments, and so on. But it was harder to pray it “from the inside”: Even though I knew it didn’t matter that the prayers were said with extreme speed, somehow the suddenness of the elevation felt bleak, and my own act of adoration almost unpermitted, as if even in its silence it might interrupt the busy flow.
Pope Benedict XVI’s Motu Proprio permitting unrestricted use of the older rite of Mass was a long-awaited and hoped-for measure. Opposition to it came, if at all, only from people whose views on liturgy were at best banal and tended toward the self-important and ignorant. But I hadn’t expected that the reaction to such opposition, especially from campaigners who now saw themselves as “trads” and refused to attend a newer rite, would be so angry and heated. Any discussion — for example, about the concerns I mentioned above — produced extraordinary ferocity and assumptions of bad faith, generally centered on my age.
I grew up with the older form of Mass; but even when I attended later from time to time, after it had been restricted, I did not really see it as hugely different from what campaigners called the New Mass. In my teens, when the Mass was first offered in English, it had seemed powerfully dramatic — to see and hear this supreme thing, this sacrifice of Christ himself — and it was only the ghastly addition of all sorts of bogus nonsense (dancing in offertory processions, do-it-yourself prayers interspersed in place of the correct ones, etc.) that detracted from that. And, of course, it was the trite and stupid accompanying music — guitars and banal lyrics, with tunes drawn from all-too-quickly-outdated contemporary songs — that made it all so dreadful, along with the fact that the English of the Mass, in its final form, was ugly and clearly not a real translation of the new rite originally produced in Latin.
Today, whether I find myself at an Extraordinary or an Ordinary Form of the Mass, I realize that there was a certain value in some of the changes. The Scripture readings of the newer form have a certain coherence, and they cover a wider range: They “fit” into the whole cycle of the year and open up the rounded message of our salvation. Would there be room for an eventual convergence here between the Extraordinary and Ordinary Forms? Being able to pray a Confiteor verbally, as well as knowing it was being said by a server, could be of value — we are body as well as soul, and using our own voices can lodge a prayer more deeply in the heart.
Is it always correct to say the Mass speedily and silently? Could we join in the Our Father? Could some of the introductory rites be said in the vernacular? Once analyzed, I realised that these and other suggested amendments to the Extraordinary Form effectively amounted to what the Second Vatican Council really wanted, more or less. Today, changes will probably have to be done from another angle: starting with the Ordinary Form, and adding back some of the prayers that were omitted in the post-Vatican II changes — a “reform of the reform.” That phrase itself has the ability to incite anger — even hate — on a tremendous scale among those who believe that no changes can or should be made to the present Extraordinary Form.
For years, discussion on liturgical matters was soured by the Lefebvrist schism. People who wanted to talk about the older form of the Mass in good faith were assumed to hold a package of other views, when this was not necessarily the case. It was many letters, meetings, petitions, and pleadings that eventually opened up the way for the Motu Proprio.
Charity has often been absent from liturgical debate. It has become a commonplace to observe that too many self-anointed “liturgical experts” of the 1970s and 1980s imposed misery with their ghastly innovations, refusing to discuss matters with any courtesy when challenged. An English commentator noted wryly, in the style of the old Catechism, “A liturgist is an affliction sent by God, in order that, at a time of no direct persecution, no Catholic need be denied the privilege of suffering for the Faith.”
Today, charity is again likely to absent itself if you find you have accidentally annoyed someone to whom the Extraordinary Form is the only form that is genuinely pleasing to God. “Oh, so you want to have clown Masses and polka Masses, do you?” is the sort of response that you’re likely to receive.
Any useful debate is thereby stifled at birth. I have no doubt that this is the fault of those dreadful liturgies of 30 and 40 years ago that have become the stuff of legend. Those who were born later, learned of the worst horrors only by hearsay, and have decided they only want the Extraordinary Form are among those who now denounce the “reform of the reform” with the greatest passion. But they clash with others of their generation who have found that the Holy Sacrifice offered in the Ordinary Form, in Latin and the vernacular, with glorious music, with voices raised in prayer and with awed silence, can indeed be authentic worship of God. These people (many of them members of the new evangelization) are, consciously or unconsciously, seeking a “reform of the reform,” and they will probably get it, as the beauty of the older prayers filters through and concepts of beauty and dignity, heritage and unchanging truth, become a part of everyday Catholic life.
New Evangelization? Ordinary Form? I can already hear teeth grinding and the angry tapping on keyboards. “Ugh — I bet you’re the type that supports things like World Youth Day,” one commentator snapped at me when this topic was tentatively raised recently. He virtually spat out the words. Dialogue isn’t going to be easy.