Love for Latin Liturgy More than a Fashion

As a lover of traditional liturgy, I was momentarily excited by a report last week that, for once in my life, I might actually be hip to the trends. It would be a nearly-unprecedented thing for me, and I’m still not sure how to feel about it. But according to a recent second-hand report, Pope Francis thinks that liturgical traditionalism is now fashionable among the young.

Tradition-sympathetic Rorate Caeli offered the quotation from Archbishop Jan Graubner, who reportedly said to Vatican Radio that:

When we were discussing those who are fond of the ancient liturgy and wish to return to it, it was evident that the Pope speaks with great affection, attention, and sensitivity for all in order not to hurt anyone. However, he made a quite strong statement when he said that he understands when the old generation returns to what it experienced, but that he cannot understand the younger generation wishing to return to it.

When I search more thoroughly”—the Pope said—“I find that it is rather a kind of fashion [in Czech: ‘móda’]. And if it is a fashion, therefore it is a matter that does not need that much attention. It is just necessary to show some patience and kindness to people who are addicted to a certain fashion. But I consider greatly important to go deep into things, because if we do not go deep, no liturgical form, this or that one, can save us.”

Now, it’s never a good idea to make too much of rumors. We don’t know exactly what the Holy Father said, and whatever it was quite obviously was not intended as an authoritative ex cathedra pronouncement. Even if Pope Francis’ remarks really were as tradition-unsympathetic as they sound, liturgical traditionalists can take comfort in the fact that he seems to regard them more as a benign nuisance than an active menace. In the wake of Pope Benedict’s assiduous efforts to encourage liturgical renewal, traditionalists are better off now than they have been since before Vatican II. A little benign neglect should not now cause them too much grief.

Nevertheless, the rumor caused a stir. Partly, that is because it lent further strength to the already-established impression that Pope Francis dislikes liturgical traditionalists. Also, the quoted passage expresses a view of the traditionalist movement (and particularly of the younger Catholics who have flocked to it) that is shared by many other Catholics. It thus invites us to consider once more the movement to revitalize older Catholic traditions (and particularly the Extraordinary Form of the Mass) which blossomed under the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. Is it fair to dismiss this movement as mere fashion or fad?

It’s easy to understand why some might want to. Traditionalists are frequently taken to task for being bitter, obsessive and obnoxiously superior. While none of these criticisms are totally without foundation, I find that mainstream cradle Catholics can themselves become quite embittered when they realize that secular liberals are not the only people in the world who have critical things to say about their cultural and liturgical sensibilities. More than one Catholic friend has become uncharacteristically spiteful when discoursing on the defects of the “rad trads.”

This knee-jerk defensiveness is to my mind fairly understandable. Nowadays it is counter-cultural to be a committed, Mass-attending Catholic of any sort, and to someone who has become accustomed to fending off attacks from the left, it can be unsettling to take criticism from a different angle. It should also be admitted that not all traditionalists take pains to press their criticisms in prudent and charitable ways. Even when they do, however, it’s hard to find a nice way to explain to someone that his sensibilities are malformed and his preferred forms of worship defective.

Young traditionalists are undeniably the greatest source of controversy. When older Catholics rhapsodize traditional liturgy, this is comparatively easy to dismiss, since it is understood that older people normally have a lingering attachment to the habits and tastes that they cultivated in youth. If older Catholics were the only ones agitating for traditional liturgy, they could be politely tolerated for another decade or two, at which point the movement would dissipate on its own. But now, younger people are voluntarily donning the mantle of liturgical tradition. This is more threatening. Why would anyone want to return to older liturgical forms if the ones we have now are (as their proponents like to think) better, and more suited to modern needs?

To those who find the new liturgical movement displeasing, it makes sense to dismiss it as a mere fashion or fad, since this implies that the attraction is shallow, ephemeral and a product of whimsical circumstance. If the new liturgical movement is just a fad, then it really isn’t necessary to pay it much attention; after all, fads pass and fashions change. More importantly, if the new liturgical movement is just a fashion, we need not regard it as evidence that there is anything defective in mainstream Catholic culture and liturgical life. Anything the young people might value in older liturgical forms can be supplied just as readily by newer ones.

One way to find out what young traditionalists really think is to ask them. The best way to understand the new liturgical movement is by seeking out a Mass in the Extraordinary Form, and observing the community that gathers. If that isn’t feasible, however, there are plenty of online resources for the liturgically curious.

People who have had bad experiences with liturgical traditionalists may be a little softened once they see how they interact among themselves. Catholics devoted to traditional liturgy have come to expect that they will be regarded with hostility and suspicion by many of their fellow Catholics. When their desires for reverent liturgy are satisfied, their reactionary tendencies recede into the background, and their love of beauty comes to the fore. This is one thing that is consistently mentioned when young traditionalists explain their attraction to liturgy. They are drawn to the beauty and solemnity of older liturgical forms, which bring them to a real appreciation of the power of the Sacraments.

Is this beauty and solemnity unique to the older liturgical forms? Not necessarily. The Novus Ordo Mass can be celebrated with great reverence and solemnity, as it regularly is in St. Agnes Parish here in St. Paul. Unfortunately, this is not the norm in every parish. In an effort to make the Mass more “accessible,” we dress it up in forms less reminiscent of the Courts of Heaven, and more reminiscent of the library “story hour” to which I sometimes take my children.

I don’t mean to sound contemptuous here. As a non-Catholic undergraduate at Notre Dame, I must have attended a hundred such Masses, and at the time I was fairly unperturbed. Even as a teenager I tended to gravitate to more solemn forms of worship, but still, the dormitory Masses had their charms. It was fairly enjoyable to sing campy songs while standing arm-in-arm with my friends, just as it is now sometimes fun to participate in story hour with my children. Nothing about that experience, however, made me feel that I was missing anything important when I slipped to the back of the chapel instead of joining my friends in the Communion line. When I discovered the traditional Latin Mass in my first year of graduate school, I was suddenly stricken with an intense thirst to receive the Sacraments for myself. I suddenly realized (which, through hundreds of Notre Dame Masses, had never occurred to me before) that the Sacrament was the central point of the Mass.

If young people are indeed “addicted” to traditional liturgy, I would contend that beauty and grace are the things they find most intoxicating. It strikes me as the sort of addiction that ought to be encouraged.

Admittedly, it is not impossible to find these things through newer liturgical forms. There is one more thing, however, that draws young people to the new liturgical movement. Blogger Susanna Spencer captures the point well in a reflection on her own discovery of the traditional liturgy. As a cradle Catholic, she was always surrounded by Catholic things. Nevertheless, in traditional liturgy she felt she was uncovering a long and rich Catholic tradition that her earlier experiences had obscured. In a particularly moving passage, she compares her discovery of that tradition to the experiences of the Israelites returning to the land of their ancestors (as related in the Book of Nehemiah). Standing once again on the sacred ground of their fathers, the people weep when they hear the law read aloud once more. They are simultaneously overcome by joy and by sadness, because in appreciating the beauty of what they have regained, they also understand the magnitude of what was lost through sin and disobedience.

Young Catholics have a deep yearning to be reconnected to the rich Catholic tradition that is their rightful heritage. Having grown up in the shadow of egregious doctrinal disobedience and liturgical neglect, they feel exiled from that tradition, and many ardently desire to return. Revitalizing older devotions and liturgical forms is one way of building bridges back to our own country and people, who carried the torch of faith through the centuries. This is not a fashion. It is, as for the Israelites, a way of rediscovering who we really are.

Editor’s note: The image above depicts a Pontifical High Mass at the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica.

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Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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