Over the weekend of September 16, 2017, I was privileged to attend the Summorum Pontificum Pilgrimage in Rome, marking the tenth anniversary of promulgation of the motu proprio that has restored to the Church the “Extraordinary Form” of the Roman Rite. This is a short reflection on the experience.
The city of Rome remains the greatest inspiration, and firmest rebuke, to the Church of the present age. The Renaissance and Baroque city is the marriage of culture and religion, where man’s desire for beauty is made manifest by a genuine piety that has produced the highest artistic expression of the Christian life.
Rome, therefore, grants to us a proper basis for spiritual pride in the immense artistic achievements attributable to the Holy Roman Church and the See of Peter. In Rome, the modern fashionable scorn heaped upon the “Tridentine mentality” seems an absurdity in light of the fact that the era of Trent only bequeathed to us Philip Neri, Ignatius Loyola, Camillus de Lellis and the art and architecture that are the glory of the West. It is common to criticize the Renaissance popes as worldly and corrupt promoters of their cardinal-nephews, but not even the most venial of them thought to adjust the fundamentals of the Apostolic religion to accommodate his tastes or to win the acclaim of the intellectuals.
But the culture that gave rise to the Sistine ceiling and the Conversion of St. Paul is not our own. Rome forces us to confront the fact that once, all of the culture’s energy was directed to the promotion and exaltation of the Faith. The sum total of our present efforts in this regard seems than less than a speck from Michelangelo’s block or a drop from Raphael’s brush.
The great churches that line the streets were built as enduring temples suited to unchanging Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Now, even the grandest of the basilicae is marred with a table altar, a triumph of bad theology and its constant companion, philistinism.
And yet, in its capital, the Church Militant marches onward. A week ago Saturday, hundreds of laymen and clergy processed from the “Chiesa Nuova,” the principal church of the Oratorians, across the Ponte Sant’Angelo, through St. Peter’s Square and up to Bernini’s Altar of the Throne to truly “celebrate” the Church’s ancient Roman Rite—the Traditional Latin Mass. On Sunday, these same pilgrims, and many others, crowded into the Church of Sanctissma Trinita where the Dominicans offered the ancient liturgy according to their version of the rite. So many processed to Communion that the priests were forced to fraction the Hosts into the smallest particles in order to accommodate the Faithful.
These Masses of the Summorum Pontificum Pilgrimage were a bittersweet demonstration of “what could have been” for the Church of the late twentieth century. Here the concern of the Second Vatican Council for “actual participation” was well-met, for not a tongue was silent, as the people, alternating with the choir, sang out the great prayers of the Ordinary—the Gloria, Credo and the Sanctus. Nearly all present sang the Latin from memory, in compliance with the instruction of paragraph “54” of Sacrosanctum Consilium that the people “may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.”
To hear the whole congregation, as the Sacred Ministers descended the altar at Sanctissma Trinita, sing out immediately and in unison at the simple cue Salve Regina is to experience the joy of Christian unity with one’s fellow believers. Watching a young woman, wearing a veil, cradling an infant as she weaved through the crowded aisle, singing the Creed as she walked and swayed with the little child, it is impossible not to ask oneself, “What, again, was the purpose of the 1969 Missal?”
The piety of the Summorum Pontificum pilgrims is not inaccessible. They do not sing out or fall to their knees on marble floors because they have the hearts of Francis of Assisi, the minds of Aquinas or Cicero’s facility with the Latin language. That is to say, they are not set apart—holy geniuses who can sing in Latin. They are instead a collection of ordinary Catholics who have embraced the simple grandeur of the Extraordinary Form as the foundation for their spiritual lives. This is the “liturgical piety” that was the vision of St. Pius X—an immersion in the Mass, not a dissection of it.
Summorum Pontificum is a link to the past, but a path to the future. It has not only freed the Roman Rite from its prison, but it has allowed for an honest introspection and examination of the ideology that banished the Traditional Mass five decades ago. The Church, like any institution, must be permitted to separate the legitimate concerns that drove the reform movement from the nonsensical excesses (re-writing the Canon) and delusional notions (a second Pentecost) that ruined it.
Thus, the return of the Traditional Mass is not the end of something, but a beginning again; it is the source and the summit from which true reform and regeneration can proceed.