Washington D.C. is no stranger to making history. This past Saturday was no exception. You would not have found throngs of people marching with angry placards, but hundreds of Catholics on their knees. They were not assembled at the National Mall, but at the Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. They were not participating in political activism, but fervently adoring Christ at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Hundreds and hundreds of twenty-somethings were not participating in any ordinary Mass, but in a Pontifical Solemn High Tridentine Mass celebrated by one of America’s most exceptional Ordinaries, Archbishop Alexander Sample, who governs the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon. It was nothing less than a spiritual earthquake.
Not only was the nave crowded with young people, but the sanctuary was filled with rows and rows of young priests and seminarians, vested in cassock and surplice. It was a stunning snapshot of, what many thought, was a long buried past. But what was really stunning is that is the wave of a pulsating dynamic future. It was Catholic springtime in the 2018 springtime of Washington, D.C. While the bursting apple blossoms vied for attention, they couldn’t compete with the stirring beauty of Catholic young people hungry for God.
Make no mistake, this past Saturday in Washington, D.C.’s Basilica was, in Karl Jasper’s portentous phrase, an axial moment. A turning point, from which future ages could mark a pivotal change in perspective, a tectonic shift in cultural movement. In Archbishop Sample’s sermon: “Maybe the experience of these young people growing up with the ordinary Form did not carry within it the beauty, reverence, prayer, and fullness of the sense of mystery, transcendence and awe that the Traditional Mass has provided for them.” Though the archbishop couched his words demurely, words of agreement must be shouted loudly.
Only in the rarest instances have the young observed the Ordinary Form prayed majestically. Ordinarily, even when prayed reverently, it never soars, leaving souls dizzy with the thick air of Heaven. While it is certainly the ineffable unbloody Sacrifice of Calvary, the Ordinary Form is often anemic and flat. Lamentably, in more than a few places the Ordinary Form suffers a bastardization: reduced to a protean stage for performing clerics or inventive “liturgy committees.” The net result is leaving souls parched. Not surprisingly, the oft-times bombastic, but always perceptive, Dr. Camille Paglia had cause to remark:
My dissatisfaction with American Catholicism, which partly began during my adolescence in the late ’50s, was due partly to its increasing self-Protestantization and suppression of its ancient roots. Within 20 years, Catholic churches looked like airline terminals: no statues, no stained glass windows, no Latin, no litanies, no gorgeous jeweled vestments, no candles—so that the ordinary American Church now smells like baby powder.
A New Evangelization requires new men and women. Only the effusions of grace in the Divine Liturgy, unencumbered by ambiguous settings, can produce them. The soul’s sanctification and the Holy Spirit’s “recreating the face of the earth” is the work of a Sacred Liturgy, which sets men ablaze. The grandeur of the Roman Liturgy in its Extraordinary Form does just that. And the Pontifical Solemn High Mass is the consummate vehicle for that supernatural conflagration. As the hundreds knelt at that Pontifical Mass, they could hear the words of the book of the Apocalypse: “…behold, a throne was set in Heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He that sat was to look upon like jasper and a sardine stone; and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald…. And before the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices … saying … Worthy is the lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing” (Rev. 4:1-11; 5: 12-13). Holy Mass is the royal court of the Slain Lamb, or in Dr. Catherine Pickstock’s words, “the sacred polis.” Catholics are its royal citizens.
Professor Tracey Rowland expresses this beautifully:
…[the Church] makes it possible for people, poor as well as rich, to transcend their cultural limitations, to rise above their cultural poverty, and be citizens, or rather, subjects, of an eternal city. The effect of the Church on the culture of the world, and in particular on the life of the “common man,” ought to be ennobling, ought to be affirming of a royal status as a child of God, as a member of a royal priesthood, a people set apart. This does not happen when mass culture is “baptised” by its use in the liturgy, or when its idioms are taken up to wrap the Church’s doctrines. Contrary to the rationale behind such pastoral strategies, their ultimate effect is to make the Church relevant to the modern world, but to make it indistinguishable from the modern world, and this in turn makes it completely irrelevant.
The New Evangelization summons Catholics to nothing less than a transformation of our culture of death, akin to the transformation Mother Church affected fifteen hundred years ago in translating the Pagan Roman Empire into triumphant Christendom. For that daunting task, man needs the Mass, the Immemorial Mass which was the engine that built Western Civilization. So Dr. Catherine Pickstock (an Anglican, and professor at Cambridge) argued in her magisterial After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. In her densely argued tour de force she set down the case that the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Mass alone can breach the thick walls of Modernity. Pickstock: “…the liturgical city is avowedly semiotic. Its lineaments, temporal duration, and spatial extension are entirely and constitutively articulated through the signs of speech, gesture, art, music, figures, vestments, color, fire, water, smoke, bread, wine and relationality … [all] exalt[ing] a different and salvific formulation of the various dichotomies which have been seen to reside at the heart of immentistic secularity.”
Some may have frowned at this Pontifical Mass. But those frowns disguise a shallowness that threatens the life of the soul. Listen to J.B. Bagshaw, in his Treasure of the Church, “It is impossible … for men to believe that Our Lord is amongst them and not lavish on Him their most precious treasures, just as it was impossible for St. Mary Magdalene not to pour out her precious ointment on His feet.”
If one required further assistance in understanding the full theological splendor of the Pontifical Mass, there is no better way than through the words of Dr. Peter Kwasniewski:
In the realm of the supernatural mysteries, Christianity is purely and entirely monarchical…. we profess that Christ our King, the Lord of heaven and earth, of all times, past, present, and to come, of this world and of the next; that His angels and saints are His royal court; that He deigns to call us friends and brethren, yes, but such that we know that we never cease to be His servants. We long for His courts and tabernacles. The thick “politicism” of the imagery points to the real, sovereign polity of the Mystical Body, subsisting in the Roman Catholic Church, as a societas prefecta and altogether perfected in the Heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the great king. Our ecclesial sacrifice, the Most Holy Eucharist, is a kingly and high-priestly oblation.
Though we still stand knee deep on the ruins on secularist modernity, a new world is aborning—a marvelously exciting and bright world. Want to hear more about it? Find one of those twenty-somethings that prayed at that Washington, D.C. Mass on April 28. They will tell you. And your heart will dance.