Resetting the Old Mass/New Mass Conversation

A new documentary attempts to cool down the "liturgy wars" while advancing the conversation in a productive way.

The orthodox Catholic world today, while in theory united in the shared acceptance of the Catholic Church’s authority to declare binding doctrine, is not always united in practice. The greatest, and perhaps most toxic, divide within orthodox Catholicism revolves around the liturgy, and particularly the differences between the Old and New Masses.

Heck, orthodox Catholics can’t even agree on what to call these two different celebrations of the Mass—or even if they are different forms or different rites. Is it the Novus Ordo and the traditional Latin Mass? Or the Ordinary Form and the Extraordinary Form? What about the Mass of St. Paul VI and the Mass of St. Pius V? This may seem like silly semantics to outsiders, but unfortunately just using the wrong terminology can trigger accusations of disrespect and fits of anger (which is why I’m going to stick with the generic “New Mass” and “Old Mass” here). Needless to say, it’s not a good situation.

How did we get here? Naturally, sudden and wholesale changes made to the most important activity a Catholic can participate in will result in disagreements. Many Catholics in the 1960’s had a Sunday in which they showed up at Mass and it was vastly different from the Mass they attended the previous Sunday. Such an experience is jarring, to say the least. Some Catholics loved the changes, some hated them, and ultimately many Catholics left the Church soon after the changes went into effect. No matter one’s reaction, the abruptness and significance of the changes led to a lot of emotional baggage among Catholics.

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Over the years partisans of each side haven’t always been particularly charitable with one another. Traditional Catholics love to point out clown Masses, often implying that every celebration of the New Mass borders on a blasphemous travesty. Too often they utter the phrase “Novus Ordo” like the most contemptuous four-letter word in existence. Then there are the New Mass-attending Catholics who stereotype every traditional Catholic as a mean-spirited, nasty ogre who obsesses over things that ultimately don’t matter. Traditionalists are labeled “schismatic” and treated with less respect than brazenly-heretical priests like Fr. James Martin. 

And if we are being honest, we must acknowledge that Pope Francis hasn’t exactly helped put out the fire; in fact, he’s poured gasoline on it. While Pope Benedict XVI valiantly tried to find a way to reconcile the camps, our current pontiff seems more intent on demonizing lovers of the Old Mass as “rigid” Catholics who only bring division to the Church. 

Into this mess comes a documentary series that hopes to turn down the heat while also bringing light to the conversation. It’s “Mass of the Ages,” a three-part movie series about the Old Mass. Episode I was released last summer and gave a general introduction to the Old Mass (disclaimer: I briefly appear in “Mass of the Ages” Episodes I and II). It was a massive success, with over 1 million views at last count. Many were introduced to the Old Mass in a non-confrontational, positive way.

But it’s Episode II that really attempts to reset the conversation. In spite of the fact that the Church made significant changes in the 1960’s to her primary means of worship, very few Catholics actually understand why she did it and even what changes were made. The overall ignorance on this subject is breathtaking when you think about it. 

An anecdote will demonstrate what I mean. I know a highly-intelligent, well-read professor of Catholic theology. He has forgotten more about Catholicism than I’ll ever know, and I have a Master’s degree in theology myself. One morning we were having breakfast and it was mentioned that “Ordinary Time,” the segment of the liturgical season that takes up most of the current Church calendar, didn’t exist until the 1960’s. It was essentially a replacement of the “Time after Epiphany” and “Time after Pentecost” that was part of the old Church calendar. My professor friend was flabbergasted—he had no idea this was the case. He just assumed that Ordinary Time had a long tradition in the Church and was observed by Catholics at least back to the Middle Ages.

If a well-educated professor of theology is ignorant about the origins of the current liturgical calendar, what can be expected of the average pew-sitting Catholic? This is not meant to be an insult to my professor-friend or anyone else, mind you, it’s just a statement of our current reality. Based on my own experiences speaking to thousands of Catholics over the past three decades, I would guess that most Catholics today think the only liturgical changes made in the 1960’s were use of the vernacular language instead of Latin and turning the priest around to face the people. And almost every Catholic (wrongly) thinks that all the changes made to the Mass were directly requested by the Second Vatican Council. 

This ignorance is a problem. The Mass is infinitely more important than any devotion, any spiritual practice, any prayer. It is the source and summit of our spiritual lives. If this significantly changes, we should know why, and we should understand the changes made. 

Unfortunately, those questions have been wrapped up in the emotional 50-year “liturgy wars,” which often only foster a more deep-seated, entrenched ignorance. Episode II of “Mass of the Ages” tries to rise above those emotions and directly confront the issues at hand. It is unflinching in its look at the formation of the New Mass while not denigrating into attacks on clown Masses or other egregious abuses (although it does have a segment containing a scathing yet hilarious indictment of modern liturgical music). It’s not trying to find straw men to knock down, but it does raise some uncomfortable subjects, particularly about the fundamental differences between the Old and New Masses.

The most incisive comments in Episode II, in my opinion, come from Joseph Shaw, Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales. Shaw irenically shows that there is a fundamentally different mindset behind the two Masses. It is in fact because of this different mindset that the two sides often can’t even have a conversation about what is important about celebrating Mass. For example, what is most important for “full and active participation”—the understanding of the congregation or the devotion of the liturgy? Such questions are fundamental, but they are often ignored in spats over which way the priest faces or how many readings the Mass should have.

I make no secret of where my own views lie: I’ve regularly attended the traditional Latin Mass for over a decade and so I’m firmly on the Old Mass “side.” But having attended the New Mass for 15 years before that, I know that there is much that is true, beautiful, and good about its celebration. Having seen and lived both “sides” intimately, I know there’s a desperate need for a real conversation, a real debate, about how the Mass, the center of our Faith, is celebrated. 

Episode II of “Mass of the Ages” will admittedly be challenging to the most ardent defenders of the New Mass, for it addresses many of the problematic elements of its origin, most notably that it is not what the Council Fathers at Vatican II requested. But there is no attack on those who faithfully attend the New Mass, no holier-than-thou attitude that Old Mass-goers are better than New Mass-goers. Rather, it is a plea for all Catholics, from the pope to the parishioner, to take an honest look at the radical liturgical changes made in the 1960’s and ask ourselves: is the Church better off for having made them?

Episode II of “Mass of the Ages” premieres today (May 26, 2022) at 3pm ET. You can watch it for free here.

  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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