Some time ago, I published an article that I hoped would sound more whimsical than cynical, more wryly exasperated than truly angry. The article concerned the sad state of language in, and the intrusion of feminism into, Church liturgy. It broke no ground—we all have our favorite horror stories—but, as a convert of two years’ standing, I had fun writing it.
It brought me more mail than four years’ worth of previous articles in the same publication. One reader, an Episcopalian, said that he didn’t understand how anyone (in her right mind, he implied) could become a Catholic. Most of the letters were from Catholics who enthusiastically commiserated on the aesthetic and liturgical uncertainty into which we enter on some Sunday mornings. But a large number of the letters were from Catholics who refuse to attend the New Mass and offered me reasons why I, too, should go to any lengths to find an alternative. It is these letters that concern me.
The writers use a variety of names for the “New” Mass (now officially 20 years old), and an even larger and more energetic set of names for the traditional. I received a large pamphlet (printed, apparently, by St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Ridgefield, Connecticut) giving 62 reasons why 25 priests of the Diocese of Campus, Brazil, cannot, in good conscience, “attend the New Mass (also known as the Mass of Pope Paul VI, novus ordo, new liturgy)” and explaining why they will therefore “adhere faithfully to the traditional Mass (also known as Tridentine Mass, old Latin Mass, Roman Missal, Pian Missal, Missal of St. Pius V, Mass of All Time).” I was sent tracts explaining why Pope John Paul II’s compassionate ecumenism is heretical, and why the New Mass is not Catholic.
Now, all of these gifts were interesting, and I agreed with much of what they said. Yes, the Church is failing to attract men and women to religious vocations. Yes, I dislike the balloons and guitars; the quick Eucharistic Shuffle rather than a solemn kneeling communion; the Peace in the wrong place; the inane, simpering, self-conscious songs that neither rhyme nor scan nor attach themselves to a memorable tune. Yes, the artificial feminist language offends, simply because it’s selfish. And yes, I love the robes and incense, bells and majesty of a High Mass. They make me feel good. They put me in the right mood. I wish we could have them every week.
And that’s precisely my point, and precisely what worries me about the mail I’ve been getting and the tone of some articles in my favorite publication. The things whose loss we traditionalists mourn—mainly the beautiful language and liturgical practices we grew up with or (as in my case) came to appreciate in adulthood—are nothing more than tools. The Church is using different tools these days, and many of us don’t like the change. Many of us think that modernizing the Church’s tools was a monstrous mistake. But the mother lode of holy ore still remains to be mined, and it seems to me that the real sin is to waste time bickering over the tools when we could be digging.
There are those who argue that the changes in language and ritual are not superficial; that they not only signify but engender deterioration of the proper spiritual devotion; that the old ways were fundamental to worship, which cannot occur without them. Now, I happen to like some aspects of post-Vatican II Catholicism—the only kind I know, really. I like what is apparently a newly blossoming understanding that each of us has the responsibility to be holy, a priest, in his or her own station in life, and the notion that spiritual faith should spur social action (although at times the Church, at the parish or diocesan level, seems to forget that the spirit is what must be nourished first). I like these changes, and I think they’re fundamental.
But I would be willing to buy the idea that the old Mass and ways of thinking and of doing things were made by God to endure unchanged—if Christ Himself had been their author. Alas! Mere human hands—guided by God, we believe—created the “Mass of All Time,” just as human hands, similarly guided, fashioned the New Mass. The “timeless” polishing given the Mass at the Council of Trent happened only 420 years ago—1570 years after Christ. Pope St. Pius V in 1570 decreed that nothing should ever be “added to, omitted from, or changed” in his Missal, but until we have good reason to believe that God was speaking through him but not through Pope Paul VI 400 years later, we must hold that Pius was overstepping himself.
There is no “Mass of All Time,” much as we’d like there to be. Nothing of this earth remains unchanged or escapes death. The two aspects of the Church that are of God—its reason for existence and our holy responsibilities as members—are eternal and unchanging, but the parts that are of Man will change until the end. The things of man include words and rituals, many of them pagan carry-overs, which were modified even as they were incorporated into the liturgy. Many of us still seem to need them to start our engines, spiritually speaking, but to expect them to remain unchanged from now on is pointless and rather shortsighted.
I was born a Presbyterian, flirted with Judaism in my adolescence, became an Episcopalian in my twenties, and came home (the peaceful phrase every Catholic convert seems inevitably to use) to the Catholic Church in my mid-thirties. I love the Church, love going to church, even when some of the silly “new traditions” irritate me. I do my best not to get irritated because it seems little enough to do, because Christ asks it of me—and, I must admit, because I believe that this, too, shall pass. My family goes to church every Sunday and holy day of obligation. My husband and I teach CCD on Tuesday nights, have hosted two years of Renew sessions in our home, serve as neighborhood coordinators and fundraisers when needed, send money to a mission in Haiti, and do everything we can think of to raise our son to love the Church, too. Nothing would make me happier than to see that boy, my only child, become a priest or religious brother, and I resent it—God forgive me—when well-meaning Catholic men and women write to tell me that in all this I am doing wrong.
The Church is timeless and mysterious. Something happens and is happening on Sunday morning. As I sit, or stand, or kneel, surrounded by my brothers and sisters, many of whom probably dislike the present trendiness as much as I, something happens, and I am part of it. We all get something from coming to church, or we would have stayed in bed. I may be next to someone I haven’t learned to care for, I may groan at the song we’re singing, I may wish the priest were wearing silk rather than the more fashionable burlap and not talking quite so much about the rain forests—but all those wishes and wants are imperfections in me, and if I let them divert my adoration, the Devil has had his way. People have managed to praise God from a cross, a rack, a pyre, a fetid prison cell. Can I do less from my comfortable padded kneeler? When I make even the feeblest attempt at divine worship, something happens on Sunday, to me and around me. Some things are so holy that we can’t ruin them no matter how hard we try, thank God.
One man from a distant coast kindly wrote to inform me that my family could attend a traditional mass in Grand Forks, North Dakota (five hours away), Rapid City, South Dakota (six hours away), or Sioux Falls, South Dakota (eight hours away), and that the weekly drive would be worth it. He added, “The Catholic Faith is found in either traditional Catholicism or Conciliar Catholicism—not both…. Our Lord never dealt in options. He does give the grace necessary to discern the Truth.”
I agree: Our Lord never dealt in options, and the truth is that our job is to love Him, love our neighbor, and follow the commandments. Period. He gave us the Church to help us, and the Church is as constant as the human trappings of the Church—and the people who invent those trappings—are variable. When we complain about the form God’s gifts take instead of doing our best to use them well—and, really, who are we to say that the New Mass and the new way of doing things aren’t God’s gifts?—we’re acting as if we do have options. To my mind, that is unfaithfulness.