False Nostalgia: The Culture of the Latin Mass from a Millennial’s Perspective

by Joseph Wagner

On July 7, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI published Summorum Pontificum, a document that allowed priests of the Latin Rite to celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (i.e., “the Tridentine Rite”) without restriction. One of the goals of Summorum Pontificum was a path toward a “reform of the reform.”

The liturgical scholar Fr. John Baldovin has placed the Pope Emeritus in the “Reform of the Reform” camp. This camp argues that the Roman liturgy as it was renewed after the Second Vatican Council is a (radical) departure from what preceded it. This school of thought’s argument is shaky at best. Anyone can compare the two forms of the Roman Rite side-by-side and see that they are structurally the same. The renewed liturgy eliminates needless repetitions and late additions such as Psalm 42, and substitutes a second reading for the Last Gospel.


Above: Pontifical High Mass, World Youth Day, 2013.

I write this small reflection not as a scholar of the Liturgical Movement (both my undergraduate and graduate theses pertain to the connection between liturgical action and social action), but as a millennial trying to find a via media in the Church’s liturgy wars.

I will not go into my past liturgical phases; for that, you can click here. What I do want to muse on is some thoughts which have danced across my mind since I have been reading New Liturgical Movement, Chant Café, and, of course, Pray Tell. These thoughts are also born from my experience as a former seminarian, graduate student, high school teacher, and now as a man preparing to enter monastic life. While I have only had practical experience in the liturgical life of the Church – about 15 years’ worth – I would like to respond to countless denunciations that the Ordinary Form is deficient in some way.

In my studies of the Liturgical Movement, whether they were at Quincy University for my history degree, or at the Liturgical Institute for my master’s, I have spent countless hours poring over the first issues of Orate Fratres, particularly the articles of Virgil Michel, H.A. Reinhold, and Frederick McManus. One does not have to look far to see the original intentions of the editors of the first issue: “Our general aim is to develop a better understanding of the spiritual import of the liturgy, an understanding that is truly sympathetic.” (The Editors, “Forward,” Orate Fratres, 1, no. 1 (November 28, 1926): 1)

Dom Virgil was responding to a problem in the Church at a particular time and in a particular place. His travels took him to Europe, where he saw a liturgical awakening happening where lay people, instead of praying Rosaries and Novenas at Mass, were actually and fruitfully participating in the Mass. He brought this concept back to the United States and began to implement it; the journal Orate Fratres and the publishing house Liturgical Press are fruits of his liturgical apostolate. But why was it needed to begin with?

michel-1Dom Virgil saw Americans at Mass, but not praying the Mass. Rather, they were focused on other devotions while the priest and server recited all the prayers. One can argue about whether the people knew what was going on or not, but it is clear from several issues of Orate Fratres that lay people – particularly women – were most edified by someone now catechizing them in the ways of formal, liturgical prayer. These lay people often took what they learned in the pages of Orate Fratres and began living a liturgical life outside of Mass, taking the call of our Lord seriously by bringing the Good News to all parts of the world. Women especially formed their children and made their homes and families spiritual oases in between celebrations of the Eucharist. (cf.: Katherine E. Harmon, There Were Also Many Women There: Lay Women in the Liturgical Movement in the United States, 1926-59. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013.) None of this would have been possible if it were not for the work of the liturgical pioneers.

Then there is the explicit connection between the Liturgical Movement and the Catholic Worker Movement. While the left and right play tug-o-war with Servant of God Dorothy Day’s socially-conscious legacy, they forget that it was the daily reception of Jesus in the Eucharist that powered the whole thing. She had numerous correspondences with Dom Virgil on how best to actively involve people, not just in the work of feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, but also in getting people to participate in Mass with their whole hearts.

Virgil Michel had contributed to several academic fields by the time of his death in 1938, but none took up most of his time and involved so much passion as the liturgy. The very fact that Michel started his quest for active participation in the United States in the first place was for the glory of God, rightly rendered by the whole Mystical Body – priests and laity. Historical events do not happen in a vacuum, so it should not surprise anyone that Michel’s work did not happen suddenly and without something spurring it on. This “something” was a deficiency in Catholic liturgical life at the time.

Some modern commentators claim that there was a distinctly “Catholic culture” during this time, one that involved going to a Solemn High Mass on Sunday morning, with priest, deacon, subdeacon, chant schola, incense, and every aspect of the liturgy performed well to the proverbial “T.” Then the family retired to their home and hosted Sunday dinner for the whole family; parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

These same commentators also claim that after Vatican II, the Mass became a banal expression, an anthropological love-fest that destroyed the family and thus scarred subsequent generations. All of this because of Mass in the vernacular, hymns instead of propers, and the priest and people worshipping God through a dialogue! I disagree that the Ordinary Form fosters discontent. The Ordinary Form does not have to lead to rampant, irresponsible improvisation.

Many people who like going to the Extraordinary Form claim that it promotes a uniquely Catholic culture, one that is reminiscent of the Catholicism enjoyed by our grandparents and great-grandparents. While I was not around in the 1940s or 1950s, I am aware of my own family history and the history of the Church in the United States.

By and large, the people who favor the Extraordinary Form have a false nostalgia for a time and place which simply never existed; at least not generally.


Above: Mass blessing World Youth Day participants, Los Angeles cathedral.

Claiming that Vatican II or the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite somehow obliterated Catholic culture is a fallacy This false nostalgia aches for a culture that never was; it is also for a liturgical past that never was, at least not in most parts of the United States.

The normative church-going experience of most Catholics in the early twentieth century was one of no singing at Mass, little to no “actual” participation by the laity, and the priest mumbling his Latin so quickly the server could not keep up with him.

I had one priest tell me when I was in college that, when he was growing up in Decatur, Illinois, he did not see a Solemn High Mass until the sixth grade because there were only two priests in his parish. And another priest from my past communicated to me that he remembers serving the ubiquitous seventeen-minute Low Mass when he was a boy. Granted, all that I have described above may not have been the experience of every Catholic in United States, but this is generally what happened.

Those who promote the Extraordinary Form to the detriment of the Ordinary Form are mistaken; the anomaly of performing the Extraordinary Form well is an invention born out of discouragement after Vatican II.

I do not mean for this little blurb to be an indictment against the Extraordinary Form; frankly, I enjoy going to one once in a while and I have even served and MC-ed a few in my time. But from the standpoint of history and rendering justice to our venerable past, we must recall that a false nostalgia is no substitute for revising history. The Catholic culture that supporters of the Extraordinary Form cling to is something out of a child’s bedtime story.

The very fact that there was a Liturgical Movement in the first place is proof positive that many Catholics were not participating in the Mass and generally had no idea what was going on, aside from what they received in Catholic school or catechism class.

The Mass – in whatever form or rite or use it is celebrated in – is the re-presentation of the Last Supper and our Lord’s Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension. It is his gift to us that we assemble around the altar in his presence to bring him into the world. This teaching has come down to us through countless generations, into our families, and has fostered a unique culture that has never and can never be blotted out.

Joseph Wagner holds an M.A. in liturgical studies from the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois. His research focuses on the social and political ramifications of the Liturgical Movement in the United States. He will enter Saint Meinrad Archabbey in October as a candidate for monastic life.


  1. “Dom Virgil saw Americans at Mass, but not praying the Mass.”
    And what if people do not want to “actively participate” in the Mass? Should not people be free to choose how they pray to God in a church? Is “active participation” necessary for salvation? Just because a document of an ecumenical council called for these liturgical guidelines, are they binding? After all, Trent called a heretic by virtue of an anathema anyone who declares that the Roman Mass is to be celebrated only in the vernacular, and few if any today follow that doctrine.
    Be this as it may, the idea of culture as espoused in this article is the sociological one, rather than the traditional one of looking at the best that a people have produced for human civilisation. The latter is closely linked with weltanschauung, and indeed there was a distinct Catholic culture in the latter sense before the post Vatican II thinkers destroyed it. One needs only read Max Weber for the economic side of the social effects.

    1. @Victor Wowczuk:
      Two things:
      1. Yes, ecumenical councils are binding – at least for orthodox Catholics.
      2. No, Trent did not use “heretic” – it was merely a prudential decision not to use vernacular, not a doctrinal one. They were aware of Eastern Catholic churches in communion with Rome who used vernacular in the liturgy.

  2. The claim that the EF and OF are structurally the same is questionable at best…The entire first section of Mass up to the collect is rather different, the complete nature of the high Mass and solemn Mass has changed, not to mention a gutting of the offertory.

    So unless your “structure” is as high level as “beginning, readings, offertory, consecration, communion, end,” I don’t buy it. As someone who attends both forms frequently, the structure has been modified quite a bit.

    And that’s to say nothing of the office, which was gutted even more than the Mass. almost a complete reordering so as to be unrecognizable, retaining almost none of the structure of before, even on that very high level that I talk about above.

    “By and large, the people who favor the Extraordinary Form have a false nostalgia for a time and place which simply never existed; at least not generally.”

    Actually, I’d disagree on that one. One big example: the roman right ought to be sung.

    Of course, before the council, low Masses were exceedingly common. However, in many traditional parishes, this is not so. I know in my parish, 95% of our Masses, both in the ordinary and extraordinary form, are sung, both ferial and Sunday Masses.

    We’re not trying just to turn back the clock. to do that is to fail to recognize the legitimate problems that existed (not in the books, but in the practice of them). We’re trying to bring the roman rite where it ought to be.

    1. @Ben Yanke:
      Your fight is with the Pope, of course. Pope Paul VI strongly defended the reformed rite of Mass and emphasized repeatedly that it was in accord with apostolic tradition. The idea that the Roman Rite is not where it should be, as you express it here, is incompatible with the principles of Vatican II and with the liturgical reform which the Pope declared to be in accord with those principles.

      It is a fundamental principle of Vatican II, a teaching of the Catholic Church, that there were legitimate problems in the liturgical books before Vatican II, which is why the ecumenical council decreed that those books were to be changed, and these books were not to remain in use in their then-present state.

    2. @Ben Yanke:
      Dear Mr. Yanke,

      Thank you for your feedback. It is always nice to engage in academic and civil debates.

      You argue that people who favor the EF are not trying to “turn the clocks back.” That may be true for some, but in my experience most do want to turn the clocks back precisely because they think that it will transport them to a time that didn’t exist. The “Bells of St. Mary’s” Catholicism never existed, so don’t try to replicate it. So, while it may not be the case for you, it is certainly the case for a majority. Again, in my experience.

      And, in my humble but always expressed opinion, the way for the Roman Rite to be celebrated now is according to the renewed/reformed liturgical books from after the Second Vatican Council with the rubrics in said books followed and not improvised upon. Using the EF, while “nice,” ultimately does not cut it. Again, IMHBAEO, the Roman Rite should be celebrated with the utmost dignity, solemnity, and reverence. There is no case where “clown Masses” are justified.

      Finally, with the argument of structure, let me say this. Going back to the prayers at the foot of the altar, these prayers were always considered part of the “pre-Mass”; in numerous hand missals from the time, it is acknowledged that the Introit is the start of Mass (hence of the Sign of the Cross). Praying Psalm 42 was a devotion by certain priests that became a part of the liturgy. To argue that is was a part of the Mass during the time of Pope St. Gregory II (c. 700 AD) is tenuous at best.

      Thank you for your comments. If you would like to discuss this further, I would be happy to correspond with with via email.

      In Christ,


    3. @Ben Yanke:
      Would you have such strong opposition to the radical reforms of the Roman Rite’s Office made by Pope St. Pius X? What about the revisions made by Pope Pius XII and Pope St. John XXIII? Or, are the reservations held toward the Office as reformed following the Second Vatican Council and as promulgated by Blessed Pope Paul VI? I fail to see how a denigration of one revision out of the basket of revisions made in the XX Century has any weight unless one also has similar views for the others. This goes doubly so for the Mass. There far more structural changes made to the Mass prior to the reforms of Blessed Pope Paul VI, especially those of the 50s and 60s.

  3. I greatly appreciate Mr. Wagner’s thoughtful reflection. May I offer something to add to the discussion?

    So many such reflections seem to me to omit a crucial reference point: the developments flowing from Vatican II in ecclesiology, liturgy, biblical studies, ecumenism and so on, did not take place in a vacuum. I submit, rather, that they were intimately woven into a much greater post-WW-II dynamic that was encompassing – and shaking up –so many creeds, cultures and peoples.

    A colleague of mine from many years ago and now in the next life, Father Frank Sokol, once spoke of all this reflecting on the image of watching intently the pot of water that his grandmother placed on the stove to cook the pasta for their weekly Sunday Italian dinner. At the very beginning, there was nothing. Then, barely visible currents of warm water could be seen interacting with the colder water. (I’ve since learned that those barely visible currents – like plumes of clear heat rising from our chimneys into the crisp cold air of the winter – are called “schlerins.”) Then, little by little, tiny bubbles of steam would form on the bottom. One bubble would nudge up against another bubble and combine to make a bigger one…. again and again and again. Bubbles would begin to rise to the surface, one by one, until the whole pot would suddenly break into a FURIOUS full-rolling boil.

    Vatican II did not just materialize out of nowhere, and I won’t try to catalog all the various documents on liturgical theology that were its predecessors.

    Read onward…

  4. I am one who grew up straddling the pre-post Vatican II liturgical divide. Truth be told: I worked excitedly and diligently to master the Latin responses and the “choreography” of what is now called the “extraordinary form.” (I came to know the post-1955 Easter Vigil liturgy as well as or better than the priests of the parish!) For a while, I echoed my parents’ sentiments about what a tragedy this “new” liturgy would be if the Latin prayers were lost. But, as my youthful sentiments grew onward, the transition opened up a whole new world of learning and understanding for me. Ordained in 1978, I can’t imagine myself leading an assembly in the Eucharist in any way other than what we call the “ordinary” form, with “full, conscious and active participation” – in other words: understanding in the language I speak every day what I am praying, and speaking up and singing out to make myself intimately and fully engaged in the great act of Word and Eucharist that proclaims God’s saving love in Christ Jesus.

  5. Fr Ruff:
    In that case, “active participation” and everything else in Sacrosanctum Concilium are likewise `prudential`.
    However, an `Anathema Sit traditionally, as in the Ecumenical Council of Trent, indicates excommunication or being cut of from the Church because of unacceptable (heretical) doctrine.
    Trent did not distinguish its anathemas from matters of faith, morals, and Roman liturgy precisely because they were on the same level. Liturgically, Lex orandi est Lex credendi.

    1. @Victor Wowczuk:
      What Trent condemned as heretical was the position that Mass could only be celebrated in the vernacular. They said, in effect, that either Latin or vernacular is permitted, so as to defend their holding to Latin. This holding to Latin was a prudential decision, it was not required by Catholic doctrine.

      With Vatican II, it is exceedingly difficult to distinguish what is church teaching and what is merely prudential. The Council uses a style and language unprecedented in church history, so the old categories are difficult to apply. They didn’t set out to define doctrine and condemn heretics. They set out to present, in a way not done before by an ecumenical council, the nature and mission of the church.

      In this sense, Vatican II is a “teaching Council” more than any other councils were. The others were more “juridical,” setting forth canons and condemnations. They also taught, but by intent not as comprehensively.

      I think there is something like a “pastoral doctrine” in Vatican II, and this is binding on Catholics. But it is the nature of “pastoral doctrine” not to be precise and juridical, but more inspirational and idealistic. So one can’t do a “gotcha” for dissenting from any V2 definitions – rather, one ends up saying more generally that a statement “doesn’t fit the tenor and purpose of Vatican II, it sounds like you either don’t understand or don’t accept it.”

      Unfortunately, the “hermeneutic of continuity” has distracted all of us, and made it more difficult rather than easier to grasp what the nature of V2 is and how it is to be distinguished from other Councils. Though I hope it wasn’t Pope Benedict’s intention (sometimes I wonder), I think HoC has given cover to those who basically don’t get, or don’t accept, Vatican II.


  6. Far from giving cover to those who don’t accept Vatican II, the hermeneutic of continuity says that you cannot properly understand Vatican II unless you view it in the light of what went before. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy itself warns that “there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them” and that “care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing”. The hermeneutic of continuity is simply an attempt to apply these principles to the whole of the Council’s teaching.

    1. @Fr Richard Duncan CO:
      I don’t see why those two statement should become the hermeneutic for the whole Council. I’m not sure they’re even that important for SC itself.

      As for “no innovations unless the good of the church … requires them,” the proper authorities have already decided that all the reforms of the liturgy were for the good of the church.

      I think one most properly understand Vatican II by looking at what it says. If it makes a jump of 10 feet from what went before, it makes no sense to me to “put it in the context of everything that went before” and make it only a 5 foot jump. It says what it says. The reason you look at what went before is not to deny or lessen or compromise what Vatican II said, but to understand just what the depth of continuity is and what the depth of rupture is. To impose continuity onto the text is to do violence to it.

      I don’t expect this ideology of HoC will last, frankly. It doesn’t withstand examination.


  7. I can’t really speak to false nostalgia for Pre-Vatican II Days (or, frankly, questionable nostalgia for the 70s and 80s post-Vatican II era). Certainly one of the appeals of the EF Mass these days, though, is that most everybody who goes to one is there because they damn well want to be, they go out of their way to attend, and they take the time to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Mass. Being in even a small room of people like that is attractive, regardless of the approved liturgy being used. I know it’s anecdotal, but I’ve attended many an OF Mass with hundreds of people, many of whom sit there placidly, mumble the responses, and don’t sing the hymns. I’ve yet to attend an EF Mass where people the vast majority of people were not rapt and actively engaged.

    I think most of us would rather have engaged parishioners, period, whether at an EF or an OF Mass. The boundary, it seems to me, is whether one of the two should be the only form available. SP, whatever its faults may be, has removed the only-OF option from the table, and I rather doubt the OF is going to go away in favor of a resurgent EF. I say live, let live, and be glad there are people drinking deeply of the liturgy, whichever form it is. Let us focus instead on developing more people of that inclination wherever they can be found and nurtured.

  8. Say what you will, but no one can deny that the Roman Daily Office has been vastly improved by the additional biblical and patristic lections. Cranmer can no longer tease the Roman church for having a confusing system of readings. Indeed he would be jealous of such abundant resources.

    I must praise the monks of Solesmes for making available in eight reasonably priced volumes those lections in Latin and in French.

  9. Put it this way: I am not “aching” or “longing” for something from the past. I know perfectly well that things were not perfect throughout the Church before Vatican II. I grew up with the Ordinary Form. But when I discovered the usus antiquior well celebrated, then I knew I had found a treasure. It is an experience shared by many of my generation. And we stand by Ratzinger’s judgment: what was sacred and great for past generations is sacred and great for us, too. The usus antiquior responds to a genuine spiritual hunger and thirst, and for anyone to try to oppose the Church’s offer of nourishment is not just uncharitable, it’s diabolical.

  10. Dr. Kwasniewski,
    Your argument, which is valid, comes from your personal experience of the Extraordinary Form. I am glad you find solace in something that generally didn’t happen sixty or seventy years ago in the US. My argument, though, comes from my experience of people fond of this Form who claim that it is inherently better than the Ordinary Form precisely because it has always been celebrated that way; you and I both know this is not the case. I should have elaborated that more explicitly; sorry for the confusion.
    My argument also comes from the point of view claiming the EF of past decades and centuries inherently fostered more participation, like it does now; it didn’t, hence the liturgical movement and the advent of personal hand missals.
    If someone wants to go to the EF, fine; I just don’t see why anyone should bash the Ordinary Form.
    In Christ,

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