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?
Dom 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.