CONSTRUCTIVE CONVERSATION: O’Malley and Ruff on Traditionis Custodes UPDATED 11/12

INTRODUCTION: Pray Tell’s “Constructive Conversations” is a response to the spirit of divisiveness sometimes found in church and society today. We seek to model honest and respectful dialogue about controversial topics. The goal is not to come to consensus, but to clarify what the differences are and what the legitimate concerns are of those with whom we differ. In this series, Pray Tell’s Fr. Anthony Ruff OSB [AWR] and Notre Dame’s Tim O’Malley [TOM] talk about the significant of Traditionis Custodes, the July 2021 document of Pope Francis curtailing the pre-Vatican II liturgy. 

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Click here to jump to the latest posts from AWR and TOM of November 12.

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November 2:

#1: AWR. Let me start, Tim, by saying this: I think Traditionis Custodes is a big deal, even a turning point. It sends a signal that the future is in the reformed liturgy. The old liturgy will certainly continue, and some will remain passionately committed to it. But the point has been made that this is somewhat of a concession, and not something desirable in and of itself. Over time – and it could take a rather long time – Pope Francis’s move will reorient liturgical leadership and episcopal leadership more definitively toward the reformed liturgy. What do you think?

#2: TOM.  It’s likely the case, although I suspect it was the case before Traditionis Custodes. Most liturgical leadership and bishops were interested in a non-banal celebration of the reformed rites. The various communities that celebrate the 1962 Missal of John XXIII were mostly a great boon for bishops. It means that they didn’t need to attend to growing interest in what was then called the Extraordinary Form liturgy. I think it’s important to remember how rare such celebrations were in the United States.

Now, that being said, I’m not sure that this means the disappearance of desire for the pre-conciliar liturgical rites. In fact, it might grow. We often confuse the digital age as reducible to screens. But the digital is a place where we have a massive retrieval of memory. When I was growing up, I wouldn’t have known where to have found evidence of pre-conciliar practice. Before Summorum Pontificum, I had been to one Extraordinary Form Eucharistic liturgy at Notre Dame in the early aughts. It was a musical, museum piece. But now, with the internet, the pre-conciliar Mass won’t just disappear. The desire for it could even grow despite the intention of TC. Especially as we have a continued fracturing and distrust of all authority in the digital age. This blog, this YouTube video, this Twitter celebrity, can easily become my magisterium. It’s something that Rome and the U.S. Church will need to learn in the coming years: magisterial authority is in competition with digital authority. And thus far, digital authority is winning.

#3: AWR. Good point – I think your view of what’s going on is more accurate than what I first wrote. So we have this virtual Catholicism, online and in a few tolerated locales, alongside the official Catholicism of the rest of the Church. But official versions of organized religion are in decline, and they’re struggling mightily against the strong headwinds of secularization. Digital traditionalism has traction, even if it’s the kind of thing that will appeal mostly to small, exceptional groups.

If there had been online traddie Catholicism when I was in high school, if pre-Vatican II Latin Masses were a thing, I’m certain I would have been pulled into it. All I had was the old hand missal which I discovered in my parents’ closet and fell in love with. When I came to St. John’s University as an undergrad in 1981, I learned about a more grounded, compelling vision of liturgy and was ‘converted.’ What about young Catholics today? How do we help them embrace the Church’s liturgy, now that Pope Francis has clarified in TC that the only (“unica”) lex orandi of the Roman rite is the 1970 Missal? How do we counteract the misunderstandings and distortions that make the unreformed liturgy appealing to at least some young people, including seminarians?

November 3:

#4: TOM.

It’s a great question. I think we have to remember a couple of things about young Catholics in particular.

First, young Catholics are a rather diverse group. To be below the age of 50 in most of our churches is to be young.

Second, let’s say that we’re talking about the young Catholics who are often talked about in the press. Including the young seminarians. They tend to be more conservative. Including liturgically. They tend to be attracted to tradition. I’ve attended not a few events where young seminarians are treated as liturgical pariahs. They wear cassocks. They want to celebrate the Extraordinary Form. They love Eucharistic adoration.

I have to admit I’ve never understood the total hostility for this group. I get it. It can be taken to extremes. But, we’re talking about a crisis in communal memory as a society and Church alike. At least some people want to wear veils to Mass, they want more incense at Mass, and they want Mass to feel different from a trip to the shopping mall.

What I find most interesting about these young people is that they’re highly post-conciliar. They’re retrieving the Second Vatican Council in their own way. That is, they’re serious about religious practice. They’re viewing it not exclusively as a feature of culture. They want to retrieve a Catholic worldview that can make sense of life. And the liturgy is part of it.

They want to worship God. They can take it to the extreme. But gosh, can’t we all? I’m a post-Vatican Catholic (despite what some folks think about me, I suspect). I’ve attended 10 Extraordinary Masses in my life. But I’m sympathetic to the desire to make sense of our lives through a robust liturgical culture. If you want Eucharistic adoration, a veil at Mass, then bygones be bygones, I say. I’m postmodern enough to think that such diversity is good for all of us. You can’t dictate what diversity means.

That being said, all of this can become “gods.” The rites of Vatican II, the pre-conciliar rites, all of it can become gods. In the end, if we want the young to stay attached to the Church, we should remember that our worship is oriented toward “the” God. Not our personal gods. Whether that “god” is worshipped with Gregorian chant, the drumbeat of a Lifeteen Mass, or the latest hymn released from OCP or GIA. These are not our gods.

And that’s how I’d deal with it.

November 5:

#5: AWR. Thanks for your thoughts, Tim, and for your robust defense of young traditionalists, though you’re not one of them. I too have learned, from the several grad students I’ve taught in recent years drawn to the preconciliar rite, that they’re by no means flat-earthers or opponents of the Second Vatican Council or intransigent ideologues.  They’re fellow searchers and learners, hungering for God and open to others’ viewpoints.

Of course hostility to anyone to anyone is wrong, including young traditionalists who are sometimes treated as pariahs. But it’s not a choice between either hostility or affirmation in the form of lazy relativism that treats all liturgical worldviews as equal, or all liturgical pieties as equally worthy of the reformed liturgy, or the preconciliar liturgy as equal to the reformed one. The last ecumenical Council said some things about all this which are constitutive of what it means to be a Catholic.

Young traditionalist Catholics are not well served by your uncritical affirmation. (I suspect in real life you’re more nuanced.) Wearing a cassock could be a very good thing. (I hope so: I wear one every day as part of my monks’ habit). But it could also be an indicator of a frail personal identity which hampers effective priestly minister. I wouldn’t assume the latter universally, but I wouldn’t exclude it in principle either. Eucharistic adoration could be a good thing if it flows from and leads back to the Eucharistic celebration – but problematic if it focuses on static presence more than the communal action of the Eucharistic prayer and ends up distorting the overall understanding of what Eucharistic is. (There are also ecumenical implications to this.)

I think I get your point about either rite, preconciliar or Vatican II, becoming a god in the sense of someone being entrenched in an ideology and demonizing views of fellow Christians. But I reject any suggestion of equality between the two rites, or the false irenicism of “live and let live.” Such relativism may seem appealing as a way to keep the peace. But the higher road is to receive fully the liturgical teachings of the Second Vatican Council – and then to show lots of love and understanding for young people who are being led, often enough through no fault of their own, in the wrong direction.

Oh, and … to learn from them. They don’t always fit my stereotypes. They have plenty of reason to be appalled by the banal liturgies given them by my generation (and the generation before me – can I blame more of it on them? 😊 ) And, in the best of all possible worlds, young people are very important resources in the important task of learning how better to celebrate the reformed liturgy. But for that to work, we all have to be clear that the reformed liturgy is the goal. That’s why TC is so helpful.

November 9:

#6: TOM.

To clarify, I actually think all rites can become gods. I agree that the reformed rites are where our attention needs to be. That’s entirely where my attention is as a scholar and academic director of our Center. We presume the reformed rites.

I’m not sure that I was advocating a “live and let live.” But real dialogue won’t happen if the “other” is so “othered” that they become a scapegoat for everything we find problematic in the Church. Dialogue, at least as Pope Francis presents it, requires engagement. So, to be clear, I’m often emphatic with younger folks that this tendency to blame the Boomers, although perhaps cathartic (scapegoating always is), is a huge problem. It’s the source of polarization, really in the Church. That person is at fault. And therefore, why talk with them?

I’ll simply ask a question to keep the conversation going. How, therefore, do we receive the reformed rites while also dealing (as I see it) with the banalization of the liturgy in many places. I’m taking the term from you, since we’ve used it in previous correspondence. I’m looking for suggestions. How do you do it at Saint John’s? Do you think it works?

November 12:

#7: AWR.

Yes, Tim, scapegoating is wrong. On that we’re agreed. And if you’re helping young people and boomers talk to each other and respect each other, well, you’re doing the Lord’s work!

On to your great question of banalization. I’m afraid my response will be a bit too long, but here we go.

To address banalization, changes that I’ve pushed for at St. John’s include adding incense to the Sunday Mass procession; singing the Lord’s Prayer at Sunday Mass, and then at Saturday and Sunday evening office; adding the Marian antiphon in Latin to the end of the Saturday evening office; doing a bit more Latin chant at Mass; veiling the crucifix corpus on the Fifth Sunday of Lent (that one got rolled back); having the choir of men and boys sing the “et incarnatus est” of the Creed polyphonically (in English) at Christmas Mass, having Benediction at office during the Year of the Eucharist, and so forth. I suppose this all fits in Msgr. Mannion’s “re-Catholicization” paradigm.

But I’ve also pushed for more use of Spanish – at least short refrains as a starter; occasional percussion at Sunday Mass; home-baked, breakable communion bread (the pandemic set us back and we don’t have it at Sunday Mass, alas); sung Communion refrains to underscore the communal (rather than private or devotional) nature of Holy Communion, and other ways for the liturgy to be more joyful, communally celebratory, “extroverted” at the proper times, and the like.

If the liturgy is banal, which it unfortunately sometimes is, the solution is not to add unthinkingly every preconciliar mannerism we can think of. The fact is, our liturgy is sometimes banal, a bland going through the motions, precisely because of what we inherited from the old Mass. While the priest did his Tridentine ritual stuff – the requirements in order to confect the sacrament – the people maybe prayed or followed him or did their own thing, but they did not act meaningfully as a corporate body in a sacred action in which God is present. You simplify all that and put it in vernacular, and you’re left with a banal liturgy where it seems that people are just going through the motions. Absent a corporate spirituality, absent an emotional connection to communal acts, it looks for all the world like the people don’t really believe in what they’re doing. And young people sense that and walk away from it.

It’s no help to put communion rails back in (which divides the “sacred area” from the nave), or have people kneel for Communion (which could make it more devotional and less communal), or push eucharistic devotions even if they distract from a communal understanding of Eucharist rather than enhance it; or introduce Latin chants which are the wrong ones, too difficult for congregational singing or for the choir to do well. Discernment is needed.

I guess what I’m saying is that making the liturgy less banal and more spiritual means opening up all the possibilities of the reformed rite. Sure, look back at things from the past that got lost – but use them to the extent they fit the genius of the reformed rite. “Mutual enrichment” doesn’t work well if it’s a sort of uneasy compromise or incoherent mashup between two rather different ritual systems.

This is why I think it is so helpful that Pope Francis abrogated the previous documents in TC and clarified that the reformed rite is the lex orandi of the Roman rite. I want to hope that the future belongs to those creative souls who are able to run with that – for edification of the faithful and the good of holy church.

#8: TOM.


I agree with everything that you’ve written. I suspect that the real problem of receiving the post-conciliar liturgical reforms is that we remain in what could have been called a “low-Mass” culture. People don’t know how to pray the Mass as a corporate body. So, what we end up with is a priest who is too often a really crappy (official term) actor. People are watching him go through the motions praying, rather poorly, and that’s sufficient. Add to this an almost excessive modern focus upon human speech, a decline in the arts, etc. At times, it’s pretty blah. And to me, it’s why not a few people were satisfied when Mass went online during COVID. We were just listening to speeches anyway (I say this as someone who does not preside but is a happy baptized person).

I also want to underline that too often both a conservative and progressive desire for reform is based on a desire for control or speed endemic of late modern life. We want change, because change makes us feel alive. So, the rites keep changing.

I think we should turn to the reformed rites and let them continue to sink roots (and become less banal as you said).

But I do want to bring up something, which I think may eventually lead to reform(s) in ways that both of us may find surprising. And those reforms could be centuries and not decades in the making.

When we talked at the Society for Catholic Liturgy at Notre Dame, you noted that I painted too rosy a picture of medieval Catholicism (large era, of course). I think you’re right. For centuries, we tried to get people to understand better what was going on in the Mass. We tried to figure out how to convince people to receive the Eucharist, a knotty problem that wasn’t really untied until the 20th century. So, let me say all these things. I don’t want to lionize medieval Catholicism, recognizing that other things had to happen.

That being said, I think contemporary liturgical scholarship in Roman Catholicism has, perhaps, focused too much on an imagined golden age. And that was basically the 3rd through 6th centuries. I love this era. I wrote about this era in the writings of St. Augustine. I bend my knee to this era. I was trained at Notre Dame by Max Johnson, who to me, remains one of my great teachers.

But, as I have read more widely, I also see a pretty big problem in liturgical scholarship. Namely, there has been too much of a dismissal of all eras EXCEPT the patristic one. The story is weak historically. In the apostolic times and early Church, everything was great. Then, medieval Catholicism and terrible St. Augustine began to kill everything with a juridical approach. Yes, there was some nice devotional stuff that happened among medievals. And there was diversity. But no one participated, and no one knew what was going on. The Council of Trent tried to rectify this, but everything about Trent was just against the Protestants. After that, nothing good happened for 500 years until the liturgical movement and Vatican II, which returned us to the good old days.

Now, no one is unsophisticated enough to tell exactly this story. This story is told more here and there. I think it’s not a complete narrative, and it still dominates the academic/ecclesial imagination. And for that reason, our historical imagination does need a bit of reform. If there is going to be another reform or renewal in 200 years, maybe we should really examine what happened in the long period of medieval liturgy? Maybe we need to tell a more complete story about participation in these rites? Maybe we need to attend more to the post-Tridentine era as a period of remarkable renewal, reform, and prayer? Maybe, we need to learn from Latinx scholars who present to us dimensions of popular Catholicism that we have forgotten?

None of this intended for an immediate reform, which I think is foolhardy. But to get back to the work of returning to the sources, asking new questions, and thinking about our own situation. Again, this is a long process. I don’t want immediate reform. But I also want a slightly more nuanced scholarly picture of what happened once upon a time. And even if the reforms of Vatican II are not antiquarian or the result of half-formed experts (as the traditionalists sometimes charge), a more complete historical picture to me is good. But what do you think?