For much of my life as a Catholic, I attended what most would call a "reverent Novus Ordo." For some Catholics who have never seen a NO that wasn't a clown show, the concept of a reverent Novus Ordo may come as a surprise, but I assure you they exist, though they are rare. What does a reverent Novus Ordo look like? In my experience, they may incorporate some or all of the following elements:
- The ordinary of the Mass said or sung in Latin
- Exclusive use of the Roman Canon ("Eucharistic Prayer 1")
- Prevalence of women veiling
- Chant replacing hymns
- A Latin introit
- An asperges rite
- Beautiful vestments
- Almost exclusive reception of Holy Communion on the tongue
- Centrally located tabernacle
- Reception of communion kneeling at altar rails
- Solid, sacrificial looking altar (i.e., no flimsy "table altar")
- Beautiful, traditional architecture and decorum
- Orthodox preaching and catechesis
- Traditionally vested male altar servers
- Cultivation of spirituality that is Marian and Eucharistic
- Congregation dressed appropriately and reverently
- St. Michael Prayer after Mass
I have been consistent over the years in my opinion that the Novus Ordo is not intrinsically irreverent; that is. We know a statistical majority of Novus Ordo liturgies are cringy at best and irreverent at worst, but still the NO can theoretically be celebrated in a way that befits the dignity of the liturgy. Maybe you disagree with this, but whatever. That's not the point of this essay. And of course, the Traditional Latin Mass is superior in this regard in every way, and that is without dispute. But the point is that it is possible to celebrate the Novus Ordo in a way that is reverent and dignified, and that for many Catholics these sorts of Novus Ordo liturgies constitute a real and positive source of spiritual nourishment and offer a true, if very imperfect, connection with the Catholic tradition.
However, even if this is all true...it's an awful defense of the Novus Ordo. There is one overarching reason that looms like an elephant in the room—the fact that even the best Novus Ordo liturgy is only such because of the personal preference of the celebrant.
The rubrics of the Novus Ordo definitely allow for a reverent celebration. But the word "allow" is the crux of the problem. It allows for all the most reverent options if the celebrant so chooses to use them. And the same rubrics that allow for reverence just as easily allows for the most banal, goofy, or irreverent options if the celebrant so chooses. The Novus Ordo is liturgically libertarian. It elevates the principle of choice for the sake of choice as the determining principle of the liturgy. This ensures that the quality of one's liturgical experience is determined not by the structure of the rite itself, but by the whims of the celebrant. Even when the celebrant chooses to use the most reverent options—which might be good for that particular liturgy—overall it is a bad state of affairs because the stability of that "reverent Novus Ordo" is always in question.
To be blunt, this means that only one person stands between that reverent Novus Ordo and the complete upending of the parish's liturgical life. A few examples from my own history:
My parish had a traditional pastor for over a decade. He did what I would describe as a "reverent" Novus Ordo, and (after the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum) he also celebrated the Traditional Latin Mass. All his liturgies of both forms used the neo-gothic high altar. The parish did have a table altar, but the pastor had removed this and put it in storage. Well eventually, that pastor left and we were assigned a temporary parish administrator until a permanent pastor was assigned. The interim guy immediately put the table altar back. Both clerics could cite documents in support of their decisions: the original pastor rightly noted that the text of the Missale Romanum assumes that the celebrant is facing ad orientam and hence presumes a fixed wall altar, not a table altar. The interim administrator could cite the GIRM, which specifically says that the altar "should be built separate from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people" (GIRM 299). It all depended on the personality and preferences of each man, which document they chose to go by, and how they interpreted said documents. When a new pastor was finally assigned, he (again) removed the table altar. If he ever leaves, a new pastor could just as easily put it back again.
Another story: Years earlier, when I first returned to the Church, I was attending Mass at what was then the most traditional parish in my region. The pastor said a Latin Novus Ordo, where everything other than the readings and homily was chanted in Latin. I loved this. It was my first exposure to anything approximating the Catholic liturgical tradition. Well, eventually that pastor was removed and we got another one, a very low-energy "don't rock the boat" sort of guy. Prime bishop-material. Anyhow, once the new priest got in, guess what was the first thing to go? I don't think Latin has been spoken in that parish ever since.
The point is this: Even when the Novus Ordo is done reverently, it is as an exercise of the pastor's personal taste—and the elevation of the celebrant's preference above all other considerations is perhaps the original sin of Novus Ordoism. The Novus Ordo at its best is still an exemplar of what is worst about it. What bizarre irony.
How different is this from the Traditional Latin Mass, where the celebrant becomes irrelevant! The reverence of the Traditional Latin Mass is not the product of subjective preference, but is built into the structure of the rite itself. The Traditional Mass does not have a contingent "allowance" for reverence; it simply is reverent. The reverence isn't the product of getting just the right pastor in, building the right congregation over the years, and making the right choices amongst a sea of options. The reverence of the Traditional Latin Mass is not the end to be attained, but a foundation that is taken for granted and built upon. It is where we begin, not where we end.
Reverent liturgy is not something Catholics should have to fight for, much less leave to the whims of one man's liturgical preferences. It should be our birthright as sons and daughters of the Church.