Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Problem of the "Reverent Novus Ordo"



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.

18 comments:

Gregorius said...

An excellent piece Boniface. I think you're almost dead on target, because I would say what is worst about the NO is its actual lack of connection to the organic liturgical tradition. It would not be "perfected" even if all the options you list and more were made mandatory, because it is essentially not the Roman liturgy, but an artificial product made by a committee. At best, one can only polish it. One cannot make it alive.

Peter Kwasniewski said...

I am reminded of Mosebach's biting comment: "Of course the Novus Ordo can be done reverently. That is exactly the problem."

I agree with Gregorius's comment above: the biggest flaw is not the lack of "smells and bells," but the lack of continuity with the developed Latin tradition. And that is why it lacks the other features it ought to have.

Here are two related articles that might be of interest to readers:

https://onepeterfive.com/reform-of-the-reform-doomed/

https://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2019/11/on-fiftieth-anniversary-of-novus-ordo.html

QuantaCura01 said...

Outstanding article. You're perfectly describing the typical parish within the diocese of Fresno california.

starlightatdusk said...

Very good.

And what Gregorius said is right. It is manifestly *not* the Roman Rite.

The Vetus Ordo is the Roman Rite. The Novus Ordo is the Pauline Rite.

vetusta ecclesia said...


I was brought up in a convert Catholic family. We used to be amused, in a superior sort of way, at our Anglican friends and relatives who chose which church to attend on the criterion of “ liking the service”. We found the concept absurd and the uniformity of the Roman Rite clearly superior. Now Catholics do the same.

William said...

I must decrease so that Christ may increase. I can only imagine how much more profound those words are to he who is acting "in persona Christi" at the altar. The old rubrics demanded the submission of the celebrant to them. Every Mass, an exercise in humility. Ah! The wisdom of the Church is so clearly manifested in the old latin rite!

Scapular said...

The Novus Ordo at its best is still an exemplar of what is worst about it. What bizarre irony.

So therefore it is down to CHANCE! The same chance that my son is alive today and not aborted! Not just my son but all your children are not here by the Right of Law but chance!

Scapular said...

The Novus Ordo at its best is still an exemplar of what is worst about it. What bizarre irony.

So therefore it is down to CHANCE! The same chance that my son is alive today and not aborted! Not just my son but all your children are not here by the Right of Law but chance!

Scapular said...

“The Novus Ordo at its best is still an exemplar of what is worst about it. What bizarre irony.“
So therefore it is down to CHANCE ! (Not rite) The same chance that my son is alive today and not aborted! Not just my son but all your children are not here by the Right of Law but chance! Let’s get rid of chance in the liturgy and civil law.

Anonymous said...

The New Rite of Holy Orders are a major problem,especially given after
June 18,1968 they are
"Presiders over the assembly" and NOT
"Ordained to offer the Holy Sacrifice for the living and the Dead."
New Rite of Consecration is even worse.
Conciliar Church post 1967 is the biggest coup in the History of the World.
It's my fallible belief that Jorge Bergoglio is swinging with a sickle and smashing with a Hammer because misled Catholics like myself have been waking up en masse since 2010.
God bless
-Andrew

Marissa said...

I never thought of it that way...it's unfortunate to think what is the future for the Church in regards to her liturgical celebrations? Especially in places where the faith is growing and they use the new rite (and rather irreverently at times).

I think this can be connected to the problem of diocesan traditional masses. They are completely at the whim of the celebrant. Once he is transferred to another parish, there goes your TLM you worked so hard to get put on the schedule once a week or even also for holy days. Maybe your parish has worked very hard at getting masses celebrated on the older schedule, Easter celebrations in old way, well, what point was there if, in the usual course of transfers, the next priest has no interest?

As much as I understand the argument against the "ghettoizing" caused by groups like FSSP, ICKSP, etc. it certainly seems better to have the certainty they bring compared to places where you're always on edge that your traditionally-minded pastor might be transferred tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

FSSP is still awaiting the
trad-rite their consecrated Bishop,promised to them in 1988.
-Andrew

Alan Wiggins said...

In defense of the NO, it does have a place. I was a faithful protestant for 60 years and as I sought to follow Christ, He lead me into the Catholic Church. Had I gone at the beginning to the TLM, I am not sure that I would have understood or endured. The NO allowed me to enter the Church, understand and grasp what was happening. As I continued my journey over the past two years, I have been able to attend three Latin Mass. The are beyond dispute much more honoring to the great Sacrifice of our Lord on the Altar. Their beauty and reverence calls my own heart to honor my Lord more each day. But I do think of those who have been brought up outside the Catholic Church. The NO allows us a bridge to learn and grow. Those who have been brought up in the Catholic Church (cradle Catholics) have such an advantage and they don't even know it. The closest Latin Mass to me is an hour away. You have to be a member of the parish right now because of Covid to attend. The services fill up quickly. I do have a parish in my community that still uses Latin in parts of the Liturgy. That is the one that I attend. I still have much to learn as I have only been on this journey for two years but please don't throw away the NO. It has been the doorway for many of us who love Christ and love His Catholic Church.

Anonymous said...

I was brought up Novus Ordo and left the "Church" when I was 17.
It was a joke where we lived.
At 36,I finally returned to a traditional chapel after my life being one big massive mistake after another.
If I had known about the truth,I wouldn't have ever left.
God bless
-Andrew

Jim said...

WHy not have the extraordinary form in English if you want it to spread?

Jim said...

And I'm still in at age 19. You can't blame a Mass for you leaving the Church.

Lee Gilbert said...

Evening after evening for more than six months my wife and I have been watching videos from The Journey Home with Marcus Grodi. This is a very faith-building practice which I heartily recommend to all Catholics. These are the conversion stories of people from many religious backgrounds and often we hear that a critical, often a decisive moment in their conversion was their attendance at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, presumably in the Novus Ordo form.

Many, many pastors have been converting, often due to the influence of Scott Hahn, who himself was substantially converted by his attendance at a Novus Ordo Mass. How greatly these people value the Catholic faith and everything about it. It is a joy to see, and very convicting. Often they will comment on how scriptural the Mass is, an important motive of credibility for people so steeped in Scripture. This is obviously a "good fruit" of the NO and weighs heavily in its favor. One could fairly say that it is a crucial element of a true and effective Counter-Reformation.

Yet, a young friend who attended the Liturgy Conference here in the Northwest noted the offputting, often patronizing attitude of conference presenters and attendees toward people from Novus Ordo parishes, as in "You poor things, etc, etc." All this kind of thing tends toward schism and surely does nothing to promote interest in traditional liturgy.

She also related that a Nigerian priest serving in her diocese mentioned that without the Novus Ordo Mass, the people of Nigeria would not be converting to Catholicism but to Pentecostalism. Again, another very important good fruit of the Holy Sacrifice in a the Novus Ordo form.

Surely, traditionalists would not want to sacrifice such converts for the sake of maintaining our traditions. It may be that many of them will find their way to the Latin Mass, as has Scott Hahn and Keith Nester, but without the NO bridge it is a virtual impossibility.

For many of these influential people, that is, converts from Protestantism, the unity of the Church is a very big deal, and they badly want to see Christ's prayer for unity in John 17 fulfilled. This is a heartfelt concern for they have their own unconverted families and friends very much in mind. Against this we should not thoughtlessly throw up unnecessary barriers.

For myself, I serve or attend a Dominican rite Latin Mass every weekday, and want to see these liturgical traditions maintained and rendered accessible to the whole Church. But a triumphalist, patronizing and hypercritical ethos on the part of traditionalists will severely impede that process. Rather, I should say impeding it.

Noucvnt said...

the problem is that the supposed bridge the NO is between converts and the Latin Rite, usually goes the other way. cradle Catholics aren't nearly as emotional about the novus ordo as converts. it could be argued the NO should only be used in mission areas for converts for a limited time (maybe before Confirmation?), whether Africans, Chinese, or Protestant whites. but nowhere else. and even then, the Amerindians and other groups all over the world evangelized before the NO loved the Latin Mass, why not others?

of course, Nigeria was colonized by a Protestant country, Catholicism couldn't have been imposed; China and Japan purged their Catholics periodically. but wouldn't it follow that we resist those threat instead of acquiescing every time? which goes to the root of the problem: how far does the bridge have to bend to embrace the converts? after all, allowing communion to the divorced and remarried is also an offer for non-Catholics to come over and be merry divorced Catholics anyway. those are the fruits of the novus ordo. some relativity allows for more; the slippery slope is real.

the lack of structure shows up in Jim's comments; it comes from being raised in the novus ordo, been there done that. sure yeah, a legit translation of the extraordinary form would be better for converts as an optional rite in mission areas; but eventually a transition has to be made to the Latin, which should be the standard and not the exception. why impose English btw, because Hollywood says so? if we just allow the NO to not only be allowed as sole option, for converts and otherwise, but rather enforced as the standard for all - then slipping is easier. Protestants tend to go more Protestant or atheist than Catholic, after all. why should we imitate them, and keep losing ground anyway? i doubt Catholics are the majority in Nigeria or China (yet, but God willing), while the NO is losing souls to Protestants in Latin America, even with the ongoing vaunted "local inculturation". not to mention how North American and European Catholicism is dying, save traditionalists and conservatives; true, they sometimes do it more out of nationalism than real faith, and usually keep the NO; but at least they try to go the right way, and in general the TLM has been going up because of that traditionalist/nationalist reaction. in short the "reverent NO" eventually has a sell-by date, even if it takes a while. thus my opinion that it should only be done for converts/mission areas, and even then as a temporary option and not the rule.

and sure Lee, it sounds triumphalist and whatever you may want, but it is true. the TLM foundation is simply more solid, it is not NO sand - no matter how fun sand can be to play with sometimes when as a child, as a man you build on the rock. and yes, the unity of the Church is important; but such unity includes unity of doctrine. the NO can be used much more to impede doctrine, precisely because as Boniface says, it allows it tacitly. thus you have Cardinal Burke and Cardinal Cupich, or Fr Altman and Fr Martin, in the same Church, thanks to the relativity afforded by the NO and V2. is that really being united in faith?