Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Traditional Mass, Too, Depends Upon the Priest



I want to pose this article as a thought experiment. This means I am not trying to argue a point I absolutely agree with, nor drawing any hard conclusions. I am merely following a train of thought to see where it leads and if others agree, and—if not—why.

It is often repeated that the very structure of the Novus Ordo lends itself to abuse and irreverence while the Traditional Latin Mass is impervious to such innovations. This is because the Traditional Mass has a "built in" structure of reverence, whereas the Novus Ordo is a blank slate; it has so many options and vagaries that it essentially becomes whatever the celebrant wishes it to be. Ergo, while the Novus Ordo can (by design) be endlessly improvised and created anew according to the whims of the celebrant, the Traditional Latin Mass has its own unity that comes down to us from Tradition and must simply be received.

It seems, however, that the conventional wisdom that the Traditional Latin Mass is inherently immune to novelty is incorrect. It seems that the reason the TLM is not subject to innovation is not because the structure prevents it, but because the priests who celebrate the TLM are not the sort of priests who would innovate.

Currently, priests who celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass, whether diocesan or part of a fraternity, do so because they believe the traditional liturgy is a perfect act of worship. They choose the traditional Mass because they have come to treasure everything the traditional Mass is and stands for. The love the old liturgy. Therefore they (rightfully) have a deep fidelity to the liturgy and its formal structure. And hence they would never dare impose their innovations upon it. 

But this is only because they have no desire to change the Traditional Latin Mass, not because the Traditional Latin Mass itself is impervious to being changed.

Let us suppose that after Francis, we were to get a hypothetical Pope Pius XIII who mandates that the Roman rite return to the Tridentine liturgy. The Novus Ordo is suppressed. The TLM becomes the normative Mass across the entire west. Deo gratias.

If that were to happen, the Traditional Mass would then no longer be celebrated exclusively by priests who are devoted to liturgical excellence. Rather, every slip-shod parish priest who was accustomed to carelessly fumbling his way through the Novus Ordo is now saying it. Charismatic priests accustomed to incorporating drums and tongues into Mass are now saying it. Retirement age priests who just don't care and can no longer keep track of the shits they don't give are now having to say it. And most are not saying it out of deep love for that liturgical form, but merely from ecclesiastical dikat.

Furthermore, this is all being overseen by the same crop of bishops who have always exercised minimal interest in the liturgy and are likely, at best, to give the new regime a mere shrugging adherence. And it would be rolled out to the same apathetic Boomer congregations that are ubiquitous throughout the Novus Ordo world today.

What would the Traditional Latin Mass look like in these hands? What would stop it from being improvised? Is there anything inherent in the liturgy that would save it from being mutilated?

As far as I can see, the answer is no. A priest can violate the rubrics of the old Mass just as much as he can the new, the only difference being that the terms upon which he violates the New Mass are much more ambiguous. The integrity of the liturgy ultimately depends upon the integrity of the priest saying it, regardless of the specific liturgy being said.

Now, it could be argued that there was no a widespread problem with liturgical innovation prior to Vatican II, so this is good evidence that the Traditional Latin Mass would never have this problem in the future. While this is true (although I should say it is most true of the period between the Council of Trent and Vatican II), this was due primarily to the formation of the priests in those times. They were formed in such a way that respect for the integrity of the liturgy was paramount and innovation would have been unthinkable. Bishops enforced this, popes safeguarded it, and congregations expected uniformity.

So again, the integrity of the liturgy comes down to the will of the priest saying it. It has been observed that a priest following the rubrics of the TLM fades into the background. He allows the liturgy to glorify God through him, becoming, as an individual, of no importance. This is all true...if the priest follows the rubrics. But for that to happen, you need priests who are disposed to follow the rubrics to begin with. Would we have that if the TLM were suddenly mandated universally?

The point is that bringing back the Traditional Liturgy alone would be insufficient unless it was accompanied by a general spirit of metanoia throughout the entire Church. I understand that when we talk about the formation of priests to love the liturgy, that it is not so one-sided. A priest is formed to love the liturgy. And the liturgy itself forms that priest. In a certain sense, merely exposing priests to the traditional liturgy and requiring them to say it will instill in them a respect for it. But we cannot assume this effect will be universal, given the state of the Catholic priesthood. There needs to be a general turn to tradition that is bigger than the liturgy.

Thus, to some degree, the success of the Traditional Latin Mass is just as dependent upon the particular priest saying it as the Novus Ordo, the only difference being in the Traditional Latin Mass the disposition of the priest to do the liturgy correctly is simply assumed whereas in the Novus Ordo it is not. But, if we assume the good liturgical sense of a priest saying the TLM, it is only because today the TLM specifically attracts priests who are already disposed to respect the liturgy. This would not be the case if the Traditional Mass was mandated across the entire Church.

That's my thought experiment. Very interested in your observations and critique. God bless you.


12 comments:

Edmund said...

I think the problem with the Novus Ordo isn’t so much that someone might violate the rubrics and do his own thing. It’s that the liturgy as celebrated *under the rubrics* allows for all sorts of abuses.

Sure some priest might celebrate the TLM versus populum with drums and guitars, communion in the hand, translate the whole thing into English, etc. But he would be violating the law, where he wouldn’t be with the Novus Ordo. And that’s not the same thing

Peter Kwasniewski said...

I agree with the comment of Edmund: the Novus Ordo builds into itself the opportunity for abusing right worship of God and the right ordering of the community to Him, whereas the TLM thoroughly excludes that.

Further thoughts on this article:

1. Although we may bitterly lament the lack of fluency in Latin (and it is a real problem), there is a blessing for a confused age such as ours: the likelihood of priests improvising in Latin is almost nil.

2. The traditional Mass has to be celebrated ad orientem, in Latin, often in whispers. While this allows room for sloppiness, perhaps, it doesn't allow room for showmanship (except maybe during the homily). The priest is nearly forced to posit an act of liturgical cultus. He would have to be unreceptive to the point of hard-heartedness for the liturgical form itself not to have the effect of at least making him dutiful in carrying it out by "saying the black and doing the red."

3. The unspoken background to the period between Trent and Vatican II is not only priestly formation, but the strong insistence of moral theologians that priests sin *mortally* by wilfully violating or neglecting the rubrics of the Mass. As long as people still believed in God, in the sacred, and in sin, this was a powerful incentive for doing liturgy at least "by the books," if not particularly edifyingly. This whole culture would have to be recovered as the backdrop to a general revival in the TLM. And this explains why even if Benedict XVI was a traditionalist, he would not have simply re-imposed the TLM everywhere. The conditions for it are not yet present.


Boniface said...

@Peter K

"it doesn't allow room for showmanship"

IF the priest follows the rubrics. There's no necessary reason why he *must*; it's just that the priests who celebrate it happen to because they care about the liturgy. If it was celebrated by a priest who didn't care...?

Peter Kwasniewski said...

I have been closely involved in the TLM training of several priests who were very ordinary NOM-type priests: they ad-libbed, they were emotional in their ars celebrandi, they liked the options, etc. But something happened when they learned the TLM. The seriousness of it, the minutiae, the texts in Latin: they behaved differently.

I'm not sure what you think you stand to gain by your thesis. Is it that a bad priest is a bad priest? Clearly - CLEARLY - the Novus Ordo is more casual, more relaxed, more open-ended, more option-oriented, and altogether in every way allows for and even seems to foster the kind of garbage we have all suffered under. This is what has corrupted our clergy's sense of the sacred. Obviously if you made them all do the TLM at this moment, it would be a disaster. How does that establish that the TLM is EQUALLY dependent on the reverence of the priest as the NOM is?

In fact, I would say one of the very few certainties we have is that a "reverent Novus Ordo" depends almost entirely on the priest bringing to it an ars celebrandi that its own rubrics do not demand, whereas if a priest just follows the book for the TLM, the liturgy will at least not be a disaster.

IgorPM said...

I am afraid, as far for the priests I know (all NO), they would feel lonely and abandoned having to celebrate the TLM. I do not see how they could not be tempted to introduce some "novelties" or simply abuses to the TLM. It would be interesting to know testimony of a NO priest who found his way in to the TLM and maybe deduce some sort of guidelines. I wonder whether young priests got in to TLM by themselves and offered it to their parish or if some parishoners "talked him into it". Does anyone know such a conversion story?

Boniface said...

@Dr K,

I am not really trying to "gain" anything by the thesis. I don't think for a moment the TLM is "equally" dependent upon the priest--in the TLM, the priest merely needs to yield himself to the rubrics. In the NO, even if the priest follows the rubrics he needs to take the additional steps of choosing the more fitting, reverent rubrics, and EVEN THEN it's inferior to the TLM. So don't think I am positing a strict equivalency.

I am essentially saying (I think) if the TLM also presumes priests willing and devoted to the liturgy, which as you pointed out was much more likely to happen in the pre-Conciliar mindset where altering a received liturgy was conceived of as a sin.

If I have a thesis, it is that the idea "the priest is irrelevant in the TLM" is not entirely accurate, because a priest saying the TLM who doesn't care about the rubrics can mess it up too; as someone pointed out, the funeral Mass for John F Kennedy was a good example. https://youtu.be/E6frnUl7X0A

But I am not positing an equivalence with the NO in that regard for all the reasons you mentioned. I am saying if you had a universal TLM, you'd still have slipshod liturgies because you'd still have slipshod priests. Would it be as bad as today? Heck no. But the TLM wouldn't make bad liturgies just disappear without a corresponding metanoia on the part of the entire church

Peter Kwasniewski said...

Boniface: all very good points. We are in agreement.

It occurred to me this morning that in a way your thesis is like saying: "The truth of Christianity depends on people actually living according to it." In a way yes, in a way no. The truth of it is apparent in their lives, but its truth is nonetheless objective and independent of their lives; indeed, its objectivity is the reason they can live according to it!

So too here: it must be assumed that a priest is willing to "do the red, say the black." The result may not be spectacular, but it will at least be respectful. And on this point, since the red is detailed and explicit, and the black is superior, the TLM has the wherewithal in and of itself to produce reverent liturgy. "Just add water," so to speak.

The funeral Mass of JFK does prove the other side: the truth of the TLM depends on the willingness of priests living according to it.

Noucvnt said...

in short, we need not only the TLM, but the whole traditional mental and spiritual framework.

even assuming current post-V2 priests don't have this same framework, it would be okay I think to mandate each diocese to at least have one TLM per x amount of parishioners. that would quicken the process of metanoia, so to speak.

but not even that. Benedict and now Francis just left traditionalists some scraps (i.e. fraternities using John XXIII's missal) while embarking the rest of the Church in a naturalist-universalist direction. and, after today's news that Francis thinks gays have legal rights to form ersatz families, I sincerely fear whatever else may come from that direction. are traditionalists in practice nearly schismatics now? or, are sedes kinda right, at least until Francis leaves?

Marissa said...

Imagine imposing all canonical hours of prayer, ideally 150 psalms a week. That's the other part of the liturgy modern priests don't want either.

Karl said...

Yes, they could violate the rubribs. But they are violating the rubrics. Reverent words can be said irreverently. There'd have to be consequences, and that's another question.

Josemaria Paulo Jeromino Martin Carvalho-Von Verster said...

It can be said that the EF/TLM is a "Perfect Machine that can be operated safely by Idiots". But where is the Interior Disposition and Sense of Continuity,if ever Catholic Tradition is resurrected in Priests' Hearts?

Anonymous said...

You'd get a lot of mishmashes combining forms proper to High, Sung, and Low Masses, and plenty of 25-minute Low Masses, barely started, then over and done (I've heard this was a known problem before Vatican II). And those, like it or not, would require even less effort on the part of the priest than a Novus Ordo does.