Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Novus Ordo and Conversion

Following up on my last post about the problem of the "reverent Novus Ordo", it was brought up in the comments that perhaps the Novus Ordo as some usefulness as a "transitional" liturgy that might appeal to Protestants in the process of returning to the Church. The argument in favor of this would be that a great many Protestant converts (myself included, even though I am not technically a convert) came into the Church through exposure to the Novus Ordo. Thus, even if the Traditional Latin Mass were re-enshrined as the normative Mass of the Latin rite, perhaps the Novus Ordo could be retained as a sort of liturgical "lobby" that converts pass through on their way to the Traditional Latin Mass.

One could of course respond by citing the innumerable multitudes of Protestant converts who returned to the Church before the existence of the Novus Ordo, most of them because of the radical difference between the Traditional Latin Mass and their own worship. For anyone who wants to read some examples of this, I highly recommend Joseph Pearce's book Literary Converts, which chronicles in fascinating detail the veritable army of English converts that entered the Church between 1850 and the Second Vatican Council.

But I also want to appeal to my own experience here, because I am among those who came into the Church through exposure to the Novus Ordo. It made me question to what degree the Novus Ordo itself was an aid in my conversion. Do I have the Novus Ordo to "thank" for being Catholic today?

To examine this question, we must first take a necessary detour through some of my personal history:

I was baptized Catholic as an infant but never raised in the faith, by which I mean I was never taken to Mass, never made a First Communion, and so forth. I came to Christ when I was 19 through the evangelism of a Protestant friend of mine. My first real experience of Christianity was in the sphere of what I would call Protestant house-church Pentecostalism. I returned to the Catholic Church when I was 22 years old as a result of personal study and prayer. It would be laborious to catalog the various winding paths that led me to the Church, but I can sum them up in three points:

(1) Historical study convinced me that the early Church was Catholic, or at least nothing like the Protestant gatherings I was accustomed to

(2) I was frustrated with the subjectivism and anti-intellectualism inherent in Pentecostalism and Protestantism in general; the Catholic Church, on the other hand, possessed a rich intellectual tradition

(3) It became evident to me that no Protestant hermeneutic suited the Sacred Scriptures and that a Catholic hermeneutic seemed a much more natural and holistic way to approach the Bible.

I also had a few mystical experiences which seemed to aid my reason and push me back towards the Church, but I have no wish to write about those here. So setting aside mysticism, the primary reasons I found my way to the Church were intellectual—they had to do with facts historical or exegetical and were grounded in the assumption that faith and reason were meant to reinforce each other. Facts that I believed about the Church and had learned from my study.

As I began my journey towards the Church, I began going to Mass. My first experience of the Mass was of course the Novus Ordo, as I didn't even know the Traditional Latin Mass was a thing. But more importantly, I did not understand that the Novus Ordo was not the historical Mass.

As I was studying the history of the Church, everything I was reading about was of course in the time of the traditional liturgy. When I read about St. Philip Neri going into ecstasy at Mass, it was the traditional Latin Mass. Or the Mass that St. Isaac Jogues offered in the wilderness, suffered, and died to bring to the Iroquois. Or any of the great stories from our heritage. It was always the traditional Latin Mass.

I certainly did not know any of this. Pre-conciliar texts of course did not know there was going to be a Novus Ordo in the future, and hence they did not refer to the Mass of the ages as the "traditional Latin Mass", but simply "the Mass", as they had no conception there would ever be any other. And post-Conciliar texts—anxious to stress continuity between the pre and post-Vatican II Church—simply spoke of the Novus Ordo as if it were essentially the same Mass the Church had always celebrated. Since pre-V2 texts were unaware of future rupture and post-V2 texts were eager to downplay rupture, the result was that I studied my way into the Church without ever realizing there was a rupture. I had no understanding that the Novus Ordo was not the traditional Mass.

But, upon reflection, all of the reasons I wanted to be Catholic in the first place were due to what I read about the pre-Conciliar Church. Consider this: I knew from my historical studies that the language of the Church was Latin. I loved this. I loved the idea of the universal Church having its own sacred, universal language that could breach the gap of culture and geography and undue the division of Babel in the sacred tongue of Latin. I actually went back to college and studied two semesters of Latin because I thought I would need it to be Catholic. I smile when I think of my naivete then, assuming the entire Church still used Latin! Silly me. But that was the impression I got from my historical studies.

There's many other examples—Gregorian chant, missionaries who actually wanted to make converts, popes who stood up to the trends of the world instead of embracing them, religious orders who wore traditional habits and were still faithful to their orders' charisms, a biblical exegesis that took the Scriptures seriously, architecture that reflected the glory of God instead of the ugliness of modernity, lots of pious devotions practiced at the parish level. Yes, I know I am leaving out the biggest thing, that is, the Mass of the ages. But keep in mind, I was not yet aware that the new Mass and old Mass were different.

At any rate, the simple point is this: the Church I read myself in to was the pre-Conciliar Church

And as an aside, have you ever noticed that many classical Protestant objections to Catholicism also all presume the pre-Conciliar Church? Like, objections about Marian veneration, use of Latin to "keep people from reading the Bible", belief in the Real Presence, veneration of statues, etc. Following historical precedent, today's Protestants generally attack a Church that no longer exists. They expend so much effort attacking the veneration of statues which the vast majority of parishes removed or relegated to mere decoration. They publish long, impassioned rebuttals to belief in the Real Presence—a belief that 69% of Catholics no longer hold. It seems to be the case that, just as I read myself into a pre-Conciliar Church, so do Protestants attack a pre-Conciliar Church. Either the NuChurch does not threaten them, or perhaps, being outsiders, they are simply unaware of how much things have changed in our household. Who knows.

Now, when I actually got into the Catholic Mass and started experiencing the Novus Ordo, it did actually move me deeply. But the reason it impressed itself upon me was not anything particular to the Novus Ordo, but merely the fact that there was a liturgy at all. Coming from a Pentecostal background, the mere existence of a structured liturgy, liturgical year, fixed readings, a Eucharistic rite, etc. were deeply impressive. But upon reflection, what impressed me most was just liturgy qua liturgy, not anything special about the Novus Ordo. 

After I got into the Church, I obviously noticed the dearth of Latin immediately. And the absence of chant. And bad music. And many other things that we associate with what is loosely called "Novus Ordoism" these days. This was disappointing, but at the time I thought this state of affairs was peculiar to my parish. Eventually I found a parish that did what I called a "reverent Novus Ordo" and I thought things were fine.

As happens with many converts, it was only when I started to realize how little the current rite resembles the old rite than my mind changed. After I had been Catholic for five years, I of course had learned about the Second Vatican Council and the Novus Ordo and everything, but I assumed that the Novus Ordo was basically the same as the Traditional Latin Mass. I assumed that perhaps 90% was the same and the changes only superficial. Crazy, I know! But, in my defense, this was pre-Summorum Pontificum, and I had very little opportunity of ever actually experiencing a traditional Mass for myself. And, as I mentioned above, every piece of contemporary literature on the subject—generally from the Catholic Answers-New Springtime-EWTN quadrant of Catholic intelligentsia—stressed pre and post-V2 continuity. It was stressed to a degree that, in retrospect, I now find ridiculous at best and deceptive at worst. But the end result was that I was ignorant of the true depth and breadth of the rupture. 

Eventually I met another Catholic, just a DRE at the time but now the eminent Dr. John Joy, who gave me copies of Klaus Gamber's The Reform of the Roman Liturgy and Michael Davies' Liturgical Timebombs. These books finally opened my eyes to how much had actually been gutted from the Tradition. How the prayers were changed. The calendar. The sacraments. Literally everything. The Pauline Reform was not a cosmetic make-over. It was almost an entirely new edifice.

Around that time I also got a hold of the actual day books of the Second Vatican Council. The day books were essentially the daily logs of the day-by-day proceedings of the Council: what bishops spoke on what days, the subjects they spoke about, the exact vote tallies on the different proposals and documents, and so forth. In reading these, I was astonished by the way the liberal faction had dominated the procedures of the Council. I couldn't believe the unplugging of Cardinal Ottaviani's microphone during his speech actually happened. And many other instances of chicanery. Yet there it all was. This led me to Ralph Wiltgen's The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber, which helped make sense of what I had read in Council day books and pulled the entire history of the Council together in a cohesive narrative. 

At a certain point, it dawned on me that the sad state of affairs I had lamented in some of my local parishes was not confined to to those parishes. It was, in fact, the state of the Church globally. This was an incredibly depressing realization, but it ultimately led me to the study of the Traditional Latin Mass, which at that time was still only offered under the Indult. When I was able to compare the prayers of the TLM to the Novus Ordo, the difference was night and day. "Why wouldn't anyone want to pray like this?" I thought to myself in astonishment at the obvious superiority of the old prayers. 

The curtain finally fell when I had the following realizations:

(1) The Church I had fallen in love with through study was the traditional Church, which for all intents and purposes no longer existed.

(2) Whatever it was that had replaced the traditional Church was not only different, but also inferior to it in every way. Those things I liked about the contemporary Church were precisely those facets of traditional Catholicism that had survived despite the rupture of the Conciliar era. 

(3) Finally, this displacement of tradition was not some accident of history, but was a very deliberate act of erasure—of intentional cultural warfare waged against the Church by one of her own factions. 

The Church I had read my way into simply did not exist. It's hard to explain the degree of frustration I felt. Not just frustration, but, a sense of having been robbed. Yes, robbed; for to intentionally cut off the great stream Tradition is to commit the sin of theft against future generations, who are thereby deprived unjustly of a heritage they ought to have inherited. Destroying tradition is to commit theft against future Catholics.

Was the Novus Ordo responsible for bringing me back to the Church? Only in an indirect way, in the sense that I found a few scattered remnants of tradition within the contemporary Church that nourished me enough to secure me in the faith. I do not therefore think the Novus Ordo is a good "transitionary" Mass for people who were in my situation. The fact that God used it to my advantage does not mean it would be to the Church's advantage in general. To use another example, I came into the Catholic Church through the bridge of Pentecostal Protestantism. Pentecostalism was the step God used to bring me to the Catholicism, which was a good thing. But that God used Pentecostalism for my good does not mean I view Pentecostalism as an objective good that I would recommend.

God can bring good out of anything, but it does not follow that those things are goods.

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'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 orientem 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.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

What Madness Washed Them Away?

Kirstin was a friend of mine from long ago—a companion of the raucous days of my youth and the bygone years when I was a just a secular kid in public high school, doing the things all secular kids did in the 90s. We met in gym class. Both of us had an aversion to running, so we found each other on the track in the early morning walking leisurely with the sports-averse kids while all the jocks passed us by lap after lap. We took to each other naturally; I was a punk rock kid with a skater mohawk, and she was a hippie girl with long, scraggly hair down to the small of her back.

We hung out a lot, both one and one and socially. We shared a common friend group and lived nearby. I got to know her sister and her mother. Nothing romantic ever emerged between us, but we sincerely enjoyed each other's company. She came from an Italian family and was feisty and opinionated. I was a burgeoning intellectual who was always up for a good argument or any sort of rich conversation. We never agreed on everything, but that was okay, because we had that sort of mutual fondness that makes friendship sweet and easy. We spent many late nights with friends in 24-hour diners sipping coffee and talking about anything and everything to the haze of cigarette smoke, back when you could still smoke in restaurants. We went on that way for about four years, weaving the memories that would become the tapestry of our adolescence. It was a very sincere and wholesome friendship.

Once when we were about 18 and it was the dead of winter, Kristin and I went to a party at some house where we didn't know the people there very well; they were mainly older guys of college age or even older. Booze flowed freely and Kirstin and I were soon inebriated. As the night wore on, some of the college guys began to get aggressive towards Kirstin. They were inviting her back to their rooms for sex, harassing her, and boasting that they'd have her that evening. We were too drunk to drive, and many party-goers were just crashing wherever they could find a spot. Kirstin confessed to me that she was terrified of going to sleep there in such a vulnerable state. There was one drunken guy in particular who was being extremely predatory. We discussed various options, like sleeping in the car, trying to drive home drunk, etc. We eventually decided to sleep together on a large couch. There was a sofa that there was broad enough for two people to lay down side by side; Kirstin laid on the inside, and I laid on the outside, sort of spooned up to her, in such a manner that no one could approach her without climbing over me first. We passed the whole night that way, sleeping peacefully, chastely, and without incident.

The following morning, we awoke at dawn when everyone else was still sleeping and left in her car. I still remember driving down the road as the sun crested the trees, with that "I am hung over and slept in my clothes feeling" while she smoked with the window cracked in her car and we listened to Blind Melon and talked about what happened. She was exceptionally grateful for my presence there that night and what I had done. I don't know what would have happened otherwise, but she firmly believed that my presence alone had stopped her from being assaulted or raped. And that night became like...a special moment of vulnerability that gave our friendship a unique depth and mutual respect.

Well, after high school we fell out of contact. I entered a spiritual crisis and converted to Catholicism. She moved to Europe. We had no communication for many years. With the advent of social media we reconnected, albeit from a distance and we did not have much interaction. I mentioned she was always kind of a hippie growing up, and as an adult she had definitively embraced the Left side of the political spectrum. But that was okay. I have a great diversity of friends from all different backgrounds. I saw her when she returned stateside once or twice. And I rejoiced with her when she got married to a wealthy European businessman and became a very well-to-do lady. My heart broke with her when she was diagnosed with a degenerative nervous disorder a few years back that affected her cognitive function. I prayed for her.

In short, life went on for her and I and affected our friendship much the way the passing of time affects many friendships. We strayed, we drifted, but the bonds that we forged in youth remained, buried beneath the accumulation of time.

Two months or so ago, on a Facebook post about Black Lives Matter, she suddenly emerged on my thread spewing vitriol, accusing anyone who would not get behind BLM of being racist, and demanding anyone who would not support BLM to unfriend her. I did not argue with her, although I modestly challenged her on a few points.

A few days later I noticed I was unfriended. All that personal history just...evaporated.

And I could tell many similar stories.

What happened to my friends?

What madness has washed them away?

If you have similar stories, please share in the comments.