Friday, May 13, 2022

The Traditional Low Mass: Simplicity vs. Informality

Recently I had the pleasure of visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin. This beautifully designed neoclassical structure is situated on a forested hillside in a quiet neighborhood outside La Crosse. It was the creation of Cardinal Raymond Burke, specially dedicated by him to the patroness of the America. This structure was meant to reflect the liturgical ideals of the movement known as the "Reform of the Reform." The church itself is gorgeous; the altar is constructed in an Italianate style reminiscent of St. Peter's basilica, with a massive baldachin supported by four massive marble columns. The altar features the so-called "Benedictine arrangement" that was so touted during the last pontificate. A series of splendid paintings of various saints decorate the transepts, each situated over a reliquary altar of their respective saint. A sign in the narthex explains that all Masses at the shrine must be offered ad orientem and explaining that this is "really" how the Novus Ordo is meant to be offered according to the rubrics. It is an impressive place that elicits a sense of piety and grandeur.

I attended the 12:15 daily Mass, which of course was offered in the Novus Ordo. The contrast between the majesty the structure evoked and the realities of the liturgy being offered was stark. There was nothing amiss with the priest; he did a fine job, offering the Mass exactly according to the rubrics with worthy reverence. But the liturgy itself was so strikingly...informal. The banal dialogues, the Prayers of the Faithful with the scattered whispers of "Lord, hear of our prayer" squeaking out of the congregation, the casual language of the Eucharistic prayers. Of course this realization is nothing new, but I think the informality of the New Mass is thrown into relief when celebrated in a more solemn locale. The glory of the building shines a brighter light on the banality of the liturgy. The more splendid the church, the more unsuited the New Mass appears. 

But I wondered if I wasn't being unfair. After all, a Low Mass offered in the Extraordinary Form wouldn't be much to look at either...right? Would I not find the silent, stripped down Low Mass as unimpressive in the same circumstances?

As I pondered this, I realized something about the traditional Roman rite: even though the traditional Low Mass is simple, it is never informal. A Low Mass is a rather simple affair: the priest approaches the altar, he works his way through the prayers (with the laity participating with whatever manner of quiet devotion seems best to them), and Sacrifice is offered, Holy Communion is distributed, and Mass ends. It is extremely straightforward. It is simple. But it is elegant. It is noble. It is dignified. The much touted "noble simplicity of the Roman rite" the liturgical reformers lauded was always present in the traditional Low Mass. It is a liturgy capable of rising to the occasion when offered in a glorious basilica—but also of elevating the occasion when offered elsewhere, like on the hood of a Jeep on a World War II battlefield, or a hastily constructed wooden altar in the wilderness of Brazil. It is a kind of simplicity that has a universal appeal, admirably reflecting the omnipresence of God whose glory is present in the grandest cathedral and the vilest slum.

When it comes to the Novus Ordo, however, the reformers fundamentally confused simplicity with informality. In seeking a "simplified" Mass, they crafted one that was shockingly informal. Informality in the way it addresses God, in the commonplace language of the prayers, in the gestures, in the way it clumsily drags the congregation into the dialogue-responses. It is an informality that is capable neither of rising to the majesty of a beautiful church, nor of elevating the surroundings when offered elsewhere. 

Simplicity can still be grand. Informality is not. Simplicity can still lift us out of the workaday world and orient us towards God. Informality merely reminds us that we are still in the workaday world. The traditional liturgy never made the mistake of conflating simplicity with informality. It may have had rites that were simple, but they were never informal. Never humdrum. The Novus Ordo sought to create "noble simplicity" but instead created ho-hum informality and its progenitors were too inept to tell the difference.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Wisconsin is an absolutely beautiful structure situated in beautiful surroundings. It is a place of beauty through and through. I wish it had more liturgies suited to the grandeur of the place.


M. Prodigal said...

There is a TLM still offered on Sundays I believe: at 9:30 am.

Alexander Verbum said...

I will take it a step further. Someone I knew once said, "I would rather go to a low mass than a Latin Novus Ordo with all the smells and bells."

Also, I enjoy Low Mass, but it really shouldn't exist as something that the laity attends. It used to be the Mass the priest would say without lay present (hence why it is inaudible), but it just grew in a way that lay people started to attend.

I have seen "low Masses" that were audible and even some where parts of it were prayed intoned, maybe that is the way to go if there ever was a true reform.

Gaius said...

Whenever I go to a Novus Ordo Mass, the adjective that always springs to mind is "needy". The Vetus Ordo basically says, "This is what we're doing; this is what the Church does; take it or leave it." The Novus Ordo, with all its variations, options, and community participation, says, "Please be interested. Please pay attention. Please don't be bored. Please like me." It's a bit like having a really insecure friend who never gives you a moment's peace for fear that you'll forget him.

Dutch Boy said...

In my youth I enjoyed the dialogue Latin mass, in which the laity and priest participated in the liturgy. I thought it was better suited to a modern, literate laity than the sotto voce dialogue between the priest and the altar servers in the low mass. My impression is that the current supporters of the extraordinary form disapprove of the dialogue mass, considering it to diminish the role of the priest in the liturgy and as a step toward the current ordinary form. I thought it was a genuine liturgical reform to make the mass more relevant to a the modern laity and far superior to the disastrous post Vatican II liturgical revolution.

Boniface said...

@Dutch Boy

In the years I have been around Trads, I have seen mixed feelings on the dialogue mass. Many feel as you do; I would probably count myself among them. But there are many others who prefer the sotto voce low mass. I don't think there is a specific trad position on the question.

Anonymous said...

Whatever one thinks of the dialogue Mass (and for what it's worth, I am against it on both historical and practical grounds), it should be noted that the purely sotto voce low Mass was a liturgical abuse; the rubrics call for everything that would be sung in a Missa Cantata to be recited audibly, at least to those in the front pews.

The last five decades, I should hope, have shown the danger of "relevance to the modern laity" as a criterion for liturgical practice, when the Mass comes with its own intrinsic ends, and the goal is for us to be shaped by it. The Mass is not primarily, or even perhaps prominently, didactic, and it is not a good thing to modify it to flatter the very historically un-Catholic assumption otherwise. I have been a full-time trad for almost seven years, but I barely appreciated the old Mass at all until I realized that it wasn't meant to be a didactic experience. Sometimes, there's no way around a paradigm shift, especially when a previous paradigm shift is the real problem.

Anonymous said...

Valid though it may be, the NO doesn’t exactly entice the soul to enter more deeply into itself and God through mystical prayer in the same way that TLM does.