Monday, December 05, 2022

Reform of the Reform: Liturgical Russian Roulette

Not long ago I was traveling abroad to visit friends. We went out for dinner and they invited their diocesan parish priest, whom I was blessed to spend several hours in conversation with.

This fellow was impressive. He wore the cassock and carried a dignified beard that Maximilian Kolbe would be proud of. He could smoke cigars and drink whiskey with the best of em, but his demeanor was grounded and he spoke with a wholesomeness and erudition that testified to a sound formation. His breadth of knowledge was imposing, but he was able to converse in a way that brought the complexities of whatever subject he was discussing down to the layman's level. It was a real joy to speak with him.

This priest was what I would term a "reform of the reform" partisan. Though we did not talk about liturgical principles in the abstract or get into Vatican II, it was clear he had a deep love for the Church's tradition. He told me proudly how he had instituted ad orientem worship at his parish some years back, along with communion kneeling on the tongue and how well it had been received. Various fixed Mass parts had been switched over to Latin. When he came to the parish, he found it serviced by a "band"; this was replaced by a schola singing a mixture of sacred polyphony and hymnody from the 18th and 19th centuries. From what my friends told me, his preaching was a solid as it gets. His parishioners held him in deep respect and his changes, even if they required a bit of catechesis, were overall received well by his people.

These are all fine things. I am happy anytime a minister uses his position to attempt to introduce people to traditional liturgical customs, even within the context of the Novus Ordo. For many people, a Novus Ordo Mass decorated with such vestiges of tradition becomes the gateway to the Traditional Latin Mass, a kind of via media that eases them into the traditional rite by introducing them to the concepts of liturgical reverence. I do not know what this priest thought about the Extraordinary Form, but he seemed like he was doing the Ordinary Form as well as he was able.

Good as these things are, though, they are not a suitable mechanism for the long-term restoration of liturgical sanity, as evidenced by what this priest told me next

He told me that in the wake of Traditiones custodes, his bishop had outlawed ad orientem Masses throughout the diocese. I asked the priest how he intended to handle this, observing that this was clearly illegal as the GIRM actually implies that the Novus Ordo is supposed to be done ad orientem. The priest said that he knew the bishop's directive was illegal, but he had to "tread lightly" because he did not want to openly antagonize his bishop. Even if what the bishop ordered is technically illegal, he said, there was nobody realistically who was going to stand up for him against the bishop's order. "The Vatican certainly isn't going to help me," he said. "And I don't want to be that priest who makes trouble by going over the bishop's head. The bishop has the ability to make my life very difficult." He then told me that he had reluctantly decided to go back to versus populum at most of his Masses; one Mass, however—the one that drew his most traditional crowd—would retain ad orientem. People who wanted ad orientem would have to go to that specific Mass. He believed that the likelihood of this particular Mass crowd "telling" on him was very low; and, he surmised, since they were quite attached to ad orientem, he felt the desires of his parishioners justified his disobedience in this case. Then he shrugged and said, "It's not perfect, I know, but if I make him upset, he could remove me altogether and then all my work would be undone."

First of all, this priest and those like him are in a darn difficult spot and deserve our prayers and empathy. I, as a layman, don't understand the kinds of pressures priests go through and what the episcopal-presbyteral dynamic is like, so I don't want to opine on what this priest "ought" to do in his scenario, much less judge him for his course of action. I do, however, recognize in this situation the perfect evidence for why reform of the reform, noble as its sentiments are, is a losing proposition in the end. 

Let us, therefore, deconstruct this situation somewhat:

  • The priest's years of hard work are capable of being undone by the diktat of his bishop. Whatever good he has accomplished (and I would not deny that what he has done is good) has no stability; it is completely vulnerable to the whims of the bishop. 

  • The liturgical reforms the priest instituted were accepted by the congregation, but not on the understanding that "this is the tradition and this is what we should be doing,"  but because "this is what Father wants." Similarly, when the pastor abolishes ad orientem at every Mass save one, this, too, will be accepted because "this is what Father wants." The objective merit of traditional liturgical customs is subjugated to a "Father wants/Bishop says" approach. It cannot avoid liturgical positivism, despite itself.

  • The above point also testifies to the arbitrariness of such efforts. This diocesan Novus Ordo congregation is lucky to have a classical schola, communion on the tongue, ad orientem, access to (some) Latin, and sound homiletics. But the only reason they have access to those things at all is because they happened to get this particular priest assigned to them. Had they gotten someone else, it would have been entirely different. The priest told me that before he arrived, the parish had a "band" that used guitars and drums. The congregation was subject to guitars and drums because they happened to get a liberal priest; now they get ad orientem because they happened to get a more traditional one. It's an arbitrary luck of the draw, a crapshoot—playing Russian roulette with the liturgy when people's spiritual livelihoods are at stake.

  • The priest's observation that he has to comply despite the illegality of the directive is sadly correct: a parish priest does have very little recourse against a bishop who intends to make his life difficult; since his liturgical work is exposed it will all be lost if the bishop moves him, and therefore he does have to think in terms of "How can I eek by with minimal diminution of my work?" rather than "What do the good of souls and justice require?" Given the plethora of options available in the Novus Ordo, he will always wind up in this position, in which elements of our liturgical patrimony become the subject of barter in the dance between priest and bishop over what the bishop "allows" the priest to "get away with."

  • The priest's resolution to do what he can at the Mass where "no one will tell on me" sends mixed messages to the congregation seems unprincipled. It tells the congregation that "I am doing what the bishop wants, sort of, but I am also disobeying, kind of. This is important enough for me to disobey, but not so important that I want the bishop to know I am disobeying. It's important enough that I ignore an episcopal directive, but not so important that I risk open breach with the bishop. It's important enough that I am going to do my own thing, but not so important that I am going to openly discuss the principles of why I am doing my own thing—it is all hush-hush." None of this nurtures the sacrosanctity of liturgical tradition among the parishioners; rather, it reinforces the sense of reverent liturgy as a matter of priestly preference. The priest isn't coloring outside the lines on principle; he doing so clandestinely to preserve "his work" and "our way of doing things."

If you think I am condemning this priest, you are wrong; if you are condemning this priest, you are certainly wrong. I understand why he is taking this approach; he understands that he has made significant headway introducing his people to traditional elements of worship and he does not want the rug pulled out from under him. Given his position, I don't know what else I expect him to do. But the point is it's an awful position for any priest to be in. It's a terrible dilemma—but an inevitable dilemma that will always happen whenever a starry-eyed priest attempts to restore some semblance of tradition at his parish.

Even if it is not today, eventually this cassock wearing priest will be replaced by someone more modern. His replacement will go get rid of ad orientem and phase out the Latin. The choir members will get disgruntled and quit. There will be a rift between the new pastor and the parishioners who want to retain the traditional stuff. The pastor will be intransigent; the parishioners, unhappy with him, will leave. With these people gone, the new priest will undo all the traditional stuff the previous priest put in place. The parish will again reach equilibrium as a generic western Novus Ordo parish. The conservative parishioners-in-exile, meanwhile, will relocate to whatever the most traditional option remains among the diocesan parishes. Seeing the influx of new traditional parishioners, that pastor will feel emboldened to introduce more traditional elements into his masses. The whole process will begin again.

But it's never a net gain. In fact, the total number of reform of the reform parishioners in the diocesan system will go down because each time this upheaval happens, a fraction inevitably say "I'm done with this; I'm just going to an Institute/Fraternity/Society parish" and they remove themselves from the diocesan system entirely. So nobody ever wins. It's generally just shuffling parishioners, a diocesan shell-game. The snake just eats its own tail.


Paul said...

Oh man, glad I'm not the only one with such ROTR reservations. A friend sent me this podcast recently that could have been the priest you describe in this post. They make some convincing ROTR arguments, but ultimately I kept going back to the reality of the situation you describe in this post--that the foundation of the NO is built on shifting sand--and I couldn't buy in. I'm glad to see you recognize the difficult position of the priest just wanting to do the right thing given his limitations; but the fact that he is in this untenable position at all speaks to the downsides and unsustainability of the ROTR arguments. Anyway, here is the podcast my friend sent me. It's about two hours, fyi:

Duke said...

Thanks for great article. There is however one typo towards the end - "His replacement will go get rid of versus populum and phase out the Latin." - should say ad orientem.

Boniface said...

@Duke thanks!

@Paul, TWO HOURS!? How do y'all have the time!? LOL

David said...

This article does a good job of outlining the weakness inherent in an individual priest’s efforts to implement traditional liturgical customs within the context of the Novus Ordo. However, I am not convinced that this discredits ROTR as such, depending on how one defines ROTR. If ROTR is solely defined as “traditionalizing” the Novus Ordo on a priest by priest basis than I have no argument with the inherent weakness of this approach. On the other hand, if ROTR refers more broadly to ANY steps to encourage, develop, restore or promulgate a liturgy that is less of a breach with tradition than the Novus Ordo but which is also not the TLM than I am not sure I am convinced of any inherent reason this could not work. For example, do you consider the liturgy of the Anglican Ordinariate to be an instance of ROTR? If so, do you think it is an inherently unsuitable mechanism for long term restoration of liturgical sanity? If you would not consider this to be be ROTR, than how would you define ROTR?

Boniface said...


This is a fair point and good question.

First, while introducing people to traditional elements is always praiseworthy and morally good, it is not always strategically sound, which is the point of the article. I would never say it is not "good" to introduce someone to tradition, regardless of the context. I would question whether such initiatives are destined to succeed or not.

As to the RotR, I define it as attempts to give the Novus Ordo a traditional orientation but anchoring the NO to traditional elements. I do not include the Anglican Ordinariate in the RotR because (as I understand it), the Anglican Ordinariate has its own liturgy that is not the NO. Being older than the NO, it has its own specific form and concrete shape that is not subject to the fluctuating options of the NO. Unless I am completely wrong about what the AO even is, as I admit I know little about it.

RotR is specifically about the NO, and my observations are limited to that, not to any attempts at reverence outside of the TLM.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the Ordinariate liturgy is basically the NO with some traditional options grafted in. The biggest plus is the addition of the traditional offertory though the new one is still an option (that I doubt many ever avail themselves of), the Roman Canon is one of two “Eucharistic prayers” (the other being II, but again I don’t think anyone really ever uses it and it is not to be used on Sundays), and various things like the prayers at the foot, the subdeacon and Ember and Rogation days are added back in but the 3 year lectionary is used and it’s explicitly said to be derived from the NO even though it can be said to look very much like the TLM.

Deacon Gustav Ahlman said...

The shape of the liturgy is something that we receive from the Church, not something that we decide on ourselves. Therefore, this priest seems to me like a wonderful model for all priests by his efforts to celebrate the liturgy in a way as beautiful, traditional and fruitful as possible within the frame of what the Catholic Church today defines as the official liturgy of the roman rite. I would be very happy to come in touch with him.

Boniface said...

@Deacon Gustav,

He does do a wonderful job and he is a fine model. That's not in question. The issue isn't whether he is a fine priest; the issue is that what he is doing will ultimately be undone.

Deacon Gustav Ahlman said...

Firstly: Who knows? Maybe his priestly style inspires several young men to follow his example as priests themselves, after what he might encounter a bishop who lets him found a priestly community entrusted with the permanent care of one or several parishes.

Secondly: Only if there aren’t enough other priests and (future) bishops with the same mindset. Just another reason to encourage and imitate initiatives like this, rather than dismissing them as something futile. The latter would just become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we let pessimism rule the way we act, evidently nothing will succeed.

Thirdly: Even if, due to reasons that are beyond the capacities and responsibilities of this one priest, his efforts would turn out to be unmade in the future, he would still be able to look back at having done the best he could with the talents given to him, to the best for his own soul and for the parishioners who were lucky enough to have him as their pastor.

Boniface said...

Maybe...but such has not generally been the case.

It seems you think I am saying this priest shouldn't be doing what he is doing or something, which is 100% not the point nor the argument.