Excellent readings on the traditional Latin Mass

Check out this wonderful article giving ten reasons to attend the traditional Latin Mass over at OnePeterFive, by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski and Dr. Michael Foley. (Full disclosure, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Foley during my time in Texas, where I occasionally attended the traditional Latin Mass he had organized at St. Louis Catholic Church in Waco, Texas; he is a model of the Christian gentleman).

Reason #1 is, to me, the most important. I am constantly amazed (and scandalized) at the derision with which most Catholics treat the old Mass, as if it were nothing more than a style of art with which we are free to be unimpressed. Nonsense! The traditional Latin Mass is the history of the Roman rite of the Church. To borrow a phrase from Cormac McCarthy, the Church’s life is made up of the days it’s made up of and nothing else: if you hate her past, then you hate her. More urgently, because this form of the Mass was beloved of so many saints, we are obliged to at least consider its merits, because hating what the saints love is a sure sign that our sensibilities are defective and our soul in need of repentance and renewal.

Fr. Louis Bouyer, whose recently-published memoirs recount some of the antics surrounding the liturgical reform.

Fr. Louis Bouyer, whose recently-published memoirs recount the antics surrounding the liturgical reform.Also worth reading, from Dr. Joseph Shaw, is a pair of blog posts (one here, the other here) on Fr. Louis Bouyer, a French priest who was heavily involved in the liturgical reform, and whose memoirs were recently published (in French, and soon in English). Bouyer’s main contribution is his draft of Eucharistic Prayer II (the one with which Catholics are probably most familiar, being used almost exclusively by many priests due to its brevity), a draft he hated because he was forced to write and rehabilitate it in the course of a single evening with Dom Botte; both men complained bitterly of their colleagues in the Consilium who had made such a terrible hash of it. The first article linked above gives some quotes in the memoirs in which Fr. Bouyer speaks… shall we say, impatiently… about his colleagues, who were driven by an archeologizing zeal and a hatred of everything Roman, and his horror at discovering the ease with which some of its more unscrupulous members were able to manipulate Pope Paul VI.

The second article has some useful reflections about the nature of liturgy, which, he insists, is not didactic but mystical. It’s not a theological equivalent of vocation school in which Catholics are taught skills, but the theological equivalent of a classical education, in which the mind and soul are formed according to sound principles. The latter is teaching, and is characteristic of the new Mass with its emphasis on visibility, intelligibility, and simplicity; the latter is education, and is characteristic of the old Mass with its emphasis on self-emptying, silence, and mysticism.

Persecution and the traditional Latin Mass

Gnosticism was a family of heresies in the very early Church characterized, among other things, by a belief in the evilness of the material world, a consequent radical asceticism that far exceeded the boundaries of reasonable piety, and a dualistic theological system that pit an evil creating Old Testament demiurge against the loving New Testament God. In these respects, it was at best demented and at worst outright evil.

Gnosticism also had some distinctively mystery-cultic tendencies, with grueling and elaborate initiation rituals and a set of esoteric doctrines that were transmitted only gradually to people passing through the stages of initiation. People like to imagine that the mystery-cultic tendencies of Gnosticism were somehow intrinsic to it, so that if you take away the mystery-cult behavior, you are no longer dealing with Gnosticism. Hence we tend to bind up Gnosticism’s esoteric practices with our evaluation of the evil and demented doctrines they were intended to conceal, and we judge the practices as evil and demented, too; from there it’s a short leap to judging all such practices evil and demented, which nearly everyone today does. But this is, to be blunt, nonsense: all new religions are mystery cults, and early orthodox Christianity was no exception. The expulsion of the unbaptized from the Mass of the Faithful was so religiously observed that pagan Romans suspected the Christians of secretly sacrificing and eating infants (an accusation that was, ironically, plausible precisely because the Christians often adopted the deformed or unwanted infants whom the pagans left to die of exposure). The Alexandrian Church required its catechumens to study for a period of three years or more before being admitted to Baptism. And so on.

It’s only when a religion begins to succeed that it can shed its mystery-cultic tendencies. Those tendencies are a camouflage intended to shield the sect from the outrage that would ensure if its doctrines became widely known, at a time when its doctrines are deeply repugnant to the conventional wisdom. Once a religion reaches a critical mass in society, so that its doctrines and convictions are firmly within the Overton window, the camouflage is no longer needed: it can be safely discarded. Gnosticism never “went mainstream,” so to speak, so it never shed those mystery-cultic tendencies, which died with it. (But it’s mainstream today, and where are the elaborate initiation rituals conducted in secret?) Judging religious esotericism as uniformly bad is a conceit afforded only by modern prosperity and security: when men with swords are waiting around the corner to ambush you and feed you to the lions, it’s a reasonable precaution to take.

There’s no denying that modern society is growing increasingly hostile toward traditional Christian beliefs, practices, and institutions. Increasingly, basic Christian values are seen as repugnant to common sense, conventional wisdom, and the common good, and especially to the hypertrophied modern values of “freedom” and “equality.” This is a dynamic we’re going to be stuck with for a while: although it’s true that traditional, orthodox Christians have a vastly greater fertility rate than secular moderns, and while it’s true that the heritability of religiosity means our children will prove increasingly impervious to the world’s attempts to steal them away, it will probably be two centuries or more before we catch up to them, all else being equal, and we can be certain that they will make sure that not all else is equal. As they lose ground, they will come after us, as they always have: first with legal warfare and social ostracism, later with ghettos and quarantines, finally with knives and nerve gas. It’s important, therefore, that we coordinate this transition effectively. The Catholic Church, barring a massive religious restoration (of which there is no reason to think we will be the major beneficiary), is going to go back into the catacombs: that means we are going to need religious practices that will be well-suited to a Church of the catacombs.

It means we are going to need religious practices that are increasingly mysterious, not immediately intelligible, which say what needs to be said less in words than in actions and which lend themselves easily to the gradual initiation of converts over a period of lengthy instruction, and ideally one which has weathered the trials of past persecutions. Gosh… if only the Church had such a scheme of religious practice close at hand!

Liturgical commemoration

Anyone who has been Catholic for at least a few years is probably aware that, on occasion, holy days of obligation conflict. For instance, in 2013, December 8 (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception) fell on a Sunday, specifically, the Second Sunday of Advent. Since, in the reformed calendar, the Sundays of Advent are of superior rank to all other solemnities and are immoveable, the observance of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the ordinary form calendar was transferred to Monday, and no mention of it was made on its proper Sunday. This had to be done because, in the ordinary form, it is not possible to honor two distinct occasions or saints in the same Mass: we can have the Sunday of Advent, or we can have the Immaculate Conception, but we can’t have both at the same time; and since the Immaculate Conception is less important than the Sundays of Advent, it got the boot to Monday. That’s at least better than ignoring the occasion entirely, but it’s pretty regrettable that no mention of the Immaculate Conception is made on the day proper to the Immaculate Conception, isn’t it? This is doubly true as comparatively few people are willing to attend Mass on Monday, even in places where the opportunity is available.

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