The Future of the Ordinary Form

Some data recently posted on the traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli caused something of a furor. “Since 2005, the number of every-Sunday New Masses in Latin in the U.S.A. has fallen from 58 to 39,” the post said. “The number of dioceses in the U.S.A. offering this Mass every Sunday has fallen from 36 to 28.” Further, the ratio of old Masses to new Masses in Latin is 9:1. So the blog claimed.

This data would imply that the Latin ordinary form is dying out and that the demand for Latin in the liturgy is increasingly becoming the exclusive province of the extraordinary form. The great worry here, from my point of view, is the rising impression that the new Mass is for the vernacular and the old Mass is for Latin – total obscurity the reality that the normative form of both is Latin, and certainly the normative form of the music for both is Gregorian chant in Latin.

I had fretted about this data for a full day before it was finally brought to my attention that something is fishy about the report. Unless the author is withholding his source, there seems to be no scientific basis for these statistics at all. Indeed, there is no reason to believe a word of it.

In fact, my strong impression is that Latin in general received a strong boost from Summorum Pontificum’s liberalization of the older form of the Roman Rite. Certainly the sales of Latin chant books for the ordinary form reflect that. Most all musicians working in the Catholic Church sense the change, the opening up of possibilities for singing music from our heritage in Latin.

My evidence is anecdotal but my own inbox has served me well as a barometer on these matters, and I hear of ever more cases of parishes moving to all-Latin ordinary settings and more choirs singing the propers, and even cases of all-Latin dialogues and Eucharistic prayers. To be sure, most progress takes place within a context of a mixed-language liturgy, neither all English nor all Latin.

Now, one might say: it’s fine to sing a Sanctus but what about the rest of the Mass? My answer is this. If you are looking for a direction of change, and hoping to characterize the future of the ordinary form, looking only for all-Latin-language Masses misses the point in several respects. For example, it is actually very common for low Masses in the extraordinary form to include vernacular hymnody.  Are traditionalists unwilling to call these “Latin Masses?” Of course not, even though one might even say that a sung ordinary form Mass with Latin propers is a closer approximation of the Roman Rite ideal than the the case of a four-hymn low Mass in the old form. .

Latin is surely part of progress toward the ideal, but not all progress can be defined in terms of the language alone. A mainstream parish that moves from four pop songs every Mass to using chanted propers in English and a chant-based ordinary setting in English is making great progress. This can happen without ever venturing into Latin. So far as I can tell, this is the kind of progress that Rome is currently urging with the new translation in English and the mandate that all missalette publishers include English chant from the Missal in their worship aids. It is not an end state but it is a step in the right direction.

As I think about these data in retrospect, a red flag should have gone up at the mere reporting of specific and seemingly scientific information about Masses and their forms in the United States. The parish experience is famously difficult to quantify. Many parishes have all Latin ordinary forms as one Mass on Sunday, and they may or may not advertise this fact, not because they are hiding it but merely because the parish convention can settle in without specific identifiers that subdivide parishes along demographic lines.

Why did I believe the data when I first read it and why was I alarmed by it? Because it played into a fear that I had developed soon after the Motu Proprio was promulgated. My worry was that the energy for reform the Mass that most people experience today would be poured exclusively into the push for the old form of the rite. The “traditionalists” would bail out of mainstream parish life completely once they get what they want, leaving the main Catholic experience worse off than ever. The “novus ordo” would be firmly entrenched as the English Mass with goofy music, while the “traditional Latin Mass” would be the place for seriousness, dignity, and Gregorian chant. This situation would persist for decades hence, creating a dynamic that might, on balance, leave the average Catholic worse off than before. The pressure to acculturate the ordinary form to Catholic tradition would evaporate.

Now, let me say in passing that there is a certain sector of traditionalists that would welcome this result – however perverse that might sound. To their minds, the new Mass is a hopeless abomination that must be destroyed, while the people who attend it (meaning some 95% of practicing Catholics) are deluded or corrupt or otherwise beyond hope, so they might as well be pushed overboard  too. It’s true that some people really think this way, and if you doubt it, I encourage you to look at the editorial on the blog that originally reported this (made up?) data.

Fortunately, I don’t see this great fissure between the ordinary and extraordinary form happening. Of course we can only speak of broad tendencies and hard facts are truly hard to come by here, but my strong impression is that Pope Benedict’s hope for “mutual enrichment” is indeed taking place. This is absolutely essential for the ordinary form and its future. I think of places like St. John Cantius in Chicago, St. Agnes in Minnesota, and many other cathedrals and parishes in this country where the EF and OF coexist to the point that parishioners are no longer sure which they are attending.

The great calamity for Catholic liturgy that took place in 1970 is that the new Mass, implemented without sufficient attention to its associated music and rubrics, was imposed on the world in the cultural context that seemed to rule out looking to history as a means of guiding the way forward. Even the translation was completely novel and, in places, not a translation at all but rather a vague paraphrase. There were serious mistakes even in some structural aspects of the calendar, among other factors.

The regrettable cultural environment in which the new Mass was imposed is gone. What is the way forward? It is through looking back at tradition. But unless that tradition is a living reality that we can see and experience, we end up conjuring up a heritage from dusty books and groping in darkness and speculation. This is the reason that every Catholic should favor the full  proliferation of extraordinary form Masses. It is not only for purposes of righting a wrong and ministering to those attached to the older form; a living presence of the older form provides a guiding light for the reform of the new.

It strikes me as a strange alliance that both die-hard “progressives” of the old school and hard-core traditionalists are united in wanting to keep a permanent wall between the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Roman Rite. To hope and pray in the spirit of Summorum is to desire continuity between the tradition of the past and the ritual that Catholics will experience today and long after this generation passes from this earth.

15 Replies to “The Future of the Ordinary Form”

  1. Great post. Although fully aware of the many dubious aspects of the Ordinary Form, I started attending a Latin Novus Ordo on Sundays despite having the Extraordinary Form in my diocese. I offer this not to pit the two forms against one another, but to further belie the argument that traditionally-minded Catholics will naturally gravitate to the EF in preference to a latin OF mass and regard the latin OF as a half-way house merely to be tolerated.

    –Mr. Crouchback

  2. I grew up with the EF. However, as the OF is celebrated, ad orientem, in Latin, at St. John Cantius, in Chicago (as depicted above) I have absolutely no problem with it. It actually shows a fair amount of continuity with the EF.

  3. Thoughtful and true perspective. Having just spent a week with a mix of EF and OF musicians, I worry about the "exclusivity tendency." Throwing most Catholics to the "musical dogs" is never charitable or useful. And if the focus becomes exclusively on Latin language in the liturgy that will be the result.

  4. I have been, for several years, of the incorrect opinion that the "Novus Ordo" stands in continuity with the Roman Rite and that all that needs be done is to conduct the "Novus Ordo" properly. Recently, however, as I have studied not only the Mass, the history of its fabrication, as well as the drastic changes made to other sacraments and the Breviary, I can make no other conclusion but to agree entirely with Mr. Laszlow Dobszay: the Bugnini-Liturgy is not a development within the Roman Rite but an imposter foisted upon us from without. Once this realization is grasped, many things click into place–for instance, that nagging question about WHY the Bugnini-Liturgy is almost never used 'according to the books', but with individual innovation on the part of the priest. As with the Protestant Revolt, once one man takes the things of God into his hands and decides to remake them in his own image, few want to follow him exactly–rather, they imitate his method. Another conclusion is that, because the Bugnini-Liturgy is a fabrication, not an organic development (to paraphrase the Pope), it is doomed to die, whether we try to prop it up or not. The best thing we can do is use it like a sinking ship–we need to turn it around and get it back to harbor before it goes down entirely, taking everyone else with it. So I don't think we can advocate that everyone jump in the life-rafts and abandon it–but we need to know the truth of the matter.

    –Anonymous Seminarian

  5. There are structural problems with the OF, the calendar, the translation, the omissions, the lack of clear rubrics, and much more. But it is also the structure we have and it isn't going away. It will take decades if not generations but reform will come – and that reform will be in light of tradition.

  6. Jeffrey, there are no fewer problems with the 1570/1962 Missal. However, the Church's principle for liturgical reform is laid down in SC 1. First, the need to increase the vigor of the Christian life. Second, to adapt to current needs. Third, to promote Christian unity. And fourth, to support universal evangelization.
    Tradition informs these, but is not the prime consideration.

    If you wish, I'd be pleased to offer an in-depth analysis of GIRM 48 and clear up the misunderstandings.

    Lastly, the caricatures offered by our anonymous friend are unhelpful. They tend to damage unity in the Church and encourage an adversarial approach to the Roman liturgy itself. If you have any serious hopes for promoting chant in a proper place in the modern Roman liturgy, such sentiments will not advance your argument. And indeed, a misunderstanding and misdiagnosis of the post-conciliar liturgy will clog the liturgical expression of your artistry.

    Jeffrey, I think you know me as a person deeply sympathetic to your artistic aims. But I cannot support a ungrounded approach to liturgy.

  7. It's the "adapting to current needs" that seems to me to have trumped the others. I agree that the 1962 Missal and Breviary are probably the most impoverished since Trent. While it won't happen, I wouldn't mind seeing a return to a richer collection of Uses with a clear central theological core. Trent thought the only way to unite the Church was to impose the Roman liturgy on It. Secular politics unfortunately played a hand in making this happen. ISTM that in some ways we already have a myriad of applications if not actual uses.

  8. A big part of the increased interest of traditional aspects of liturgy that has followed Summorum Pontificum has been because the motu proprio has reduced the stigma of attending the 'extraordinary form.' Many more Catholics have now been exposed to traditional liturgical elements through attending the TLM than before, and are asking why some of these–chant, Latin, etc–can't be used in their parish liturgies.

    Before Summorum Pontificum, some clergy and laity had an impression that the TLM was schismatic, or only a concession for schismatics, despite Pope John Paul's encouragement of it. This impression, I think has changed for the better since Summorum Pontificum, although I suspect it isn't altogether gone.
    David Sullivan

  9. I think it's a fair question to ask whether the reforms as they were actually carried out really furthered – or could have furthered – the objectives of SC 1. This is not to question the Council; quite the contrary.

    As for an ungrounded approach to liturgy, thinking of the mandates of SC in a vacuum – i.e. not taking tradition as the prime directive, so to speak, is the very definition of "ungrounded."

  10. "Since 2005, the number of every-Sunday New Masses in Latin in the U.S.A. has fallen from 58 to 39."

    Statistically accurate or no, this is hardly a significant percentage of all OF Sunday Masses in the US, before or after.

  11. Sam, the prime directive is the Gospel. A major thrust of the Liturgical Movement was recovering the ideals of the early Church after a stripping away of medieval accretions.

    SC is well-footnoted in Trent and Catholic tradition. I'm not sure it's a tenable aragument to say that serious liturgists see SC unhinged from tradition or apply it as such.

    But the bottom line is the conversion to Christ. And if it takes sudden changes in the liturgy to accomplish it, then the oft-quoted principle of organic development must take a back seat. It would only be traditional.

  12. Todd,

    To this ex-Protestant, you sound disturbingly familiar (been there, worn the T-shirt, noticed it was a poor fit …).

  13. Tod:
    Actually, the prime directive is to love God with all one's might. This for Catholics obtains through the Mass, by offering themselves to God along with what is the best of all their human endeavours. God already has made the ultimate offering of Love for us, a sacrifice on the Cross that is continued on every altar of Catholic and Orthodox churches. Are we willing to give God the best music, ceremonies, sacramentals, etc in the liturgy for the sake of his Love?

    You are quite mistaken about the Liturgical Movement; if anything it is the contrary. Trent was anti-mediaeval, and did away with the Eucharistic liturgies of the late Middle Ages, substituting the Mass of St Gregory that was already developed by very late antiquity. The early L. Movement actually wanted to restore some of the wonderful spiritual practices of the early Middle Ages, such as Gregorian chant.

    It is not the liturgy that accomplishes a conversion to Christ, nor any sudden changes in it. People convert themselves to Christ; the Mass as a sacrament is a vehicle of God's grace for this effect. God's grace can also be conveyed through the Beauty of the liturgy because in Beauty we can experience the Holy Spirit, Who, as Sergei Bulgakov has pointed out, is the giver of all the Beauty in creation.
    Also, as the Evangelical Christian Clark Pinnock has pointed out, worship is “weakened by a loss of the sacramental dimension, a loss of mystery, of liturgical beauty, and of traditional practices.”

  14. Ted, thanks for responding. I have no issue with most anything you mention on the role of beauty in liturgy–that would be my aim, too.

    Some caution on the exclusive focus of the Cross–the intent is to uncover the Paschal Mystery in its entirety: Christ's passion, death, resurrection, and ascension.

    Likewise caution on the believer as an agent of her or his own conversion. We say "yes" to the invitation of grace. The classical definition of a sacrament being an encounter with Christ that brings grace.

    Otherwise, I would say that liturgical reform is about a recovery of beauty and mystery largely missing from pre-conciliar experiences of the Mass.

Comments are closed.