I was having a delightful meal recently with a bishop whom I love and respect as a father, and who has been extraordinarily kind to me. My personal policy never to even mention the extraordinary form of the Mass at the dinner table was circumvented by one of my brother priests whom I also esteem as a friend and colleague. “So what do you think of the Tridentine Mass, Bishop?” Sweat began to form on my brow as my stomach churned and the previously delectable filet mignon on my plate suddenly revolted me. “Not again,” I said to myself as I began to drown out what I knew would be an deluge of verbiage against the Missal of Pius V/John XXIII by reciting the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar from memory.
It is a scene which has happened to me many a time, and which is very familiar to young priests all over the world. All of a sudden, I was no longer just one priest among others. I was a marked man. I had committed the not very original sin of being one of “those priests,” the kind who celebrated the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. I was an enigma to the many friends I had made in the communities who enjoy exclusive use of the pre-conciliar liturgical books, who could not fathom how I could wake up every morning and say the detestable Novus Ordo, aka Nervous Disorder. And I was a mystery to my brother priests and even some of my parishioners who couldn’t square the man they knew as their friend, who seemed so jovial, fun-loving and open-minded, with a liturgy which was caricatured by many as the hobbyhorse of the Chosen Frozen, the Walking Wounded, the Integristes, and the Rigid Frigid.
Why? is the question that so many Catholics in pews and rectories all over the world have on their lips after Summorum pontificum unshackled a particular historical form of the Roman rite to work its magic (or wreak havoc, depending on your point of view) on the Church. And it is not an unimportant question.
The fact that Benedict XVI has given me the freedom to celebrate this form of the Mass caused me to sing a quiet private Te Deum in my room, but it does not provide me with answers to that question.
A cogent answer to that question can be given. Priests and laity all over the world are capable of drafting an apologia of historical, theological, and spiritual reasons for why the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite is a good thing, why its continued celebration is a good thing, and why it has a place in the Church of today and tomorrow. Maybe one day the Magisterium of the Church will propose such an apologia so that those of us who enjoy the privilege of Summorum pontificum can point to all of those reasons.
But the reasons why people are still scratching their heads about why Pope Benedict XVI would “resurrect” a supposedly dead liturgy in a supposedly dead language for what is supposedly a miniscule minority of devotees have little to do with history, theology, and spirituality. They have to do with people’s experience of the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite and those who are attached to it. At dinner, my dear father in God, the successor to the apostles, shared with us, “I remember the Tridentine Mass when I was a boy. I served that Mass. I still remember the responses: Introibo ad altare Dei; ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam. But it was not beautiful. We had priests who said Low Mass in fifteen minutes and had no idea what they were saying. I lived through all of that. I am done with that. I like the English Mass, and I don’t want to go back.” One can hardly argue with another man’s experience: it is what it is, it is his experience, and you can’t discount that.
Then the priest who launched the cannonball turned the discussion to the contemporary adherents of the extraordinary Mass, “They’re all crazy. They’re just nostalgic for a past they have never known. And most of them are just the walking wounded. The Pope celebrates the current form of the Mass, so that’s good enough for me.”
My dinner companions’ opinions had been formed by their experience, and that experience had left a bad taste in their mouths. No matter what papal legislation, theological study or heartfelt testimonial would be put before them, it was unlikely that their minds would ever be changed. None of that would change the fact that they would always be my friends and mentors, and the fact that they would always see my penchant for the “Trad” thing as a character flaw, a foible, an inexplicable eccentricity. They would love the sinner even if they hated the sin!
I am a simple parish priest. I cannot provide the air-tight argumentation for the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite which would bedazzle the world into whipping out their dusty hand missals and singing the Graduale Romanum. I celebrate the “Trad” Mass because I have parishioners who want it, and because I want to celebrate it. All I can do is share why my experiences of life have given me this love for something that so many of my fellow Catholics do not love. I am sure that there are many others who will find echoes of their own faith journey towards Trent!
As a child, I was raised as a Baptist. About as non-liturgical as you can get. One day I came across a copy of the Book of Common Prayer in a bookstore. I was hooked. All of these prayers and ceremonies, what were they? I saved my allowance and bought a copy. There are boys who drool over complicated football plays, who imagine themselves in military parades with a snazzy uniform and polished rifle, who rattle off baseball stats and have an encyclopedic knowledge of Beckett’s. And then there are boys who come across Adrian Fortescue’s Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described and fall in love.
At first glance, boy rubrical wizards may seem to have nothing to do with sports and army buffs. But many boys want to be in a place where they can be men with other men, where they can master something which others do not know so they compete with those who know some, where they can be on a team. Catholic liturgy traditionally has been a place where that boyhood dream can be fulfilled; the sanctuary, the sports field, the military academy all have provided that. I was introduced to the world of liturgy with its playbook, its rules, its teams, and its camaraderie. I was hooked.
Soon enough I read my way into the Catholic Church, and went dutifully to the ordinary form of the Mass in English. I became an altar server, a cantor and a lector. I sang in the choir. I had seen a Liber usualis in the choir loft, but didn’t know what the squiggles and the Latin words meant. I stole a little red book with parallel columns of Latin and Englishfrom something called the Commission in Support of Ecclesia Dei that someone had left in the church.
I came across Latin Mass Magazine in a bookstore which had articles about courageous priests and laity throughout history and today who performed heroic acts of sacrifice for what some priest called Fr Faber called “the most beautiful thing this side of heaven.”
All of a sudden my world opened up. There was more to my faith and the Mass than just what I had come to know as the Catholic Mass, which was what was celebrated in my parish every Sunday. I learned about young people from all over the world who walked from Paris to Chartres every Pentecost to pray for a return to the sacred. I was not sure what that meant, but I saw these pictures of thousands of young people like me who loved Jesus, the Catholic Church, and the Mass. There was something different about this Mass, this movement.
With the all-critical, all-knowing and all-judging eye of a sixteen year old, I began to see everything else around me in Holden Caufield terms, as “phony.” I never felt quite right about the Life Teen Mass. It just seemed like a bunch of old people desperately trying to relate to me, and we all know that old people, like 33 or so (like I am now!) just can’t understand the young. I had friends who went to Life Teen, and then just stopped going to Mass entirely. I was bored with Mass. It seemed all about the priest’s personality. It was all about jokes, felt banners, and bad music.
I stayed in the choir, and I was never happier than we sang Mozart, Gounod, and Bach. And then came the Glory and Praise and I was just, underwhelmed. And then my priest was exiled for an accusation of child molestation.
For a sixteen year old, this was a lot to take in. I felt betrayed, confused, and most of all, bored. Where was this other enchanted world of High Masses, processions and Holy Hours? Luckily, my senior year, I came across two things which changed my life. I started going to the Orthodox Churches, one Greek and one Russian, in the area, out of curiosity, which instilled in me a sense of the sacred and of liturgical worship. And I went to a conference on Gregorian chant at a Trappist abbey.
During the conference, where I came to actually understand what those squiggles and Latin words in the book I had seen years before in the choir loft were all about, I sneaked into the crypt in the middle of the night to explore and pray. In the dimly lit corridor, I heard the words, Dominus vobiscum. I turned the corner to see an ancient monk face an altar set into the wall, with a couple of people kneeling behind him. “What are they doing at four o’clock in the morning?”
I stayed for the rest of whatever it was that I was seeing, enraptured. Afterwards, I bounced up to the monk and said, “Was that the Tridentine Mass?” And he said, matter of factly, “Yes.” I asked him, “Are you going to do it again?” “Every morning, same time, same place. Can you come tomorrow and serve the Mass for me?” “But, I don’t know how.” “Here’s a little red book you can study for tomorrow. You have to start somewhere.” “Cool!” I said. All of a sudden, that little red book and a ninety-year old monk became my link to a wider world of the faith, and I was included. I was part of something new and exciting.
When I went home, I set about to learn everything I could about this Mass. And so I came across the books of Michael Davies, the figures of Archbishop Lefebvre, and the history of what happened after Vatican II. I also came across The Ratzinger Report and started to read everything I could get my hands on by this Joseph Ratzinger, who became my new hero!
By the time I went off to college, I was well-versed in the history of the crisis in the Church after Vatican II. But I had never studied philosophy or theology, never had a spiritual director, and never had a community of young Catholics where I felt I belonged. In college, I finally had access to all of those things. I had students and professors who painstakingly helped me to evaluate what I had been reading and to develop an authentically Catholic mindset and spirituality.
At college, I was able to see the Novus ordo celebrated well and beautifully and was able to participate in the “Old Mass” as well.
There was still something “edgy” about being a self-described “Traddie.” It was eccentric, it was different, it was cool. I built a huge liturgical library and began to meet other young people like me, and networks began to develop from all over the world. I was no longer bound to polemics and bitterness. As I studied the Roman liturgy, it came alive for me, and I grew to love the prayers, the ceremonies, the music of it all.
My freshman year, I concocted the bright idea that I wanted to see Holy Week in the Old Rite. So six like-minded buddies of mine and I got in a car and drove to Scranton, Pennsylvania to crash the Fraternity of St Peter’s seminary. All three Tenebrae services, the black vestments on Good Friday, the Easter Vigil and the fine party afterwards, the singing of the Haec festa dies: all of them are grafted onto my memory as beautiful and precious for me and for the whole Church. Who would not want to have all of this as part of the patrimony of the Church? I went back every year, and as word of mouth spread, by the last year, we brought 70 others with us.
The day after I graduated, I went on the famous pilgrimage to Chartres. On the middle day of the pilgrimage, we stopped in the middle of the forest for Solemn High Mass of Pentecost. The sumptuous procession of clergy, the active participation of thousands of young people singing with one voice the Latin chants of all ages, it was all a great respite from our grueling walk. And then, after the Offertory, it started to rain. I expected the stampede to find cover, the complaining, a total abandonment of what we were seeing. Nobody moved from the place, except the Scouts, who unfurled linen cloths in neat rows and held them like soldiers holding the flag over a casket.
Priests came with the Blessed Sacrament accompanied by scouts with gold and white umbrellas for the color of the Pope and the Sacred Host. And, as the rain drove down hard upon our faces and drowned out the singing, everyone knelt in the mud, clutching the linen cloths, and received their LORD and God on the tongue with great devotion and love.
This was the faith that I had been looking for my whole life. This was that beauty, ever ancient and ever new, which ravished my heart and gave me strength. There in the mud in the middle of a forest in France far from home, I knew that my vocation was to be a priest, to bring the LORD of faith and beauty to others like those priests who came to the adoring throngs covered in dirt and grime in body, but in grace and charity in soul. And that experience was during the extraordinary form of the Mass. Could I have had a similar or even the same experience in another form of the Mass, or even at some other time? Of course. But God chose that time to reveal Himself and His plan to me in a special way, and for that reason I will always be linked to the liturgy and the people who have sacrificed to encourage its celebration.
I am now a priest of God and the Catholic Church, faithful to the Pope and to the Tradition. Every time I see a young man with a missal in hand and that look of wonder and awe that comes to those who find the faith through its dignified liturgical celebration, I smile and remember. Now I even have to consult some of my spiritual daughters, whose knowledge of Fortescue and the liturgical calendars of various rites far outstrips my own. While I do not celebrate the extraordinary form of the Mass as much as I would like, as I follow the vocation God is laying out for me, I am thankful to Pope Benedict that I, and others like me, are no longer outcasts or orphans. We are Catholics, and as such, we rejoice to be such, with a beautiful liturgical heritage and a Pope to show us the way. My predilection for the “Old Mass” is not an indictment of those who do not have such a predilection, or of the Church’s power to reform the liturgy; it is an expression of something positive and wonderful I have found in the Church’s worship, and for that I am grateful to God!
If you’re wondering how the dinner ended, I kept silence because I was too busy thinking of all the things I am writing down here, of how I could respond to the Why? of my tablemates. As it happened, my steak had been whisked away and a lovely crème brulee had taken its place out of nowhere as the rest of the table were on to other topics of ecclesiastical politics. The milk and honey of the Promised Land after so much wandering was around the corner after all.