Monday, March 12, 2007

The Old Mass and the Great Thaw: Forbidden Opinions Suddenly Mainstream

By Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

News reports of an impending papal document freeing the traditional Latin Mass from the restrictions of the 1988 indult were all over the media throughout 2006, the first time in many years that the old liturgy had been so newsworthy. In October I got a call from Relevant Radio, a Catholic radio network whose programming appears on several dozen stations across the country as well as through a live feed on the Internet, asking me to discuss these reports and explain their significance on the air.

A couple of weeks after a friendly appearance on the network’s morning show, Morning Air, I was scheduled to appear on Relevant Radio’s hour-long call-in program called “Searching the Word.” Of the 200 or so radio appearances I’ve made over the past couple of years, this was far and away the most satisfying, and the one to which I turn my attention here.

The long and the short of it is this: it’s suddenly become all right to say things that for years have been played down or suppressed in the Catholic media.

In the first segment, before we took calls, I discussed the old Mass with host Chuck Neff, and explained why the Pope’s rumored initiative – which I said had to be more than just a rumor at that point – was a wonderful step forward for the whole Church. It would restore the sacred to our parishes, increase vocations, and bring back some of those souls who had been so disillusioned by the liturgical changes that they had stayed away from the Church for good. I talked about the sacrifices that many families make to attend the relatively few traditional Masses available now – driving hours each way, even relocating across the country in order to sanctify their souls at this copious font of grace. And I quoted the passage from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s 1997 book, Salt of the Earth that by now I’ve committed to memory: “I am of the opinion, to be sure, that the old rite should be granted to those who desire it. It’s impossible to see what could be dangerous or unacceptable about that. A community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest possession is strictly forbidden, and makes the longing for it seem downright indecent.”

Neff was receptive and friendly, but the calls began inauspiciously. The first came from a woman in Texas who managed, in two minutes, to repeat just about every major misconception and fallacy I’d ever heard about the traditional liturgy – it was like listening to the entire community of liturgical vandals from the 1970s, rolled into a single person. I was told that “no one understood” the old Mass thanks to the use of Latin and the priest’s having his “back to the people,” that there was nothing special about Latin anyway, that I was wrong to say the traditional Mass was older than the Council of Trent (1545-1563) – you get the idea.

It was hard to know where to begin, but with the host’s indulgence I took my time with a response that went like this. The complaint that the priest had his “back to the people” in the old rite is emblematic of a modern mentality in which “the people,” rather than God, are the center of the Mass. For weighty theological reasons, priest and people face East together as the Holy Sacrifice is offered. Mass facing the people, scholars are now coming to acknowledge, was not the primitive practice, and Mass said ad Orientem is the historic norm – Roman basilicas in which the priest might appear to have traditionally “faced the people” can be accounted for simply by their peculiar construction, which forced him to face that way in order to fix his gaze eastward. (During the consecration, moreover, the people turned to face East along with the priest.) In the 1990s, Cardinal Ratzinger, persuaded by Monsignor Klaus Gamber’s arguments on this point, spoke of the desirability of returning to ad Orientem celebrations, and later wrote the preface to Uwe Michael Lang’s book Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer, which takes the same position.

To the caller’s claim that the fathers of Vatican II had all but demanded the Novus Ordo, I replied with the research of Father Brian Harrison of the Pontifical University of Puerto Rico – research that appeared in these pages, I might add – to the effect that most bishops at Vatican II envisioned only minor changes to the Mass, and added that Monsignor Klaus Gamber, whose book The Reform of the Roman Liturgy features a preface by the man who is now our Pope, insisted that the vast majority of the Council fathers would not have approved of the rite of Mass imposed on the Catholic world in the name of Vatican II. As for Trent, it merely codified an already-existing liturgy; it didn’t create the traditional Latin Mass out of whole cloth.

With regard to liturgical language, I said, the use of a non-vernacular tongue is not an uncommon religious phenomenon. Islam uses Arabic even in non-Arabic-speaking parts of the world, and synagogue services are largely in Hebrew – a tongue that has only recently begun to be used once again as a vernacular language. (In the name of fostering “active participation,” Reform Judaism once tried, unsuccessfully, to displace Hebrew, which has since returned to the Reform liturgy.) The Latin language plays an especially important role for the Catholic Church, as pope after pope tried to explain to us. In Veterum Sapientia (1962), Pope John XXIII reiterated that because the Catholic Church was greater than any merely human society, it was perfectly fitting and right that she should employ an international, non-vernacular language as a sign of the unity of her members. The Church defended the use of Latin long after it had ceased to be a vernacular language, and the twentieth century saw popes drawing particular attention to the merits of Latin. When did all those arguments suddenly lose their persuasive force?

(Incidentally, what can it mean when a Catholic tells us that “no one understood” the Mass in the old days? Anyone suggesting such a thing expects me to believe the following: 1) literate human beings could not follow a simple Latin-English missal; 2) for years on end, no one possessed even the modest level of ambition it would have taken to ask a priest, or even an informed fellow parishioner, to explain to him the meaning of the ceremony his religion required him to attend at least once a week throughout his entire life; and 3) no one could be bothered to leaf through even one of the many books, including Maria Montessori’s The Mass Explained to Children, that explained the basic contours of the Mass in simple language. What kind of lifeless automatons would we have to be dealing with for all this to be true?)

Sticking to the theme of Latin and the universality it both represents and fosters, I gave as an example the experience of Douglas Hyde, the British Communist who became a Catholic in the mid-twentieth century. Hyde began to inquire into Catholicism for a variety of reasons, including his interest in the medieval world. Then something impressed itself upon him ( I had this quotation on my computer screen during the program and read it over the air):
At 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve I was twiddling the knob of my radio. Unable to get out to Midnight Mass I wanted at least to bring it to my fireside. And as I switched from one European station to the next I tuned in to one Midnight Mass after the other. Belgium, France, Germany, Eire, yes, even behind the Iron Curtain, Prague. It seemed as though the whole of what was once Christendom was celebrating what is potentially the most unifying event in man’s history. And the important thing was that it was the same Mass. I am a newcomer to the Mass but I was able to recognized its continuity as I went from station to station for it was in one common language. This aspect of Catholicism is but a single one, and maybe not the most important. But I have a strong feeling that it is precisely the Catholicism of the Catholic Church which may prove the greatest attraction, and will meet the greatest need, for my disillusioned generation.
I added that Father C. John McCloskey, who is not a traditionalist per se, nevertheless estimated that hundreds of thousands of people were driven away by the imposition of the new rite. Well, I said, those people matter. Those people have souls just as much as you or I have. And if making this traditional Latin Mass available once again could bring them back, how could we be so petty as not to do it?

The very fact that I was able to say these things – none of which is particularly “extreme,” but little of which has (for some reason) been able to get a hearing in much of the Catholic media until very recently – was, I thought at the time, significant in itself. Little did I know that at least as important as anything I had to offer were the comments that would come from the rest of the callers, who joined me in saying things that any loyal Catholic is of course perfectly at liberty to say, but that for years have been portrayed as vaguely subversive. (Someday, I am sure, we will look back stupefied at a time when some Catholics actually felt funny about praising their own Church’s traditional liturgy.)

Everyone else who called, in fact, was thrilled at the news that the old rite could be coming back to us on a larger scale. One gentleman wondered about the practical issue involved in training priests in the use of the old Missal; I pointed to the instructional videos that are available, the Low Mass guide for priests available at the website of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales (see, and the possibility (perhaps) of instructional retreats put on by priests of the traditional orders. He also had a more serious concern about whether the bishops might still obstruct the celebration of the Mass, but a commercial break prevented me from answering. (Without knowing the terms of the Pope’s motu proprio I could not have answered him perfectly in any event, but my sense is that some bishops will welcome the old rite out of loyalty to the Pope and , in a few cases, perhaps even out of genuine affection for it, while others will be indifferent and some fraction will be hostile. It is no less a dramatic papal move for all that.)

Another gentleman called to recount his own experience with returning to the traditional Mass, which he had known in his youth. A customer of his told him that the old rite was being offered about 40 miles away, so he went. “I was just awestruck at the reverence of it,” he said. “And I picked up the ’62 missal and I began to read it. It’s in English and it’s in Latin. It explains the Mass entirely. I never understood the Mass before I went to the Latin Mass and got the ’62 missal.” How’s that for turning the usual claim upside down – he never understood the Mass until he attended the traditional Latin Mass and read the old missal! He then mentioned some of the literature he found and read there, including Michael Davies’ A Short History of the Roman Mass. And now, with the old Mass poised to make a comeback? “If my Mom – my saintly Mom – could be alive to see this, she would break down in tears.”

Before hanging up he asked to add one more thing: “ I see whole pews of families – families with nine children. Young people go there, and they have these large families. It’s just the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”

Then we took a call from a woman in Wisconsin. “I grew up in the old Church,” she began. “I had 13 years of education in the Catholic school system, and it seemed in the mid-60s where I was living, where I was form on the East Coast, overnight we lost our Church. Everything that we’d grown up with, been taught, revered, thought was holy, just walked out the door….It seems to be there’s been nothing but mass confusion all along the way since that time.

“The one thing that kept me on track throughout,” she went on, “was the holiness that I remembered and the reverence for the Holy Eucharist. The one thing that kept me in the Church.”

This caller then joined the previous gentleman in finding it impossible to believe that people before the Council really didn’t follow the Mass. “As far as the Latin goes, that was never a problem. We had wonderful missals with English right alongside, things were very simply put, anyone could understand it…. I think it was more geared to the person in the street than it is today.”

The last call came from New Jersey. “When I was a kid,” this gentleman recalled, “the churches were packed, and you could walk up to any Catholic and he could explain to you what the Church was all about. Try to do that now….The new Mass – and where I go it’s celebrated reverently, it’s wonderful – but you go other places, and people have their own agendas that they’ve put in, and it’s opened the door for things that are not part of the Church to enter the Church.” I added, as time was running out, that in the traditional Mass the Latin language and the priest’s eastward posture both served to prevent such things from happening. (Are our liturgical vandals talented enough to improvise Latin prayers?)

News reports alone, in advance of Pope Benedict’s initiative, have thus initiated a most welcome thaw in the Catholic world, such that the previously marginalized can at last begin to be heard. Of course, self-styled “progressives” do not want to hear the laity saying such things. It is those who congratulate themselves the loudest on their eagerness to cater to the needs of the laity, to listen to their concerns, and to open the windows in the Church, who are most contemptuous of popularly expressed support for the traditional Latin Mass. But it is both coming out and picking up momentum all the time. With separate statements on behalf of the Pope and the old Mass issued in recent months by French, Italian and Polish intellectuals, the lid has perhaps been ripped off the issue for good – how, after all this, can the old Mass become a forbidden subject once again? It is this kind of thaw, we may confidently hope, that will at last foster a true springtime in the Church.

[Dr. Thomas E. Woods, Jr., is the author of How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (a free chapter of which is available at, as well as The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, a New York Times best-seller. His book The Church Confronts Modernity has just been released in paperback from Columbia University Press. The present article, "The Old Mass and the Great Thaw: Forbidden Opinions Suddenly Mainstream," was originally published in Latin Mass: A Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition (Winter 2007), pp. 16-18, and is reprinted here by permission of Latin Mass Magazine, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060.]

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