Pope Benedict’s Great Restoration

Pope Benedict XVI prays during a mass at Saint Bartolomew Basilica in 2008. (Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/Pool/Reuters)
A decade ago today, he revivified the Mass of the Ages.

Ten years and a few months ago, I met Bill Buckley when he invited me to his home. It was just a few weeks after his wife, Patricia, had died, in May 2007. We talked about Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard, because I couldn’t help my contrary nature even then. We talked about a film, The Lives of Others, which Buckley told me was the greatest film he had ever seen. By the end of the conversation, he discovered that, like him, I was a devotee of a certain religious rite. He invited me to the Traditional Latin Mass at St. Mary’s in Stamford that afternoon. We were members of this lonely fraternity of souls, a group that we didn’t know was about to grow much larger.

Ten years ago today, Pope Benedict XVI issued a document that vindicated the arguments that Catholics like Buckley and me had repeated in safe company for years: that the Latin Mass that was common to almost all of Western Catholicism for centuries was never abrogated.

It is so difficult to explain to young Catholics the fugitive feeling of attending a Traditional Latin Mass before the seventh day of the seventh month of the seventh year in this millennium. I had been doing so for just five years. Latin Mass communities were detested by bishops and cardinals, most of whom believed it was their life’s mission to modernize a defective Church. It also marked one out for scorn from most who considered themselves conservative Catholics. They called us disobedient schismatics. We often deplored them in return for the personality cult they built around the papacy of John Paul II. (In truth, our side of this dispute did and still does have cranks in its ranks.)

These years shaped in me a deep distrust of ecclesiastical persons in the Church. I made a study of periods of apostasy in the Church and kept reminding myself of the words of St. John Chrysostom that “the road to hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.” The child-abuse scandal didn’t surprise traditionalists. In some ways, we thought it proved our point about the depth of corruption in the Church. It was obvious to Traditionalists that, in many dioceses, it was better for a priest to rape children or carry on an active sex life with other adults than to say the Latin Mass for people like us, “the crazies.” I learned, in my heart, a notion Thomas Aquinas expressed in Scholastic doctrine: that the blessed in heaven must enjoy the torment of the wicked in hell.

Loyalty to the liturgical books of 1962 was slightly more common among political conservatives than among others. It was a trait shared by Buckley and Patrick Buchanan, and also by libertarian Thomas Woods and Gladden Pappin, who writes for American Affairs. Nor was it just political scribblers who found themselves attracted to “the TLM.” The new rite of the Mass was almost instinctively detested by real literary giants, who saw it as a banal substitute for a ritual whose words and forms had been shaped by the great ages of faith.

Simon Tolkien recalled his grandfather’s displeasure with modern “worship” in the Catholic Church: “I vividly remember going to church with him [J.R.R.] in Bournemouth. He was a devout Roman Catholic and it was soon after the Church had changed the liturgy from Latin to English. My grandfather obviously didn’t agree with this and made all the responses very loudly in Latin while the rest of the congregation answered in English. I found the whole experience quite excruciating, but my grandfather was oblivious.”

Evelyn Waugh intuitively sensed the bizarre intellectual alliance that informed the making of the new rite of the Mass; it was slipshod scholarship paired with a facile desire for revolution: “There is a deep-lying connection in the human heart between worship and age. But the new fashion is for something bright and loud and practical. It has been set by a strange alliance between archaeologists absorbed in their speculations on the rites of the second century, and modernists who wish to give the Church the character of our own deplorable epoch. In combination they call themselves ‘liturgists.’”

Waugh’s son Auberon stopped going to Mass and likely lost his faith, feeling that the modern Church had almost no connection to the faith of his father. Modern Masses appeared to him to be “kindergarten assemblies.”

It wasn’t just Catholics who were distressed by the replacement of their rites. Agatha Christie petitioned Pope Paul to keep the old rite alive in England: “The rite in question, in its magnificent Latin text, has . . . inspired a host of priceless achievements in the arts — not only mystical works, but works by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters, and sculptors in all countries and epochs. Thus, it belongs to universal culture as well as to churchmen and formal Christians.”

The opponents of the old Mass are still well-represented in the Church, especially in the universities that retain the name “Catholic” yet never reflect on how their schools turn out so many disillusioned men and women. They still rage at the old Mass, and at Pope Benedict for what he did to re-legitimize it.

These so-called theologians remind one of the French intellectual Alain Badiou, in that they insist that all legitimate intellectual exercise must be carried out in fidelity to some great “Event. For Badiou, the event was Communist revolution, and Mao the only true intellectual. For these so-called theologians, the “Event” was the Second Vatican Council — the Council itself, not the texts it produced, which are of secondary importance. This Event created a new church, in need of a new intellectual party of adepts. But their methods are sloppier and shallower than Badiou’s. These theologians greet every novel utterance of a pope or a Church document as a new revelation that “develops” previous Church teaching. In their parlance, development means the opposite of what it did to John Henry Newman. He meant further articulation; they mean “obviate or overturn.” Their words, like the liturgy they prefer, are a self-referential clamor.

The opponents of the old Mass are still well-represented in the Church.

I am not a particularly devout man. I am inconstant and have numerous vices, which are easy to name. I attend the old Mass, in part, because it respects me as a sinner. And ten years on, I can only thank Pope Benedict for giving legal sanction to this august rite that unites me again with my coreligionists, from scribblers like Buckley and inconstant men like Waugh to all the saints and angels; this Mass where before the awful moment at which the bell is rung and the the sacrifice of Calvary breaks through into the present, all clamor disappears into silence.


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