Beautiful and Holy: The Case for the Traditional Latin Mass

Traditional Mass at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in New York City (Photo: Diana Yuan)
A review of Peter Kwasniewski’s new book, an eloquent apologia pro usu antiquiore.

Disagreement over how the faithful should conduct their liturgy, or public worship, has dogged the Catholic Church for the past 50 years. The reasons are many, but three are especially salient:

‐The liturgical changes that were introduced after the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) were sweeping — especially the new Mass, which replaced the centuries-old Latin Mass in 1969. Taken together, the changes to the Mass, the Church calendar, and other features of Catholic liturgy constitute the most extensive alteration that it has ever undergone.

‐The liturgical changes of the 1960s were in defiance of both the letter and the spirit of what the bishops had called for at Vatican II: adjustment and reform. What they got instead was a complete revolution, delivered as a fait accompli less than five years after the Council ended.

‐Where the traditional liturgy was fixed and regulated, the reformed version — again, the new Mass in particular — is highly malleable. It gives the clergy and their collaborators much greater license to be “creative” and to refashion the Mass (and other rites) for any given occasion, according to their varying tastes.

Modern Catholics have lost their “liturgical innocence,” as the German novelist Martin Mosebach argues. Because the liturgy is now so malleable, they can no longer take for granted that it simply is what it is. Whereas they used to be able to enter into it as a given structure, a tradition that formed them, their habits of prayer, and their knowledge of the faith, the liturgy is now a matter on which Catholics are compelled to have opinions and ideas and to take a position.

Many Catholics but especially the young feel that the liturgy has lost and needs to recover its former beauty and sense of the sacred, whose importance is reflected in the title of Peter Kwasniewski’s new book, Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness: Why the Modern Age Needs the Mass of the Ages. It is impossible for even the most ardent defenders of the liturgical reform of the 1960s to deny that much of what is now commonly experienced in Catholic liturgy — the church buildings, the vestments, the music — is incredibly ugly and that Catholic worship often suffers from a banality that beggars belief.

That being the case, Kwasniewski’s book is not principally about the “policy weeds” of liturgy and liturgical reform, the change of this prayer or the moving of that saint’s feast day. He does touch on some of those matters, but his topic is broader: the question of how, in its public worship, the Church can recover both the beauty and the sense of the sacred that are proper to the things of God.

A large part of his thesis, which he shares with many others, including Mosebach, who contributed the foreword, is that the best way to recover what has been lost is to return to the traditional Latin Mass, the ancient norm for the Church until only half a century ago. For many years after the “new order of Mass” (Novus Ordo Missae) was introduced, the “Mass of the ages” was almost entirely forbidden. In that time of revolutionary fervor, anyone who dared advance a thesis such as Kwasniewski lays out here was too contemptible even to be acknowledged, much less dismissed as a crank. That men such as Kwasniewski and Mosebach now make the case for the Latin Mass is a sign of important changes taking place in the Church.

The liturgical reform devised with modern man in mind is something in which modern man is largely uninterested.

The prohibition of the Latin Mass could never be justified in canon law. Pope St. John Paul II relaxed the ban on the Latin Mass to some degree, but it fell to Pope Benedict XVI, who over many years has often applied his eloquence and wisdom to liturgical questions, to eliminate the restrictions almost entirely. In Summorum Pontificum, the document in which he affirmed the liberty that priests have to say the traditional Latin Mass, he noted that “what earlier generations held as sacred . . . cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.” It was the most important achievement of his pontificate.

Benedict did not merely address the pastoral needs of those who prefer the old Mass. He intended for it to provide a reference point for reform of the new Mass, with an eye to putting the Church’s liturgical house in order after many long years of disorder. What Kwasniewski explains, accordingly, topic by topic, with his own eloquence and wisdom, and fairly strong polemical force to boot, is how the old Mass can inform the new Mass.

There is certainly a growing trend to celebrate the new Mass, now known as Mass in “the ordinary form,” in a manner conducive to beauty and more in keeping with both tradition and the mind of Vatican II. This trend is more notable in the United States than in many other countries, and there is every reason to think it will continue to grow. Unlike many writers in the traditionalist camp, Kwasniewski does not dismiss as irrelevant this development in the celebration of the newer rite.

It is, however, a movement still in its infancy. It encounters stiff resistance from many priests, especially those who were young when the new rites were instituted in the ’60s. (Younger Catholics, whether they think of themselves as “traditionalists” or not, often refer to such clergy as “hippy priests”: a funny appellation but grossly unfair to the hippies, who, despite their many problems, generally had much better taste in music.) The priest blogger Father John Zuhlsdorf has coined a phrase, “the biological solution,” for what he argues will be the ultimate failure of aging priests to frustrate attempts by younger Catholics to make the liturgy more traditional.

Nevertheless, there are too many places where the younger clergy and laity have the means and the will to improve their liturgical prayer but cannot do so in the context of the ordinary form of the Mass. For many of them, the rediscovery of the traditional Latin Mass, or Mass in “the extraordinary form,” has become the true reform.

Kwasniewski sees this rediscovery as key to the future of the Church’s prayer life:

If the Novus Ordo world does not assimilate the lessons that the usus antiquior [older use] can teach it, we are on a straight road to liturgical Armageddon. Either the philosophy of Summorum Pontificum will bridge the enormous abyss between the two forms by bringing the modern Roman Rite into a more obvious harmony with the preceding liturgical heritage, or we will see over time a dramatic intensification of our internecine conflict. . . . This will never happen by the older form becoming hip, trendy and modish, swapping Gregorian [chant] for guitars. It will happen instead when the modern form relinquishes its counterfactual claim to be “just what the doctor ordered.”

Chesterton said that “the Church is the one thing that prevents a man from the degrading servitude of being a child of his own time.” He was not a fool, of course. He was well aware that the Church has in many periods of its long life dallied too much with the world. (An important chapter of his seminal book The Everlasting Man is devoted to just such periods, as was much of the work of his friend Hilaire Belloc.) Chesterton did not mean that the Church stays pure and free from the grime and sinfulness of this world but rather that, by its very nature, it outlasts and transcends them and, with astonishing consistency, also outlasts and transcends its own dalliances with them.

This is an important theme for Kwasniewski. He touches on it in every chapter. The liturgical reform was made for the benefit of “modern” man by academic clerics and liturgy professors with little real knowledge of modern man. (There is a famous story that on seeing an early version of the new Mass, in no less majestic a setting than the Sistine Chapel, the archbishop of Westminster rightly guessed that none of its creators had ever been parish priests.) But the world moves and changes faster than it did in the ’60s, and “modern man” is not what he was back then. Indeed, as a Catholic, I have grave doubts as to whether “modern man” ever existed at all, and so does Kwasniewski:

A host of authors, . . . drawing on human disciplines such as the anthropology of religion, have exposed with embarrassing clarity how badly the revised liturgical rites assessed the actual needs of modern man, and how they have not only failed to stem the tide of secularization, but have even contributed to it. [page 36]

The Church is wedded to Jesus Christ. But in recent decades, it would seem that all too many Church leaders have attempted a second marriage, wishing to exchange the sweet yoke of Christ for the harsh burden of intellectual fashion, the ever elusive “relevance” that leads to supreme irrelevance. For fifty years, we have seen an embarrassing infatuation with modernity, . . . and as with all extramarital liaisons, this one, too, must come to an end. [page 84]

In other words, the liturgical reform devised with modern man in mind is something in which modern man is largely uninterested. The problem remains and is certainly going to loom large for some time to come, but the Church’s long track record suggests that it will recover much of its lost beauty and transcendence and rediscover its true self ultimately. Peter Kwasniewski’s most recent contribution to that end hastens the process admirably.


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