The Corner

The New Pope and the Old Mass

“I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy,” Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, wrote in his autobiography, Milestones (1998). If you want to fix the Church, fix the Mass.

In the preface to his Spirit of the Liturgy (2001), Ratzinger likened the Mass to a fresco. It was well preserved but covered by many layers of whitewash when it was laid bare by Vatican II, and “for a moment its colors and figures fascinated us. But since then the fresco has been endangered by climatic conditions as well as by various restorations and reconstructions. In fact, it is threatened with destruction, if the necessary steps are not taken to stop these damaging influences.”

When Ratzinger insisted that Vatican II was continuity and not rupture, he was prescribing what it should be in practice but often isn’t. Progressives eager to relegate “the old Mass” to the dustbin of history are oddly in agreement with traditionalists who dismiss “the new Mass” as a failed experiment, which by some measures it may be, though for the Church to abandon the new missal and send the faithful back to the traditional Latin Mass would be to repeat the trauma of 1970. The damage done, what is needed now, according to the Ratzingerians, is to incorporate the best features of the old missal into the new, or vice versa. Cardinal Kurt Koch, among others, has spoken of a “common rite” (though technically the old Mass and the new Mass belong to the same rite of the Mass and are only different forms of it) that would be born of a marriage between the two missals — in due season.

If the hybrid Mass, as it’s sometimes called, is to be the outcome of a gradual, organic process and not an artificial construct forged by liturgists, the old missal had to be released from its glass case and put to everyday use again. And so Benedict in 2007 “liberalized” the use of the old missal. Priests no longer need permission from their bishops to say Mass in “the extraordinary form,” as he shrewdly rechristened it. The uptick in its availability these past five and a half years has been modest though noticeable.

#more#In the absence of reliable data, we’re left with the frequent anecdotal observation that the old Mass tends to draw children and young adults disproportionately — few young singles but many young and large families. You can visualize the hypothetical trend lines. As the rising line representing attendance at the old Mass approaches the falling line representing attendance at the new, discussion of how to integrate the two missals should come into clearer focus. Meanwhile, the Church must be true to its nature and festina lente, hurry up slowly.

Some Catholics had hoped that Benedict would do more to promote this liturgical “reform of the reform,” but other pressing business intervened, as did age, and now it will be up to his successor to continue that project. Will he, though? Even among the cardinal electors described as Ratzingerian, few stress the importance of renewed interest in traditional liturgy. Few indicate that they share Benedict’s view, which may be too mystical for most people, that the disintegration of the liturgy is a major cause of the larger crisis that the Church finds itself in.

Two items are assumed to dominate the agenda of this conclave: governance reform, which requires the Church to look inward, and the New Evangelization, the Church’s new term of art for outreach, particularly to those in the secularized West. Can the cardinal electors identify a man who would be effective on governance, which could require some cracking of the whip, and still be a fitting, smiling face for the New Evangelization? Benedict might say that the success of both efforts depends on the strength of the Church’s public prayer, or liturgy, primarily the Mass.

Cardinal Angelo Scola, widely considered the favorite among the papabili, shows little of Benedict’s liturgical sensibility but did make the gesture of attending, when he was archbishop of Venice, a traditional Latin Mass at a parish run by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, an order of priests dedicated to traditional liturgy. No one will mistake a formal blessing for enthusiastic endorsement, but those who are enthusiastic about traditional liturgy should find acceptable a pope who, like Gamaliel ordering hands off the Christians, would at least let others tend that garden.

The papabile with the clearest interest in reviving traditional liturgy, including the old Mass, is Cardinal Albert Malcolm Ranjith, archbishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka, and a former secretary of the dicastery for liturgical issues. Electors with no strong opinions about the old Mass might like him for his reputation for diplomacy combined with firmness. He has served as papal nuncio to East Timor (Catholic-majority) and Indonesia (Muslim-majority). In Sri Lanka, where his relationship with government officials is said to be good, he boycotted state functions to protest the arrest of a member of the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order, in 2011; the charges, of trafficking in babies, were quickly dropped. He speaks ten languages, including Latin, Hebrew, Greek, English, and Italian.

If Ranjith were Jewish, he would be Orthodox. Most of the electors, including Scola, would probably be Conservative. Do the Conservative electors who are Orthodox-leaning outnumber those who lean Reform? It’s hard to say, if the next pope is Scola. If it’s Ranjith, the answer is yes.


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