More specifically, reactions to it. For my beloved non-Catholic readers, this is a little inside baseball. The pope just issued a letter – that’s what the Latin above refers to – that reverses the permissions and guidelines of the last 2 popes regarding the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). Pope St. John Paul had permitted the TLM with the permission of the local bishop, which he encouraged them to grant; Pope Benedict had essentially ruled that such permission is presumed granted, and encouraged the TLM as an important spiritual practice. There was great joy among many Catholics, and the TLM, while still a tiny fraction of the masses being celebrated world-wide, enjoyed a resurgence such that you could fairly easily find one in most dioceses in America, at least. Francis latest letter is trying to crush this movement in favor of the ‘Ordinary Form’, or the Mass in the vernacular according to the practices developed after Vatican II.
You’ve been warned!
Bunch of background, trying to keep it simple here.
To us Catholics, the mass is THE prayer, the source and summit of all Christian life. It is the closest thing to Heaven on earth, with the Body of Christ manifested in the gathered faithful, the proclamation of the Scripture, and most especially in the Eucharist. Over the course of 2,000 years, this prayer has taken on many forms. Today, within the Catholic Church, there are dozens of forms of the Mass, from different cultures and times – the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is used in a variety of forms by some Eastern Rite Catholics; there is a Dominican rite from the 13th century Dominican order, a Syriac Rite from the earliest centuries in Syria, and so on.
The Roman part of the Catholic Church, as distinct from the Syriac, Eastern Rite, Coptic Catholics, and so on, is by far the largest. This Latin Church includes Catholics in areas that were once part of the Western Roman Empire, their descendants scattered around the globe, but most especially the peoples proselytized and converted over the centuries by missionaries who trace back to these areas – Latin America, the Philippines, much of Africa. Most people think the Catholic Church only refers to this collection of people, but in reality it includes many smaller groups who are, in the language of the Church, “in communion with Rome” – who accept the teachings of the Church and recognize the primacy of the Pope in matters of faith and morals. These groups each have their own forms of the mass, generally passed down for centuries and often tracing back to the Apostles themselves.
For the Latin Church, the dominant form over the last 1,000 years has been by far (with relatively minor variations) what is called the Latin Mass. For over 400 years, from the Council of Trent until Vatican II, what is called the Pius V Mass was the one canonically required form to be celebrated in all Roman Catholic parishes worldwide. This uniformity was instituted as part of the Church’s efforts to address the laxity and corruption that had greatly contributed to the Reformation and the resulting fragmentation of Christianity.
It is this Pius V Mass, again with relatively minor updates, that is now referred to as the TLM. If you grew up Catholic in America before 1970, the mass to you and almost all Catholics worldwide meant the Pius V Mass. Note that despite the numerical dominance of the Roman part of the Catholic Church, and despite the recognition of the primacy of the Pope by all Catholics, the Church has always allowed for various forms of the Mass to accommodate the ancient and varied traditions of Catholics with roots outside Western Europe.
One way I like to think about the Mass is by thinking about this:
Once Christianity was legalized by Constantine in 313, Catholics started building big, beautiful churches. In the West, the relative chaos of Late Antiquity slowed things down until Charlemagne kicked things back into gear, having built hundreds of churches, monasteries (each with a church) and palaces (each with a chapel) by the time he died in 814. Another relative low followed, until in 1137, Abbot Suger decided to remodel the great abbey church of St. Denis, kicking off the Gothic building boom.
Why do Catholics build and love their churches so much? Because that is where the Mass is celebrated, where Heaven and earth meet, where we receive the Body of Christ. We all want to do the best we can, so we build the finest buildings, adorn them with the greatest art, and fill them with the most beautiful music.
This has much less to do with wealth than one might imagine, An emperor could get Hagia Sophia built in 5 years; an important city could get a major Gothic church built in 50; a lesser town might take 100 years or more. But no matter what the resources, Catholics have done whatever we can do to have as beautiful a church as possible. Consider:
This is the interior of St. Mary’s Church in Newport, RI, the third parish church built for and largely by the Irish laborers imported to do the work of building Fort Adams . The men of the parish volunteered 1 day’s labor to “dig the trenches”. When they decided to build this church in 1846, the parish had 586 people in it, almost all of them poor Irish immigrants. Or:
My ancestors on my mother’s side were Czech immigrants to East Texas. Like the Irish laborers above, among the first things they wanted to do once they got settled was build suitable churches. The Czech rural tradition was to paint the inside of parish churches, something the locals could do without having to spend money they didn’t have. Thus, the exteriors of the these “painted churches” are built of the stone you can get from neighborhood, the interiors tend to be wood and plaster painted to look like heaven. These parishes had maybe 500 – 700 souls in total, yet they built these beauties.
(While poking around for pictures, found this video on the Painted Churches of East Texas. In the Czech Republic, rural churches are often painted like this. It’s what you do to make your church as beautiful as possible when you can’t afford Carrara marble and carved stone statues.)
And over and over again, all around the world. The engine driving all this building and beautification is the Mass. To Catholics, a church is not just a gathering place, or even just a place of prayer. It is holy ground, made holy by God, who is especially present and with us and in us at Mass.
The TLM was not just a part of the efforts of typical Catholics to have a nice church. For 1,000 years, it was the reason we wanted a nice church.
The greatest work of art in history, the deepest, most moving, human creation, is a high mass celebrated in a great cathedral. Imagine: a long procession of gorgeously attired figures walks solemnly up the columned nave, candles and incense burning, choirs filling the air with the greatest music ever written. For the next hour and a half, a carefully choreographed ritual is performed, culminating in the dramatic proclamation: “this is My Body; this is My Blood” while bells ring a choirs sing. We respond in words inspired by the centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof; only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”
Even considered only as human art, it is magnificent; considered as God’s ultimate sacrament, His ultimate Presence among us, the mass is ineffable.
The TLM is one with that experience, as the liturgy, buildings, art, and music developed together for more than 1,000 years! Certainly, a typical parish mass over the last 2,000 years has rarely approached this sublime level artistically, but has approached it spiritually more often than one might imagine. Many Catholics have been to an Easter Vigil or Christmas Midnight Mass that was profoundly, spiritually moving, that shared in the nature of a great high mass in a great building even if falling short in material magnificence.
Now, I am not a hater of the New Mass. I have been blessed to attend many that were beautiful and spiritually fulfilling. I attend a TLM maybe 4-5 times a year, tops. But only a dedicated partisan could claim that the Ordinary Form is not extraordinarily prone to abuse. I go way out of my way to avoid particularly egregious parishes. Despite my efforts, I’ve been a part of way too many liturgies that make a mockery of the beauty and joy that is by nature present in the Mass.
Also, I was 12 in 1970, and saw first hand how brutally and arbitrarily the New Mass was imposed. The fantasy world where lovers of the TLM are just grouchy fuddy-duddies is an evil, evil lie. Anyone who dared question the sudden and dictatorial suppression of the old mass and imposition of the new were verbally abused, called names, ignored, humiliated, and mocked FOR DECADES. Sure, some were jerks – in a church with over a billion members, your going to get millions of jerks. But I knew some people, not all little old ladies or cranky old men, many were almost as young as I was, who were devastated. They read all the documents, to see if they could understand what was happening and why. When they discovered that virtually NOTHING in the documents required or even supported what they were told was required, they were abused some more, for not getting the ‘spirit of Vatican II’. All the sudden, some hippy ‘liturgist’ or goofball priest was the local pope. If they said rock band in the sanctuary, jackhammer out the communion rail, throw a cheap table up as an altar, no more kneeling, communion only in the hand, sing stupid, infantile, unsingable songs instead of the classic hymns everybody knows, and on and on – and you objected on the grounds that none of that was required, and much of it was diametrically opposed to the express wishes of the Council – well, YOU are the problem!
And those aren’t even the most appalling examples of things done in the Spirit of Vatican II. The final insult: defend Catholic teaching a bit too far, in the eyes of the hierarchy? Expect a ruthless and prompt smackdown. Deny the Real Presence while doing a little modern dance number during your clown mass (and this is a real thing, don’t be gaslighted about it!)? The hierarchy can’t be bothered by such minor problems. One sort of ‘abuse’ calls for prompt action; other kinds get a shrug, if they even get a reaction at all.
But even allowing for the bitterness of some of the older crowd, the TLM is taking off because *young people* love it! Anyone under 55 simply cannot have had the TLM experience in the regular parish growing up. They missed the worst part of the abuse, in fact, until this letter, they’d possibly only heard about the mistreatment of their older TLM loving friends. Now they know. Since my children and their friends are among the younger lovers of the TLM, I know that what they yearn for is beauty and reverence. They are not naturally trying to divide anyone from anything – they just want to worship worthily.
So, yes, there is a yearning for something beautiful, profound, and worthy – which the TLM provides in spades. Is the TLM perfect in practice? Of course not. Can it be abused? Here’s the funny part – not really. Every word and motion is constrained by the letter of the ritual in a way the Ordinary Form is not. You can only mess up the TLM by willfully or carelessly not doing what you are supposed to do, while the Ordinary Form invites improv.
So the pope thinks the problem is the divisiveness of people who love the TLM, so much so that the TLM needs to be suppressed? That simply does not fly.