I am gratified that the long-awaited motu proprio from Pope Benedict, urging a wider celebration of the Tridentine Rite, is out. I’m happy for those, including my son, who love to worship in that way. More power to ’em. Some of the loveliest Catholics I know are devotees of the Tridentine Rite.
That said, I was not personally excited when news of the motu proprio broke, since it doesn’t especially affect me. I attend a Paul VI Mass that is reverently celebrated by the Dominicans of Blessed Sacrament parish in Seattle. My attitude toward liturgy is “Just give me my lines and my blocking.” I then endeavor to learn and forget about them in precisely the same way I endeavor to break in my shoes. The point of shoes is not to notice them, but to walk in them. Shoes you constantly notice are Bad Shoes. Liturgy you focus on is liturgy that’s not doing its job, which is to refer us to God, not to itself.
Now there are two basic reasons people focus on liturgy instead of God, just as there are two reasons a person will focus on his shoes.
The first reason is that the shoes hurt. Lord knows that, in a time of widespread liturgical abuse, people have been hurt by badly celebrated liturgy, and I empathize with those who have. Many have suffered from self-styled “progressives” who regard the Paul VI Rite as their personal playground and laboratory. Worse, they have treated the Tridentine Rite and those who attend it as throwbacks to some imagined Dark Ages. In place of the authentic Paul VI Mass, many Catholics have had to endure a perpetual Feast of St. Narcissus celebrated by Fr. Heylookatme at what Amy Welborn has aptly called the “Church of Aren’t We Fabulous.” Instead of the worship of God, we get perpetual hymns such as the execrable “Anthem” celebrating our Usness, affirming us in our okayness, and glorifying our wonderfulness for being kind enough to admit God into those parts of our lives where we feel comfortable with Him. The notion among such “progressives” often seems to be that the Mass isn’t enough. They appear to think that people who come for the Christ Who is present in Word and Sacrament have to be bludgeoned into a sort of plastic bonhomie with glad-handing and yuk-it-up homilies about sports and TV shows. The phoniness of such “community-building” experiments on the lab rats in the pews can be awfully wearying for those who have lives and who do not require that the Mass be transformed into a Kiwanis Club meeting in order for them to be socially fulfilled. We like our commandments in the proper order: Love God, then neighbor.
That’s one of the reasons for the motu proprio, to try to give succor to those injured by dreadful abuses of the Paul VI Rite. I wish fans of the Tridentine Rite well in finding a Mass that is reverently celebrated and in receiving redress for legitimate grievances about real abuses, just as I hope the man with painful shoes will soon get new and comfortable shoes—so that both can get on with the business of walking with God.
But I also note that there is another reason some people become focused on their shoes, or the liturgy: oversensitivity. Some people are hypochondriacs who imagine injury where there is none or who grossly exaggerate small irritations into great big ones. Did the priest hold the Host high enough during the Consecration? Is that person dressed in a way I think fitting for Mass? I can’t bear altar girls! Those people held hands during the Our Father! There’s a parish “renewal” program in the bulletin—I wonder what that’s supposed to mean? I see they’ve added that 15th Station of the Cross. That tells me all I need to know about this place.
Some people become so inflamed over such matters that they sacrifice the love of neighbor on the altar of liturgical correctness. Some can even reach the point where they regard those who attend the Paul VI Mass—even a reverently celebrated one—as second-class Catholics. I know this, because I’ve been on the receiving end of such judgments repeatedly. When I’ve stated that I believe the Mass is the Mass is the Mass and so I’m content with either the Tridentine or Paul VI liturgies, I’ve been asked by Tridentine enthusiasts, “Is a Black Mass a Mass also?” (Talk about telegraphing contempt!) I’ve been told repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that the only reason I like the Paul VI Rite is that I don’t know any better, am still a Protestant at heart, or need to have exposure to the true Mass, which is vastly more nourishing to the soul than the pathetic desiccated “Novus Ordo.”
When I reply that I have been exposed to the Tridentine Rite and offer my chief impression from the experience (“Ah! Now I see why they wanted to reform the liturgy!”), there are frowns of disdain. Now, I don’t mean that I think the Tridentine Rite “inferior” any more than I think the Paul VI Rite inferior. I think my proper response to the Mass is gratitude, not a critical spirit. But, speaking only for me, I find the Paul VI Mass more spiritually nourishing (though any liturgy promulgated by the Church is good enough for me).
For this sin of believing and professing that any approved liturgy of the Church is good enough for me and that it’s not my job to find fault but to receive gratefully, I’m told that what I’m really saying is “it is all about me and what the liturgy does or doesn’t do for me.” In that marvelous “heads we win, tails you lose” arrangement, I am supposed to feel the superiority of the Tridentine Rite, and if I don’t feel it, it’s because I’m selfishly putting my feelings ahead of the TRUTH, which is fully expressed by the feelings of Tridentine Rite fans.
I don’t think those who prefer the Tridentine Rite are, for that reason, either better or worse Catholics than those who are at home in the Paul VI Rite. Nor do I regard the Mass as something we are commissioned by Christ to weigh in the balance and find wanting. To be sure, I dislike liturgical abuses, whether they be the apocryphal clown Mass or the five-minute Tridentine Hunting Masses of European nobility (in which the Mass was sped along at light speed so m’lord could get on with his fox-hunting expedition). But I don’t throw the babe out with the bath and say that, because the Paul VI liturgy is often abused, it is therefore an abuse itself.
Consequently, I lack a lot of interest in the motu proprio. I’m glad Benedict is interested in it. That’s his job. I simply don’t see why it’s my job. My parish is reverently celebrating the Paul VI Rite. My job is to receive that gift, not to look it in the mouth. Nor is my job to suggest that, if you like the Tridentine Rite instead, you are a second-class Catholic and a narcissist. It would be nice if many enthusiasts for the Tridentine liturgy could return the favor.
Mark Shea blogs at Catholic and Enjoying It!
This article first appeared in the October 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
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