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Pope Benedict’s Liturgical Time Bomb
By Raymond Arroyo

While drafting the decree that would return the old Latin Mass to Catholic altars around the world, the Pope rightly predicted that reaction to his directive would range from “joyful acceptance to harsh opposition.” But what he did not, perhaps, anticipate was the reaction (or convenient spin) of the pundit class and not a few clerics who have minimized the decree or tried to dismiss it as a curiosity-- a non-event that is likely to have little effect beyond a few “ultraconservative” throwbacks. This analysis misses the point, and does the Pope and his carefully considered decree a disservice. There is much more at play here than satiating the liturgical appetites of a few traditionalists attached to an old form of the Mass, and the consequences could be far reaching.

In a nutshell the legislation (made public last Saturday) allows a pastor, on his own authority, to celebrate the Tridentine Mass, codified in the 16th century, for any member of the faithful desirous of it. Following the second Vatican council the venerable Mass, which had been celebrated for hundreds of years in Latin, complete with smells and bells, fell out of practice. It was actively suppressed in some quarters-- though never outlawed by the Church universal. Pope John Paul the Second increased access to the old rite in 1988, although the permission of the local bishop was required for a priest to offer it. That is no longer the case. This new legislation removes all obstacles, including the middleman, requiring no permission from anyone. It also puts the traditional Latin Mass on a par with its newer incarnation (the widely celebrated vernacular Mass). In the words of the Pope, these Masses constitute “two usages of the one Roman rite.”

The Pope’s decision was certainly not arrived at hastily. Pope Benedict’s liturgical legislation had been in the works since 2005. Repeated consultations and bureaucratic blockades stalled the release. It is an open secret that many in the Roman Curia (including top Vatican officials) were opposed to the decree. Bishops in France and England flew into a tizzy over the prospect of reviving the Old Mass, rattling sabers long before the Pope acted. Several bishops tell me that the President of the American Bishops Conference, Bishop William Skylstad during an audience in Rome, flatly told the Pope, to his face, that the bishops of the US opposed any revival of the old rite insisting that it would cause “division.” In the face of such opposition and considerable resistance, Pope Benedict has seen fit to release his decree anyway. The question is: why? Why would the Pope risk alienating so many of his own churchman to appeal to a relatively small group of Catholics (by his own count 600,000 globally) attached to the old ways?

First off, one must understand that reform of the liturgy has been a central concern for Pope Ratzinger for decades. The Mass is the “greatest prayer of the Church” in his estimation and the fountainhead of western culture. He sees the reform of the liturgy as a crucial part of strengthening all other aspects of the Church, principally, its holiness and its unity.

This is a Pope disgusted by some of the gross innovations and liturgical experimentation he witnessed during the post-Vatican II period. In his letter to the bishops of the world he suggested that these “arbitrary deformations of the liturgy” provoked his decree. There is little room for such tomfoolery in the old Mass. The form of the Traditional Roman Rite permits few options, and its focus is on the Eucharist and not on the assembled or the celebrant.

During an interview I conducted with the Pope prior to his election, when our discussion turned to the old rite of the Mass, he said “(what) was at one time holy for the Church is always holy.” He spoke of the need to revive a “stronger presence of some elements of Latin” in the liturgy to underscore the “universal dimension” of the Mass. Before the Second Vatican Council, a Mass celebrated in New York was identical to the Mass celebrated in the Holy Land. One cannot say that is true today. Wider availability of the Old rite instantly restores a sense of universality that has been lacking for decades and will gradually make Catholics more comfortable with the use of Latin in the new Mass. Benedict’s action is not only, as has been widely reported, to placate a small group of “untratraditionalists.” His intentions are far wider and will, by his reckoning, strengthen the liturgy in both its older and newer forms.

The Pope’s decree points Catholics back to the origins of the new Mass and underscores the continuity of the two rites. Pope Benedict tells him bishops that as a result of his decree, “The celebration of the Mass according to the Missal of Paul VI (the new mass) will be able to demonstrate, more powerfully than has been the case hitherto, the sacrality which attracts many people to the former usage.” By placing the two Masses in close proximity, I think it is safe to say the Pope is hoping that the new Mass will take on the sensibilities of the old. It is almost a free market approach to liturgical reform. Here is a chance for people to experience the older and younger liturgical brothers and determine for themselves, which they prefer. The Pope is betting that sacrality and reverence will win out over innovation and novelty, no matter which rite people choose.

There are inevitable problems: many priests simply don’t know the Latin language. They can learn it, or at least enough of it to get through the Mass. The movements of the Traditional rite can also be gleaned from older clergy and groups like the Fraternity of St. Peter that offer intensive instruction in the old Mass. Similarly, the laity will catch on. As the odd physical gestures that have taken hold over the last thirty years demonstrate (like the incessant hand holding and hand shaking that have at times made the Mass look more like a hoe-down), the Catholic people will go where they are led, and they usually do so with little discord. Parishioners can actively follow the Mass using a Missal, which usually provides side-by-side translations. Listening with attention will be required. But who said reaching God, or worshiping Him should be effortless? Since the Vatican Council generations of Catholics have participated in Masses and repeated actions that they have no historical appreciation or understanding of. This move by the Pope will not only provoke a healthy conversation about why Catholics do what they do, but ground them in the beauty and meaning of the New Mass as well as the Old.

There is a generation gap emerging in the reception to the Pope’s decree. Generally those Catholics in their late 50’s and older are not as receptive as their younger counterparts. Several years ago I was struck to discover, while visiting a seminary abroad, that a group of seminarians were spending their recreation time learning the Old Rite of the Mass from an Octogenarian cleric. I have since discovered that this underground movement among seminarians is more widespread than I had imagined. Benedict’s liberalization of the old rite is not the case of a Pope on a nostalgia kick. Rather, he is tapping into an organic liturgical movement that has sprung up among the young—a natural yearning for devotions and traditions that they were denied in their formation. Catholics in their 40’s, 30’s, and 20’s are rediscovering their roots and craving greater orthodoxy than their parents or grandparents. John Paul the Second was laughed to scorn when he began his World Youth Day gatherings, but he rejected the conventional wisdom and pressed forward, with a conviction that his Church’s future resided with the young. His successor is following a similar course.

Go to any parish where the Latin Mass is offered with regularity: Old St. Mary’s in Washington, St. Agnes in New York, or St. Patrick’s in New Orleans and you are likely to find only a handful of people who were even alive when the old Mass was still the norm. The cries of infants rise up like incense at these services and young people are everywhere.

If the Pope had only intended to give Traditionalist Catholics the Mass of their youth, he would have crafted a far narrower piece of legislation. As he wrote in a letter to his bishops, accompanying the decree: “Immediately after the Second Vatican Council it was presumed that requests for the use of the 1962 Missal would be limited to the older generation which had grown up with it, but in the meantime it has clearly been demonstrated that young persons too have discovered this liturgical form, felt its attraction and found in it a form of encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist, particularly suited to them.”

For those who wish to pooh-pooh this papal action or diminish its importance, it would perhaps be instructive to put aside personal prejudices, and venture into one of these parishes where the Old Roman Rite is offered regularly. Look carefully into the eyes of the young people packing the pews. They want to be a part of what was, what is, and what now will be—a liturgy rooted in the eternal. In those pews is a preview of the Church that Benedict XVI envisions for the future: one that is holy, sacred, vibrant, and unified.