Guarding Tradition and the Mass (Part 2)

I wrote recently about Pope Francis’ decision to restrict the celebration of the old Mass (called the Traditional Latin Mass [TLM] or extraordinary form of the Mass). A few more thoughts on that today, especially about the history of the implementation of the new Mass [novus ordo].

After the new rite of the Mass was introduced at Vatican II, some 50+ years ago, the old Mass was severely restricted. A priest could only celebrate it by special permission (indult) from the bishop of his diocese in the limited locations where he allowed it. In our diocese, for example, if memory serves, only two locations for 19 counties were permitted. For the faithful who loved the old Mass, that meant it was often difficult and inconvenient to attend, if not practically impossible.

A small number of people continued to attend the TLM, at first mostly those (often older) folks who missed the older rite of the Mass and did not like the changes of the new. However, in 2007, things began to change after Pope Benedict made the decision to remove most of the restrictions placed on the old Mass. Priests were allowed to celebrate it without special permission from their bishop, it could be celebrated in any parish, and so on.

After this change, something very interesting happened: many young people (who had never experienced the old Mass) “discovered” the traditional Latin Mass. In most places, if you attend the TLM, the first thing that strikes you is the youthfulness of those attending. These Masses are typically filled with young families (with lots of children). If you attend a typical “new Mass” one week and TLM the next, the difference in average age will jump out at you, as most “new Mass” parishes have lost most of their young people in recent decades. In my 17 years as a priest, I have celebrated far too many Masses where there were practically no young people present. That is certainly a problem for the future of our parishes and is one of the major factors necessitating the Beacons of Light parish realignment initiative. (I’ll be writing a lot about that initiative soon).

For the majority of Catholics who didn’t live through the transition to the new Mass, it is hard to describe the bitterness and hostility directed at those who chose to attend the old rite of the Mass, even by bishops and priests. I very rarely attended the TLM myself, but had friends who did and was deeply saddened by the way they were marginalized. I also remember, as late as the late 1990’s and early 2000’s when I was in seminary, that many of the faculty there then (priests and lay) made it clear that they had no respect for any seminarian who wanted to celebrate the Mass in that old form. The beauty and history of the old Mass were simply not taught. Much of our liturgical instruction centered instead on how “deficient” the old Mass seemed before the revisions of the Second Vatican Council were enacted. Fortunately, that has changed after Pope Benedict, so much so that many of the new seminarians choose to be trained in both the old rite and the new rite, with a well-balanced instruction appreciating the full liturgical history of the Church, and the positive aspects of both the old and new Mass.

Partly as a result of this kind of negative attitude toward the old Mass-goers, divisions, unfortunately, grew within the Church, so that a small percentage of those who appreciated the old Mass broke communion with the Church. A few stayed but became embittered at the new Mass and those who attended it.

That’s part of the background for what happened on July 16th, when, with essentially no warning whatsoever, Pope Francis used the authority of the papacy immediately to reimpose severe restrictions on the celebration of the old rite of the Mass. The abruptness and severity of the move has caused considerable confusion, and is now under study by the bishops. In his decree, Pope Francis cited his view that the old Mass was causing division and rejection of the Second Vatican Council. Many of the lay faithful and some prominent bishops and cardinals don’t agree with that assessment. One American bishop said the Pope’s action was “like using a chainsaw when a scalpel was needed.”

Many of those who wish to attend the old Mass fear that we will soon return to the time when those attending the TLM were treated like second-class Catholics and they mourn the loss of the communities of faithful Catholics they had been able to worship with close to home.

It is puzzling why the Holy Father took this drastic action. He has the authority to do so. But the question is, does the good done here outweigh the harm? It is especially puzzling since Pope Francis often emphasizes the need for dialogue and accompaniment, but that didn’t seem to happen here. The Church has always had multiple rites (eastern rites and others) so it is difficult to understand why the Holy Father would not allow the old and new form of the Mass exist side by side, as has happened now for several years.

As the Church works through this, we continue to pray for the Holy Father and especially for our bishops, including Archbishop Schnurr, that they may keep the Church united in the celebration of the Holy Mass, whatever the rite.

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