A Defense of the Latin Mass

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The following article does not necessarily represent the opinions of all Clarifying Catholicism writers. We encourage respectful dialogue in the comments section. For an alternative perspective, check out this article here.

By Olivia Burke, Hillsdale College

The news of Pope Francis’s recent motu proprio Traditionis Custodes broke my heart.  

The question, I kept asking myself, was why?

If unity among Catholics is the aim of Pope Francis’s recent motu proprio, it will not be found in the restriction of Traditional Latin Mass, or Usus Antiquior, the form of the mass that has been handed down through the centuries.  As Catholics we profess one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, united not by external form but in belief. As Cardinal Mueller writes, “The unity of believers with one another is rooted in unity in God through faith, hope, and love and has nothing to do with uniformity in appearance (Cardinal Mueller on the New TLM Restrictions).” Just as the Catholic Church is holy, not by the individual actions of her members but by the infinite holiness of her Founder, so too is she one in the Body of Christ, not sterile uniformity in appearance. As the apostle Paul wrote, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit (1 Cor 12:12-13).” A regulation of appearance cannot change a disunity of belief in the minds of professed Catholics.

Moreover, if unity in appearance was necessary, the Usus Antiquior offers a more unified external form, as masses in every country and throughout time are in the same language, Latin.

There is a unity already present between the Novus Ordo, or Usus Recentior, and the Usus Antiquior through virtue of Christ’s one sacrifice on Calvary, in which we are present at each and every mass. Both the Novus Ordo and the Usus Antiquior are a valid form mass, for in each “it is one and the same Victim, the same one now offering by the ministry of the priests as He who then offered Himself on the Cross (Council of Trent, Session 22).” I, like so many other Catholics, am not calling into question the validity of the Novus Ordo in my love of the Usus Antiquior. Those with a preference for either form remain united by a common faith in Jesus Christ and His Church, established on Peter and enduring, unchanged, through time.

This unity is truly threatened by those who reject Vatican II; it is not threatened by the great number of the faithful who simply love the Usus Antiquior. Cardinal Mueller writes, “In Traditionis Custodes, the pope rightly insists on the unconditional recognition of Vatican II. Nobody can call himself Catholic who either wants to go back to behind Vatican II (or any other council recognized by the pope) as the time of the “true” Church or wants to leave that Church behind as an intermediate step towards a “new Church” (Cardinal Mueller on the New TLM Restrictions).” Pope Francis rightly condemns those schismatics that reject the Second Vatican Council. But as Cardinal Burke writes, “If there are situations of an attitude or practice contrary to the sound doctrine and discipline of the Church, justice demands that they be addressed individually by the pastors of the Church, the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops in communion with him (Cardinal Burke, Statement on the Motu Proprio).” Pope Francis’s broad disciplinary action in Traditionis Custodes harms those Catholics in full communion with Rome and in love with the Usus Antiquior.

This is not to say that general unity or continuity in worship is not a good to be desired. As Pope Benedict XVI observed in his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful (Summorum Pontificum).” He allowed for both forms of the mass to be celebrated, allowing for them to enrich each other and develop naturally. The unity of worship is a good, but it cannot to be forced by restrictions on the Usus Antiquior. The approach of Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum is characterized by a docility to, and confidence in the unifying work of the Holy Spirit in the Catholic Church.

And the Holy Spirit has been working through the Usus Antiquor. There has been an incredible growth in the Usus Antiquor community in the past 14 years, under Pope Benedict XVI’s promulgation of Summorum Pontificum. I myself started attending the Usus Antiquior during this time with my family. I have seen many other faithful Catholics discover the beauty of this form of the mass and receive many gifts from their devotion. While vocations to the priesthood and religious life have been falling around the world, orders such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) have grown. The seminaries of the FSSP, in full communion with Rome, are full. These young priests pose no threat to the unity of Catholics around the world; moreover, they are desperately needed in our time.

So if the unity of Catholics is a unity of faith in Christ, and a love of the Usus Antiquior is not equivalent to a rejection of Vatican II, what is the difference between the two forms of the mass and why is the discussion so important? Why would the form of the mass matter?

While the difference in appearance of the two forms of the mass does not affect their sacramental validity, the sensory differences are significant to us as sensory beings. We are body and soul, and as such, the visible world moves us and forms us. Tangible realities are not arbitrary. Indeed, “The whole world of images that surrounds us is a single field of signification. Every flower we see is an expression, every landscape has its significance, every human or animal face speaks its wordless language.” (Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Theo-Logic).

Every symbol, every gesture, has a meaning. And as we are endowed with an intellect by God, we can understand that meaning. When we read a novel or watch a tv show, our mind is formed. Images, both beautiful and ugly, impress themselves upon us. They affect our conscience, moral imagination, and indeed, our understanding of the universe.

Divine worship an outward expression of faith, and by it we give proof of our love of God. But its form also affects us as we participate in it. As the Catholic philosopher Joseph Pieper writes, “That is the sense of the visibility of the sacrament: that it should be the means of lifting man out of himself, so that he is rapt to the heavens. (Leisure, The Basis of Culture).” If done well, it will reinforce the resolve of the faithful. But done poorly or ambiguously, it may lead to doubts and confusion within the mind of those present.

The form of divine worship is of incredible importance. Divine worship directs our lives and gives living proof to others of our beliefs, ordering us to the truths we profess. It is a form of catechesis, as it is where children and guests first encounter the truths of our Catholic faith. Divine worship gives fosters gratitude, humility, and leisure, and it is ultimately what we are made for in this world. Only through a proper ordering of ourselves towards praise of God can we hope to have any influence in the world around us. In this way the form of divine worship cannot be arbitrary.

The first obvious difference between the Usus Recentior and the Usus Antiquior is the use of the vernacular (common) language in the Usus Recentior. In contrast, the Usus Antiquior is spoken almost entirely in Latin, with the one exception of the sermon. Latin is the official language of the Holy Catholic Church, and it is traditionally considered one of the three sacred languages. The other two are Hebrew and Greek, made sacred by the inscription written above our crucified Lord. While the use of the vernacular makes the mass more accessible, it may inadvertently imply to the faithful that the Catholic Church is subject to change according to time and place. Of course, the Usus Recentior may be celebrated, and celebrated beautifully, in Latin. Sadly, however, it is uncommon.

In the Usus Antiquior, the priest faces ad orientem, literally “to the East”. He faces the tabernacle upon the altar as he acts as mediator to God for the people. In the Usus Recentior, the priest faces ad populum, “to the people”, as he celebrates the Holy Mass. The role of the priest as mediator has been minimized through this change in orientation.

These are a two of the obvious changes: the use of the vernacular, and the priest facing ad populum. There are also less obvious changes to the prayers spoken during the mass. These subtler changes are hard to see without an intentional study of the Usus Recentior and the Usus Antiquior. Cardinal Ottaviani, in his 1969 Letter to Pope Paul VI, points out a few of these changes and voices his concerns about their implications.

His primary concern is the minimizing of the doctrine of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ, body, blood, soul, and divinity, upon the altar. He writes, “The Novus Ordo changes the nature of the offering turning it into a sort of exchange of gifts between man and God: man brings the bread, and God turns it into the “bread of life”; man brings the wine, and God turns it into a “spiritual drink” (Letter of Cardinal Ottaviani).” While this is not a negation of Christ’s Real Presence at the Mass, these changes in the prayers create an ambiguity that may be dangerous.

The Usus Recentior’s definition of the mass is itself ambiguous. It states, “The Lord’s Supper, or Mass, is the sacred meeting or congregation of the people of God assembled, the priest presiding, to celebrate the memorial of the Lord. For this reason, Christ’s promise applies eminently to such a local gathering of holy Church: “Where two or three come together in my name, there am I in their midst” (Mt. 18:20) (“General Instruction of the Roman Missal”, Missale Romanum: Ordo Missae Editio).” While There is nothing wrong with this description, it lacks a mention of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, truly present to the faithful at mass. It instead defines the mass as a meeting, creating an “unheard of distinction between “Mass with congregation” and “Mass without congregation” (Letter of Cardinal Ottaviani).” These definitions seem to imply that it is the congregation on which the mass depends and may cloud the Catholic doctrine of the True Presence of Christ. 

In our increasingly pagan and unstable culture, the Usus Antiquior offers a refuge from the confusion of modernity. Indeed, as Joseph Pieper states, “Culture lives on religion through divine worship. And when culture itself is endangered, and leisure is called in question, there is only one thing to be done; to go back to the first and original source (Leisure, The Basis of Culture).” We must turn to divine worship. And in this unstable modern culture, there is a unique grace in the celebration of the Usus Antiquior, for it is the mass of our fathers in faith. It upholds, time and time again, the true presence of Our Lord. It is the product of 1500 years of tradition, developing naturally through the input of saints. It is, in a word, stable.

When compared to the Usus Antiquior, the Usus Recentior, literally “More Recent Usage”, is incredibly young. This form of the mass was the product of the five-year Council for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. The Usus Recentior was written quickly in response to the Vatican II constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium. This youth may be an advantage, and it may a disadvantage. It is still subject to change in a way the Usus Antiquior is not. We see this in the ongoing revisions the English translation of the Usus Recentior, most notably to those implemented in 2008.

This is not to say that tradition is entirely rigid. There is an unchangeable quality to Sacred Tradition, but there is also a concept of living tradition. The Usus Antiquior, in the Missal of Paul VI, may not be the one and only mass for all times and all places. As Pope Pius XII declared, “The sacred liturgy does, in fact, include divine as well as human elements. The former, instituted as they have been by God, cannot be changed in any way by men. But the human components admit of various modifications, as the needs of the age, circumstance and the good of souls may require, and as the ecclesiastical hierarchy, under guidance of the Holy Spirit, may have authorized.” (Mediator Dei, 50) But change must be approached with caution and respect for the traditions which have carried us to the present.

The use of the Usus Antiquior is not inherently schismatic; moreover, if offers to the faithful many graces and fruits, which are so necessary in our time. It offers a refuge from our rapidly-changing world. It offers a clear and beautiful expression of the truths of the Catholic Church. Further, it is so rooted in the Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church that the liturgy itself propels the participant to unity with Rome, the guardian of that same Tradition.    

Its “impracticality” is its beauty. When the form of the mass is not in the vernacular, when the congregation cannot clearly see what happens upon the altar, it is evident the mass is not directed towards the people.

Joseph Pieper writes, “Divine worship, of its very nature, creates a sphere of real wealth and superfluity, even in the midst of the direst material want—because sacrifice is the living heart of worship. And what does sacrifice mean? It means a free offering freely given, and never anything useful or utilitarian; in fact it means the very opposite of ‘using’ or ‘useful’ (Leisure, The Basis of Culture).”

The Usus Antiquior fits this description. It is no threat to the unity of Catholics, upholding the doctrinal teachings of our Holy Mother Church and presenting Christ’s one sacrifice on Calvary to the faithful present, in its ancient and beautiful form.

Pope Francis’s concern for unity is not without its weight; the disciplinary action of Traditionis Custodes, however, creates undue suffering for faithful practicing Catholics. It also comes surprisingly. After all, in 2016 Pope Francis himself welcomed the Society of St. Pius X into full communion with Rome, validating confessions heard by a priest of that order. Moreover, this motu proprio has created division and confusion as bishops and laity try to make sense of its restrictions.

Bishops have taken varied responses to Traditionis Custodes. Some have banned the Usus Antiquior outright. Here, as Cardinal Mueller describes, “Instead of appreciating the smell of the sheep, the shepherd here hits them hard with his crook (Cardinal Mueller on the New TLM Restrictions).” On the other hand, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, has dispensed two of his parishes of obedience to Traditionis Custodes, according to a power granted to him by the Code of Canon Law. Canon 87 states, “A diocesan bishop, whenever he judges that a dispensation will contribute to their spiritual good, is able to dispense the faithful from universal and particular disciplinary laws issued for his territory or his subjects by the supreme authority of the Church. (Code of Canon Law, Canon 87).”

The faithful who have come to know God in and through the Usus Antiquor should not be banned from the parishes, as Traditiones Custodes directs, but should be given the pastoral care that belongs to all of Christ’s faithful. Further, the Usus Antiquor and its unique graces should continued to be allowed to function as an organ for the work of the Holy Spirit. The mass of our fathers in faith cannot now be a hinderance to the Holy Spirit.

Let us pray that as more bishops respond to Traditionis Custodes in the following weeks, they follow in the footsteps of Bishop Paprocki, listening to the voice of the faithful in their diocese and appreciating the unique graces the Usus Antiquior has to offer our time.

2 Responses

  1. You make many good points, especially: ” While There is nothing wrong with this description, it lacks a mention of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, truly present to the faithful at mass. It instead defines the mass as a meeting, creating an “unheard of distinction between “Mass with congregation” and “Mass without congregation” (Letter of Cardinal Ottaviani).” These definitions seem to imply that it is the congregation on which the mass depends and may cloud the Catholic doctrine of the True Presence of Christ.”
    Indeed TLM congregations seem to be more vibrant, better catechised, and attract more young people, more vocations, i.e they are defying a Western trend of decay. Personally, I wish they’d drop the Latin and keep everything else the same.
    Pope Francis’ actions will result in two things, among others. A move by some extreme elements to the SSPX, and secondly a move by some into Novus Ordo parishes which may greatly benefit thereby.

  2. While you are correct that most priests who celebrate the Usus Recentior do so versus populum, doing so ad orientem is actually the posture presumed in the General Instruction, and it can be done this way unless the local ordinary should forbid it.

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