These cultural offshoots of the Latin Mass are why, after Vatican II, the English novelists Agatha Christie and Nancy Mitford and other British cultural luminaries sent a letter to Pope Paul VI asking that it continue. Their letter doesn’t even pretend to be from believing Christians. “The rite in question, in its magnificent Latin text, has also inspired a host of priceless achievements in the arts — not only mystical works, but works by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs. Thus, it belongs to universal culture as well as to churchmen and formal Christians.”
But the Vatican Council had called for a revision of every aspect of the central act of worship, so the altar rails, tabernacles and baldachins were torn up in countless parishes. This ferment was accompanied by radical new theologies around the Mass. A freshman religious studies major would know that revising all the vocal and physical aspects of a ceremony and changing the rationale for it constitutes a true change of religion. Only overconfident Catholic bishops could imagine otherwise.
The most candid progressives agreed with the radical traditionalists that the council constituted a break with the past. They called Vatican II “a new Pentecost” — an “Event” — that had given the church a new self-understanding. They believed their revolution had been stalled in 1968 when Pope Paul VI issued “Humanae Vitae,” affirming the church’s opposition to artificial contraception, and then put it on ice in 1978 with the election of Pope John Paul II.
To stamp out the old Latin Mass, Pope Francis is using the papacy in precisely the way that progressives once claimed to deplore: He centralizes power in Rome, usurps the local bishop’s prerogatives and institutes a micromanaging style that is motivated by paranoia of disloyalty and heresy. Perhaps it’s to protect his deepest beliefs.
Pope Francis envisions that we will return to the new Mass. My children cannot return to it; it is not their religious formation. Frankly, the new Mass is not their religion. In countless alterations, the belief that the Mass was a real sacrifice and that the bread and wine, once consecrated, became the body and blood of our Lord was downplayed or replaced in it. With the priest facing the people, the altar was severed from the tabernacle. The prescribed prayers of the new Mass tended never even to refer to that structure anymore as an altar but as the Lord’s table. The prayers that pointed to the Lord’s real presence in the sacrament were conspicuously replaced with ones emphasizing the Lord’s spiritual presence in the assembled congregation.
The prayers of the traditional Mass emphasized that the priest was re-presenting the same sacrifice Christ made at Calvary, one that propitiated God’s wrath at sin and reconciled humanity to God. The new Mass portrayed itself as a narrative and historical remembrance of the events recalled in Scripture, and the offering and sacrifice was not of Christ, but of the assembled people, as the most commonly used Eucharistic prayer in the new Mass says, “from age to age you gather a people to Thyself, in order that from east to west a perfect offering may be made.”
For Catholics, how we pray shapes what we believe. The old ritual physically aims us toward an altar and tabernacle. In that way it points us to the cross and to heaven as the ultimate horizon of man’s existence. By doing so, it shows that God graciously loves us and redeems us despite our sins. And the proof is in the culture this ritual produces. Think of Mozart’s great rendition of faith in the Eucharist: “Ave Verum Corpus” (Hail True Body).
Michael Brendan Dougherty