Monday, May 20, 2013


Lovers of the Latin Mass make various paths in justifying the traditional form of the Roman Liturgy. It is reverent, it is beautiful, it is time-honored. We explain its structural coherence and its sense of motion. We talk about beauty and utility of Latin. True all, but such efforts are mostly useless. What is not useless, however, is our affection for the Extraordinary form.

We just plain love it. The quiet, the focus, the postures. We love the rhythm and gravitas of the Latin. We love the music, whether the ecstasy of high classical compositions, the dense webs of renaissance polyphony, or the unadorned lines of plainchant. We love the feeling of continuity with Catholics of every time and place. We love every bit and the glorious totality of the mass in which one feels at home.

In contrast, I've never heard anyone express any affection about the Novus Ordo, let alone wax poetical about it. Yes, they may like going to an NO mass, but that's because of what it is by nature, or what they think it is, not the form it takes. They like it or respect it because they know it is important, not because its form transports or enraptures them.

They may like singing at mass, but they don't like Marty Haugen. I've never heard anyone express that they love how their lector-neighbor reads the passages, or how their hairdresser distributes Holy Communion. Never have I heard someone confess a call to universal brotherhood when the cantor raises her arm to incite invite, the congregation. I still seek the encomiastic literature praising the seventh inning stretch that is the sign of peace. Now I've never heard anyone even try to defend these practices on empirical grounds, but that's the point: without reference to a principle, the only common appeal of these practices is whim.

Of course these gestures are not intrinsic to the NO and were you to strip them and follow the letter of the reform, you would find a mass resembling the Latin. Doing so of course puts off the progressives, who never consider themselves progressives, which suggests that their loyalties are not to the law of Sacrosanctum Concilium but whatever post Vatican II version of it they first embraced. It was an emotional embrace, too . They turned, and they will not turn again. Never mention that SC promotes chant and Latin and never ask them to point out where it mentions moving altars and receiving Holy Communion in the hand. They turned, but not to SC.

The old days for sure had demerits. Yet for all the degeneration of the ars celebrandi, the old masses inspired devotion. The NO, for all of the hope that it would appeal to the ethos changing times, seems not to have. Have there been more secular generations than those born in the 1970s and 80s, generations born to the boomers who got on board the reform bandwagon?

Worse than failure is the wholesale lack of culpability, a refusal that what they supported might not have served its purpose. It was the hippies or communists or conservatives who were at fault, not the reformers. When I hear such arguments I think of Gordon Ramsay's TV show Kitchen Nightmares. In every episode, the desperate owners with their business on the verge of closing have called in Gordon, who before tasting asks them first to rate their food on a scale of 1-10 and then explain what's wrong with the restaurant. The owners invariably reply that their food is a 10 and the problem is that there are not enough customers. When he tries to change the menu they predictably reply that they don't want to alienate their customers, to which an enraged Gordon replies, "There's nobody in your damn restaurant!"

Likewise, there's no acknowledgement that a flat, languid mass in a modern church, with sappy music, in the common tongue, with disposable missalettes, untrained lectors, hand-shaking, umpteen extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, a rambling and incoherent homily, and asides tossed in here and there, might be harming people. There's no sense of reverence for what worked or responsibility to make sure that what they do is working now. Progress came, and thus improvement.

Or not. Maybe what we have is a sucking lack of vitality. Empty pews, empty coffers. We have an artistic world which can't muster for the dusty paradigm any more than pop-tune wannabes every bit as forgotten and unloved as the Toronto Mass of whenever. We may have traded in the eternal for the ephemeral, but still today the most exciting work is being done in the chant world, where interest and resources are simply exploding. Funny about the timeless.

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