The Liturgy Wars

A friend driving across the United States stopped to visit a former colleague who attends the Tridentine Mass. My friend attends a very reverent Novus Ordo Mass in a parish renowned for its orthodoxy, excellent Catholic school, and tremendous sense of community. But her friend told her: “Your Mass; it’s a different Church.”  A different Church?  As in, not. . .Catholic?  Such was the implication.

Later, she stopped for Mass at an unfamiliar parish. “It was horrible,” she told me: a homily empty of serious content; music for second-graders badly performed; and a dull liturgy sloppily done.

Welcome to the two fronts in the Liturgy Wars: on one side, squalid trenches built by those who won’t give up the clown and other Masses they thought the Second Vatican Council demanded (but didn’t), and on the other side, the platoons of those who refuse to relent on any detail of the Tridentine Mass regardless of the reforms the Church has called for.

As a college professor, I interact with a lot of college-aged kids.  How much interest have I found in the Tridentine rite among my students?  Very little, even among the most orthodox. I have had students who attend the Tridentine rite because their parents insist.  They admit that they sometimes attend other Masses but generally keep this from their parents.

A friend told me recently that his two college-age children are attending a Tridentine rite Mass now. “They didn’t get it from me,” he says.  As a family, they attended the Novus Ordo.  But his kids have been drawn to the Tridentine rite.  I get it.

One encounters others who seek an escape from the conflict altogether, like refugees from war who flee to another country.  The son of two friends, tired of the silly liturgies he grew up with, is converting to Orthodoxy.  Having myself been delighted by Byzantine-rite Catholic liturgies, it is easy to understand the draw and impossible to wish to deny him the joy.

After a few minutes, though, the conversation turns to anger over the Fourth Crusade, that sad event when some knights from the West, after being excommunicated by the pope, ended up in Constantinople, where they got involved in local political squabbles and ended up making a real nuisance of themselves (sacking, pillaging, taking over the government for a time).  Tragic as it was, that was 1204.  (Talk about holding a grudge!)  And it’s not clear why converting to Orthodoxy grants one the right to own that grudge.


I was recently privileged to attend a lecture by Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, O.P., elevated to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by John Paul II and now Adjunct Secretary.  In his lucid and learned talk, Di Noia spoke movingly of the liturgical reform that began with Pope St. Pius X who promoted retrieval of Gregorian Chant and encouraged more frequent reception of Communion.  It was he who, in a 1903 encyclical, first used the term “active participation” in the liturgy, a call echoed by Ven. Pius XII in 1947’s Mediator Dei (“it is very necessary that the faithful attend the sacred ceremonies not as if they were. . .mute onlookers”), and affirmed by the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

The split that has developed since has been between those who are convinced that everything should change – the old joke about Masses in the 1970s was “everything changes but the bread and wine” – and those who are determined nothing should change.  I have little patience for those who claim that “folk Mass,” Modernist churches, and gather-and-praise songs are “for the kids,” since anyone who talks to “the kids” knows that they find these things old-fashioned, uninspiring, and hopelessly “lame.” And yet, it’s also not clear to me that Catholics can keep doing exactly the same thing as before the Council and claim to be faithful to the Council’s intentions for reform.

I have heard repeatedly about the problems of the Novus Ordo. I am sympathetic.  But being somewhat contrarian by nature, I wonder whether the problems didn’t arise when the Church translated the liturgy out of the original Greek in the Fourth Century into the “vulgar” or “common” language of the West, Latin. This may explain my special love for the Divine and Holy Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

I suppose I should be more open-minded, though, since there are in fact many rites within the Church. The Catechism lists seven, but there are many more. At one point, there were over a hundred: Gallican, Ambrosian, Mozarabic, Ethiopic, Servite, etc.

The 1918 Catholic Encyclopedia entry on “rites” provides a long list, along with this statement: “The Catholic Church has never maintained a principle of uniformity in rite.”  And: “Catholics are united in faith and discipline, but in their manner of performing the sacred functions there is room for variety based on essential unity, as there was in the first centuries.”  The article on “liturgy” speaks of “the abolition of the venerable old rites that share the allegiance of Christendom,” and adds reassuringly “an abolition by the way that is not in the least likely ever to take place.”  Ho, ho.  How very passé!  But what do you expect?  It was pre-Vatican II.

Perhaps because I am a convert and love all these fascinating bits of information about the origin and development of the liturgy, I keep thinking the way to approach these conflicts would be to get scholars together to correct some of the mistaken scholarship of the early twentieth century, and in that light, make new efforts at the reform envisioned by the Second Vatican Council. But that’s not likely to happen; people seem to prefer shouting at others or shutting down the inconveniently recalcitrant.

In the meantime, I take consolation in the fact that, whatever disputes may trouble us, over a billion people around the world go to Mass every week. And the really amazing thing is this: Christ shows up too, every time.


*Image: Mass in a Connemara Cabin by Aloysius O’Kelly, 1883 [National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin]

You may also enjoy:

Howard Kainz’s Reflections on the Novus Ordo Mass

Gerhard Cardinal Mueller’s On the New TLM Restrictions

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.