Latin and God’s Holy People

I do not attend the Latin Mass.  I believe that the Novus Ordo Mass can be filled with beauty, but that the surroundings, the habits that have grown into prescriptive laws, the ancillary people and their actions, and the problems with the lectionary, especially in its English rendering, make that beauty difficult to attain.

The problem is not that the Mass, as it is in fact celebrated almost everywhere in the English world, fails to be overpowering, like a Beethoven symphony.  We cannot live on grandeur alone.  We must have ordinary bread.  But there’s a beauty to ordinary bread, too, the beauty of what is simple, wholesome, unpretentious.

The old low Mass had that simplicity.  You could say it was not grand, but it did not pretend to be.  What you could never say was that it was ugly, silly, or sentimental.  It was reliable, like a rock.

Cardinals Cupich and Gregory, Bishop Burbidge of Arlington, and others insist that we Catholics shall not be united unless we cause everyone to give up the beauty and power they find in the Latin Mass – for it is there to be found, and even at a low Mass, the quiet power is as solid and confident and firm.

But that is like demanding that we shall find beauty where it is not, because it has been shorn away, or where we are battered by banality or silliness or ugliness or politically motivated trimming of Scripture.

It’s like saying, “You shall get rid of your altar rail, and you shall at the same time be just as profoundly touched by the excellence of the Sacrament as you were before, and by the unity of the people of God, humbly submitting to be fed by Christ.”

It’s like saying, “You shall whitewash most of the paintings in your church, and you shall at the same time feel embedded in a family and all its family stories that extend over thousands of years.”

It’s like saying, “You shall replace the chants with these songs here, by these authors who can’t write a lick of poetry and who have not studied Christian hymns since Saint Ambrose, songs that are at best sentimental and inoffensive, at worst stupid and heretical, and you shall sing, and you shall be lifted up in the soul, whether you like it or not.”

It’s like saying, “You shall be content with Scriptural readings riddled with holes, and translated by people whose literary achievements make for adequate office memoranda, and you shall be stirred by their eloquence, nor shall you notice what is missing.

It’s like saying, “You shall be content with prayers that ignore great fields of the spiritual life.  You shall be content with prayers painted in orange, yellow, and white.  You shall never long for the deep red of suffering and the somber blue of falling night.  You shall want what is pretty and pleasant – never the dread of eternal loss, never a frank acknowledgment of how wretched you are, always a smile and a pat on the back.  You shall buy what good feelings the huckster has for sale.  You shall be happy with that, or else.”


Need I go on?

“Boys, you’d better be inspired by the girls there to want to serve at the altar.”

“Men, you’d better pay attention, and if you don’t like holding hands, we won’t miss you.”

“Everyone, just because the priest is facing you all the time and beaming at you and mugging and posing a little, because he can’t help but feel that he is on stage, you must like the beaming, or you must force yourself to think right past it so you can focus on God.”

It’s been observed that most people attending a Novus Ordo Mass do not believe it is valid: they do not believe that the Mass has the power to make Christ present in the sacrament, body, blood, soul, and divinity.

If the cardinals and bishops I’ve mentioned think that is a dreadful thing, a sign of their failure, I have not heard it.  Do they believe that the Eucharist is the only reality that can unite us?  Or do they take it as a sign of our already being one, in our good feelings and a small and vague set of moral beliefs?  That’s to turn our supposed unity into a sacrament, and to reduce Jesus to a mascot.

I don’t question the validity of the Novus Ordo.  I certainly do question the efficacy, even the fidelity and the sanity of almost everything that has gotten tangled up with the Novus Ordo, which the despisers of the Latin Mass show no sign of wishing to reform.

Take that whole package all in all.  It doesn’t work.  It hasn’t worked.  It’s not going to work, because it runs counter to human nature, because it doesn’t acknowledge the full range of man’s needs as he stands before God, and because, in subtle but pervasive ways, it tends to make religion into a pleasant hobby and God into a hobbyhorse.

I’m referring to the whole thing there, the typical experience of Mass since 1970, and I’m speaking in general terms that do not apply to every parish or, much less, to every parishioner.

I’ve been blessed with pastors who understand beauty, and who keep in mind that God is the focus of our worship and not ourselves.  But innovations that apply generally must be evaluated for their general effect.

Perhaps the bishops are not thinking about the liturgy at all, but about the people – whose devotion they envy, and whose moral conservatism they detest.  Is that it?

Are they more to be punished because their churches are full?  You might say, “Let’s learn from what they do.”  You might say, “We should have real music in our parishes also.”

Why are you not pleased by their faith?  They believe that you bear them a grudge.  Why do you prove them right?


*Image: The Mass of Saint Giles by the Master of Saint Giles, c. 1500 [National Gallery, London, England]. This is one of four surviving fragments of a large altarpiece. Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor, kneels beside an altar at which St. Giles says Mass.

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Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.