Volume > Issue > Dying on the Wrong Hill

Dying on the Wrong Hill

The Traditional Mass: History, Form, & Theology of the Classical Roman Rite

By Michael Fiedrowicz. Translated by Rose Pfeifer

Publisher: Angelico Press

Pages: 350

Price: $22.95

Review Author: Thomas Storck

Thomas Storck, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, has written widely on Catholic social teaching, Catholic culture, and related topics for many years. He is the author, most recently, of Seeing the World with Catholic Eyes: A Conversation with Thomas Storck (Arouca Press, 2021). An archive of his writings can be found at thomasstorck.org.

On the eve of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church seemed to be enjoying some of her best times. She was solid in the practice and obedience of her faithful, receiving numerous priestly and religious vocations, and confident in her divine mission and identity. But within a few years, Pope St. Paul VI lamented that the smoke of Satan had entered the Church, and thousands of priests and religious, and hundreds of thousands of the laity, abandoned their vocations or the practice of their religion. There was more than one reason for this: questionable ideas, or even outright heresy, put forth in books and taught at all levels of Catholic education, and the abolition of long-standing devotions and customs. Arguably the most important factor that led to the swift and unexpected breakdown of Catholic life was the changes to the Roman liturgy, the liturgy experienced by the vast majority of Catholics throughout the world.

It is by means of the weekly Sunday liturgy that ordinary Catholics come into regular contact with the official life of the Church and participate in an actual felt Catholicism. It was the pre-Vatican II liturgy that largely put flesh, as it were, on the bones of the questions and answers of the Baltimore Catechism, by means of which so many American Catholics learned their faith in the decades preceding the Council. Although by 1960 the Latin liturgy was sometimes celebrated in a sloppy and hurried manner, which undoubtedly detracted from its solemnity, within a few years of the Council the ethos of the liturgy had changed dramatically. Any sort of sacred atmosphere had largely dissipated, and a spirit that could only be called banal seemed to rule almost everywhere. All these changes — not only changes in the actual texts but the substitution of the vernacular for Latin, new hymns, reception of Holy Communion standing and often in the hand, changes in the very structure of church buildings — could not but give the impression that the unchangeable Catholic faith had, in fact, changed. They could not but disturb the rhythm of Catholic life. Today’s sad state of affairs is, in great part, due to that disruption in the Church’s worship and its consequent effects upon the faithful.

The present book under review, The Traditional Mass by Michael Fiedrowicz, a German priest and academic, is a detailed history of the Roman liturgy, with copious footnotes citing, it would appear, nearly all relevant literature in German, Italian, French, and English. The reader will discover herein the origins and development not only of the principal parts of the Roman Mass but even many of the small gestures of the celebrant and ministers, some of which are remnants of liturgical practices that characterized earlier stages of the liturgy.

We can take away three main lessons from this book. The first is that the Roman liturgy has undergone many and considerable changes during its nearly 2,000-year history. New forms, prayers, and ceremonies; a new language (Greek to Latin in the fourth century); not infrequent dropping or curtailing of earlier elements: all these indicate that the Latin liturgy has always been subject to change, especially before Pope St. Pius V codified it in 1570. This is an important point, for it is wrong to regard the Roman liturgy as unchanged or unchangeable. But this fact can be pushed too far, and this brings us to the second lesson.

Fr. Fiedrowicz quotes German writer Martin Mosebach to the effect that amid all the changes that occurred over the centuries, “no one ever dared to question the following main features of the traditional liturgy: the sacral language; the celebration of the liturgy versus orientem;…the character of the liturgy as a sacrificial rite.” In other words, what was crucial were the elements that so largely contributed to the sacred atmosphere of Catholic worship and so much affected the experience of the average Catholic, more so than whether any particular prayer, gesture, or rite was included or omitted. As James Hitchcock wrote in The Recovery of the Sacred (1974), “In the actual life of the Church, most sacred symbols are not understood by most believers in an explicit, intellectual way, but are nonetheless apprehended as having meaning.” Further, “The total effect of these symbols is to sustain a strong belief in God, even though specific symbols may not always convey specific religious meanings.” It is the totality of the atmosphere of the liturgy that chiefly determines whether it will lift believers toward the mysteries of God and eternal life or conform their hearts and minds to the often drab sensibilities of contemporary life. And here we encounter the third lesson: Those who were responsible for the introduction of the post-Vatican II Novus Ordo liturgy seriously misunderstood human nature and, in particular, the cultural situation of the times.

The confused decade of the 1960s, and the first two or three years of the 1970s, witnessed a turn away from the sometimes exaggerated rationalism of the 1950s toward both an emphasis on the body and the created world and a search for mystical experience. This turn, for the most part, found unfortunate expression in drugs, rock music, and sex, as well as in an interest in Eastern meditation or other Oriental religious practices. If those in charge of the Church had correctly read the signs of the times, perhaps things would have been different. This was the decade in which the Church should have emphasized more strongly those aspects of sacramental worship that involve material things and lead to things divine, something rooted in the Incarnation itself. Fr. Fiedro­wicz quotes the Council of Trent: “Holy Mother Church…has provided ceremonial, such as mystical blessings, lights, incense, vestments, and many other rituals of that kind…by which…the minds of the faithful are aroused by those visible signs of religion and piety to the contemplation of the sublime mysteries hidden in this sacrifice.” But the Novus Ordo liturgy drastically decreased the number of “mystical blessings, lights, incense,” and so on. It made the Mass much more rationalist and less mystical — a kind of throwback to the very hyper-rationalism to which the counterculture was opposed — and closer to the staid worship of respectable, mainline Protestantism, which offers an almost exclusively cerebral appeal.

Likewise, traditional monasticism was de-emphasized, and so some who might have found in traditional Catholic monasticism the spiritual insight they were really seeking wandered off to Hindu or Buddhist monasteries. In short, in a decade in which all things bourgeois were being rejected, the Catholic Church jettisoned some of her most sacred practices and ended up appearing all the more bourgeois.

With historical hindsight, we can view the liturgical alterations of the 1960s as profoundly misguided. But does this mean it is vital to justify each and every liturgical practice that had attached itself to the traditional Latin liturgy? This question brings me to the principal objection I have to this book, which is that the author frequently tries to prove too much. It is one thing to point out the lack of a sacred atmosphere in too many celebrations of the Novus Ordo Mass, even its frequent banality, and to note the contrary characteristics of the traditional liturgy. This Fr. Fiedrowicz does, and justly so. But, in addition, he continually seeks to justify, and appears to hold of vital importance, the many small gestures contained in the rubrics of the traditional liturgy, often attributing to them a mystical significance that hardly anyone would notice. For example, he writes:

At the elevation of the Host and chalice…the servers are to lift the priest’s chasuble, which was necessary originally because of the design of the medieval bell chasuble and its heavy, richly-ornamented material. Today this custom is retained, despite modified forms of vestments, not least of all because of its beautiful and symbolic meaning when one recalls the woman with an issue of blood who was healed by touching the hem of Christ’s garment.

Although I have witnessed this ceremony hundreds of times, not once did it occur to me that this particular symbolic meaning could possibly be attached to it, and I wager that few, if any, who attend the traditional liturgy would have imagined it either. There are other ceremonies the origins of which are unknown and for which a symbolic meaning is not even suggested. Fr. Fiedrowicz writes:

Why…is the Epistle read from one side of the altar and the Gospel from the other side? Why does the priest turn with a half circle from the altar to the people at each Dominus vobiscum, turning back around to the altar with a half circle movement, while at the Orate fratres he completes a full circle turn, turning back toward the altar in the other direction? Why is it that during the incensing of the bread and wine on the altar the censor is passed over the offerings in the form of a cross twice in a clockwise rotation, and a third time counter-clockwise? Why is the paten concealed under the corporal after the offering and only pulled out again after the Pater noster?

These are just a few examples of how much in the traditional rite of the Mass is not readily understandable, but is made accessible only by knowledge of its historical development. Such knowledge…however, is not unproblematic. The further and more precisely one investigates the centuries-old history of the rite of the Mass, the clearer one thing becomes: what appears to have come to us from time immemorial and was regarded by earlier epochs as untouchable…proves to be historically circumscribed, the result of contingent factors, and a relic of practical requirements that once existed but have not existed for a long time.

Compare this to what Mosebach said. Immediately preceding the lines I quoted above, Mosebach had written the following:

There has never been any reluctance to intervene in the rite. There has by no means been merely that unconscious, unnoticed, organic development and unfolding of the rite, of which the defenders of the ritual tradition speak, but many extremely conscious measures ordered from above…. This psalm has been inserted here and that one left out there. This sequence was used here and that one was deleted there. Intercessions and processions came and went. The blessing was given from the altar or when the bishop leaves the altar…. Special liturgical vessels came into use and disappeared again. Some prayers were heard aloud in one century, softly in another, then again prayed aloud; others were first prayed in the sacristy, and later in the church.

I do not mean that we should conclude from this that every ceremony or gesture the meaning of which has been forgotten or seems incongruous should be discarded. I simply mean that not every one of them is a hill upon which to die. For example, given the “many extremely conscious measures ordered from above which have occurred” in the liturgy, does it really make sense to object to Pius XII’s changes to the liturgy of Holy Week on the ground that they were not an organic development? Or to the insertion of St. Joseph into the canon of the Mass by John XXIII? Are these not simply the sorts of changes the Church has witnessed many a time during her long and complex history?

Two things may be said to sum up this review. First, the Church inflicted an utterly unnecessary wound on herself when she changed her liturgy so drastically and diminished its sacral character so severely. Second, a perfectly coherent and persuasive case can be made for the traditional Roman liturgy and its renewed use today. But the gravamen of this case should base itself not on the value, real or not, of every single word or gesture in the traditional liturgy but on a presentation and justification of the Mass as a numinous event, a glimpse of the splendor of the liturgy of the heavenly court, mercifully granted to Eve’s poor, banished children. Let the defenders of the traditional Mass not lose the great gift they have to offer to the Church in a welter of merely historical details.

At this moment, the future of the traditional Mass is in doubt. Last year, with Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis placed severe restrictions on its availability to the faithful. Whether these will remain in place indefinitely we cannot say. But even if this form of the liturgy gradually dies away, it has something very important to offer to the Church: the riches of our tradition, a connection to our Catholic past, and a deep sense of sacredness in our worship of God. These are irreplaceable elements of any liturgy, and until the celebration of the Novus Ordo Mass routinely incorporates them, there will be a need to witness to and defend the liturgy that nourished the Church for so many centuries.

Let us, therefore, make a renewed case for the traditional liturgy, a case grounded in our need for the numinous, for rooting ourselves in the totality of the Church’s tradition rather than in one particular historical period, a period notable for its lack of genuine sensibility and the poverty of its esthetics. Then, perhaps, we can hope that a restored and renewed Church will once more be able to speak clearly and boldly to a world so desperately in need of the Gospel.


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