October 12, 2012, Friday — The Old Mass Returns to St. Peter’s

The Solemn Pontifical High Mass is scheduled for November 3, a Saturday, at 3 p.m.


“The celebration and worship of the Eucharist enable us to draw near to God’s love and to persevere in that love.” — Pope Benedict XVI, Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (“The Sacrament of Charity”)

“Introibo ad altare Dei…”

Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera, 66, the Spanish-born Prefect of the Holy See’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (and a man considered very close to Pope Benedict XVI, so much so that his nickname in Rome is “the little Ratzinger,” in part because he is of short stature, shorter than the Pope, but also in part because his theological and liturgical views are so closely aligned with those of the Pope) is scheduled to celebrate a Solemn Pontifical High Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Saturday, November 3, 2012, in three weeks, to conclude a 3-day Roman conference on the Catholic tradition.

Given the position and outlook of Canizares, one could argue that, symbolically speaking, the decision to allow this Mass in the Vatican basilica at this time at the outset of the “Year of Faith,” and to have the celebrant be the man in charge of the Vatican’s liturgical office, and the man whose nickname is “the little Ratzinger,” is as close as Rome could come to having the traditional Mass celebrated by the Pope himself without having it celebrated by the Pope.

But what Benedict himself really thinks of this Mass, other than that he is allowing it to be celebrated, is not clear.

Here is a poster one can now see on display in Rome giving the details of the Mass. The picture on the poster is slightly misleading. Though it shows a picture of Pope Benedict XVI kneeling at the altar, Benedict will not be the celebrant of the Mass, but rather Canizares Llovera.

The title means “At One With Our Pope” or “United With Our Pope,” as if to emphasize the loyalty of these traditional Catholics to the Roman pontiff, even as negotiations with the traditional Society of St. Pius X seem to have reached an impasse.

What is the Pope’s true opinion about the old Mass?

The celebration of this Mass raises the question, once again, of what is Pope Benedict’s true position on the old Mass.

And the first thing that one must reply on this important, valid question is… we do not have a clear answer.

In past years, during meeting with the Pope — when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger — I often asked him what his position was, and I felt he never gave a full, unambiguous answer.

I did attend many Masses which Cardinal Ratzinger celebrated at 7 a.m. each Thursday morning in the Teutonic College church inside the Vatican walls, and those Masses were always of the new rite, celebrated in a very simple, solemn way.

And I can say that, in our conversations, Cardinal Ratzinger repeatedly expressed a certain sorrow, even indignation, over the way the conciliar liturgical “reform” took place, saying that the liturgy was developed in a “non-organic way” by “professors sitting around a table” and that, as the new liturgy was introduced, without sufficient explanation, the ordinary faithful were often confused, and sometimes scandalized, and this is the position he took quite explicitly in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy.

But when, for example, I expressed my belief (this was in 1993, so, almost 20 years ago) that the annual cycle of readings should not have been replaced by a three-year cycle of readings (I argued that the annual cycle was in a certain way more “organic,” more in harmony with the natural cycle of the seasons, and so more deeply penetrating, psychologically and spiritually, into the hearts and souls of ordinary faithful, who would here the same words on the same Sunday each year, but in the changed circumstances brought by the passage of time and life). He then was quite emphatic that the three-year cycle was an improvement, saying it allowed the faithful to hear more passages of the Word of God, and did not limit them to hearing the same passages each year. This argument made clear to me that Pope Benedict personally does in some ways favor at least certain aspects of the conciliar liturgical reform as an improvement over the traditional liturgy.

The German writer Martin Mosebach, has written a brilliant book on the old Mass, in praise of the old liturgy, arguing that its words and gestures favor an attitude of solemnity, of humble piety, and facilitate a contemplative “waiting” for “theophany” — for the appearance, here and now, in space and time, of the divine, of the Lord, of God. Mosebach once stated that Pope John Paul II celebrated the Old Rite on several occasions privately. And Bishop Bernard Fellay of the Society of St. Pius X (the traditionalist group founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre) has said that “someone in the Roman Curia” told him that Pope Benedict, too, has celebrated the old Mass on several occasions privately. But this is hearsay; we do not know if it is true.

A great problem: the exploitation of the old Mass as a “standard”

One great problem is that the old Mass is very often seen as something at once more and less than it is. And that makes it a very emotional matter, little adapted to rational discussion. This is a profound problem.

By this I mean that the old Mass is seen as a type of sign for an entire culture, an entire worldview, and entire civilization, which we may call, for the sake of brevity, “Christendom.”

The old Mass is seen by many — both by some who defend it and by some who denounce it — as the “standard” of a type of belief and culture which has been in crisis for some 200 years and more, exemplified in that (in many ways corrupt) “ancient regime” which was overthrown with such brutality by the French Revolution in the 1790s.

But the old Mass was never this. It never was the standard of a limited human culture. Never.

And that it was and is so often seen to be so — by both sides — in the first half of the 20th century (in the time of the Liturgical Movement), and in the second half of the 20th century (in the post-Conciliar, post-1968 fever of breaking with a so-called hidebound past), and in the first years of the 21st century (in a time of generalized disorientation and even, seemingly, spiritual exhaustion) — is a fundamental, indeed, a fatal error, for the worship of the Church, and for the life of the Church.

A fundamental error because this diminishment of the Mass, which is an act of worship, the supreme act of ecclesial life, this simplistic reduction of an act of worship to an act which is only the external form of a type of human social system, and so of a type, often of human social oppression, and then further, the acceptance of the argument for this diminishment, is the deep reason why the life of grace has been so often, so widely, so commonly, impeded, even halted, seemingly ceasing to flow, in the Church of our time.

And I mean by this the decision of hundreds, of thousands, of millions, of tens of millions, to cease attending Mass, to cease making a confession, to cease marrying in the Church, to cease celebrating a funeral Mass for deceased parents, to cease receiving the Eucharist.

The channels of grace, the simple ways of connecting this world to the next, the human to the divine, the fallen to the redeemed, have been covered up, hidden, taken away…

The old Mass was, and is, the organic expression of the faith of Christians in the Risen Lord, from the first generation to the present time. It was never intended to be the Mass of any political or cultural regime. And that it came to be seen as the expression of a certain political or social culture is one of the profound reasons that the Council Fathers felt they had to approve a “reform” of the liturgy.

But the “reform” of the old Mass that was produced was not the reform that, in the letter of the Council documents — which Pope Benedict in recent days has urged us to return to — was the reform the Council Fathers called for.

And so we have passed through almost two generations of liturgical confusion, and the consequent crisis of belief which inevitable follows liturgical confusion, for it is true that lex credendi lex orandi — the law of prayer is the law of belief,” that is, as we pray, so we believe.

And in saying all this, I am not saying there were no aspects of the “way of praying” in the old liturgy which may have been dangerous, in some way, to true Christian maturity. It may be true that, in some ways, as some refromers have argued, the old liturgy tended to foster a type of piety which was simplistic, a “pie in the sky” faith detached from the “here and now” of Christ’s call to act on urgent matters of charity and social justice. In this view, some aspects of the celebration of the old Mass, the incense, the robes, the mystery, caused people so much to focus on “heaven” that they forgot “earth.” I acknowledge that this may have been, and may be, true, and a concern for liturgical reformers who are truly committed to building the Kingdom, here and in time to come.

But in the process of attempting to change the law of prayer in order to come to a more profound, more active, most justice-oriented law of belief, we took some detours, stripped our churches of statues, broke stained-glass windows, turned against our heritage, and lost our way.

Benedict and the old Mass

In 2006, a year before Benedict XVI promulgated Summorum Pontificum (the document in which Benedict taught that the old Mass was not wrong or heretical, but worthy, holy, even great, and could be celebrated by any priest in the Church), Alice von Hildebrand had a private audience with the Holy Father. (I met with Dr. Hildebrand in Rome during those days when she had her meeting.) There, face to face, she urged Benedict to “free” the Traditional Mass, and pressed him as to when he would do it. He answered that he would do it in the “not-too-distant future” (it took him another year and two months to overcome the resistance of many high-ranking Churchmen). The exchange leaked out.

Now what many Catholics who hold traditional views regarding the Church’s prayer and worship wonder is this: will Pope Benedict himself, in a completely un-emotional, un-dramatic way, someday soon, announce, “I myself will celebrate the old Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.”

I think he may do this during this Year of Faith, precisely because the law of prayer is the law of faith.

And also, because it is the one, single gesture he could make which would have the greatest impact on our Orthodox brothers, who fear the impact of secularizing elements had a negative impact on our reformed liturgy, and would be inclined to enter more fully into ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church were the old liturgy to be more “rehabilitated” than it has yet been.

Several years ago, writing in the apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (“Mystery of Charity”), Pope Benedict encouraged wider knowledge and use of the Mass prayers in Latin and of Gregorian chant, with repeating a 2005 bishops’ synod’s affirmation of the “beneficial influence” of the liturgical changes which followed the Second Vatican Council on the life of the Church.

However, he also endorsed the synod’s suggestion that at Masses with a large, international congregation, the liturgy be celebrated in Latin “with the exception of the readings, the homily and the prayer of the faithful.” (Of course, he was referring here to celebrating the new Mass in Latin, not the old Mass.)

What would it mean if Benedict chose to celebrate the old liturgy in St. Peter’s?

If Benedict were to do this, he would not be saying he supports the ancient regime. He would not be saying he is a reactionary.

To the contrary, he would be saying that the extraordinary form of the Roman rite, the old Latin Mass, is not a standard, a cover, for reaction, but something different and far greater: a set of very simple, very ancient, very Jewish-rooted prayers, petitions, actions, and gestures which recall and represent and re-enact the suffering of the carpenter of Nazareth on Calvary in Jerusalem, which are valid and effective and extraordinarily beautiful prayers, petitions, actions and gestures, and which are fitting for Catholics now, and in future, as they always were in times past.

In three months, Benedict XVI will be the fourth-oldest Pope ever, behind Leo XIII, Clement XII, and Clement X.

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