Reform the reform (part 1)

Pope Benedict XVI

It has been 1 year plus 1 day since I became Catholic (formally, at least). Since that time I have learned a lot more about our amazing faith. There remains much more to learn and much that I may never learn.

The Catholic faith is unchanging. That is one of several things that attracted me to look closer in the first place. Coming from a Protestant community where beliefs changed by popular vote, I am particularly sensitive to this. I also firmly believe that changing faith leads to dissolution as seen in many Protestant denominations.

That said, how we practice our faith liturgically can and does change, if very slowly. Vatican II, ending 46 years ago, was the impetus for the last major changes. Following that, Mass in vernacular languages (i.e. other than Latin; local) was permitted (although NOT required) and increased participation of the laity in the liturgy.

The teachings of Vatican II are truly excellent. For example, Pope Paul VI describes the “source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324) as follows:

Taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life, they offer the Divine Victim to God, and offer themselves along with It. Thus both by reason of the offering and through Holy Communion all take part in this liturgical service, not indeed, all in the same way but each in that way which is proper to himself. Strengthened in Holy Communion by the Body of Christ, they then manifest in a concrete way that unity of the people of God which is suitably signified and wondrously brought about by this most august sacrament.

Lumen Gentium 11

In the years after Vatican II ended, the changes in the Mass and other practices were made presumably in accordance with it. Presumably because in practice, some of the changes do not have any direct linkage with it but were made instead “in the spirit of Vatican II.” However well meaning, these changes were not decisions of the 21st Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church but were the decisions of others.

Changes following Vatican II have made our Catholic faith more approachable and that is a good thing. The excesses in liberalization of practices and “Protestantization” of some aspects of Mass are not. There are extremists on both sides of this discussion. Some want to aggressively continue “in the spirit of Vatican II” almost to a Unitarian least common denominator. Others want to drop the Ordinary Form (a/k/a Novus Ordo, new Mass) and return to the 1962 Latin form exclusively.

I am at neither of these extremes, but from what I have read and what I have seen, believe that the moves our Holy Father has made to address the excesses are excellent. The corrected translation of the English Mass to be effective next Advent is a good example. Yet, the liberal forces are already fighting it. Just last week a group of Irish priests made “an urgent plea” to delay the correction “for at least another 5 years” or until hell freezes over, which ever comes later. OK, I made up that second part but that is probably closer to their unspoken intent.

Mass, as it is even now, is beyond words. The best I can do is to remind us that Mass is a supernatural mystery where heaven and earth touch, angels and saints join us as the Last Supper and Calvary are made present. The body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus is literally confected in the Eucharist — in which we are united with Christ and each other through all time and space.

Pope Benedict XVI describes the liturgy as where “God and man meet each other in an embrace of salvation.”

I also believe that while it as sacred as ever, Vatican II “spirit” changes have made it less reverent. Not just the extreme liturgical abuses such as “liturgical dance,” but smaller abuses and practices. What exactly Mass is becomes lost. The poorly catechized may not see it as particularly different than any Christian worship service. Their sense of the real presence of Christ becomes questioning. Ultimately they may leave. The zeal of the faithful is also diminished. It is a very serious issue.

The reason the Latin Mass is having a revival is in response to this. The rubrics are more demanding, the words more difficult to change and novelties (abuses) more difficult to introduce. I have a lot of empathy for why so many faithful Catholics feel this way.

After Vatican II, some foresaw the dangers. Some overreacted. The Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) comes to mind. They rejected the authority of the Church, not unlike the Protestant Reformation, to practice pre-Vatican II Catholicism. While there has been some progress at reunification, they remain in schism with the Church. Theirs is not a solution.

Much better is The Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (FSSP). They were established by Pope John Paul II as a society of apostolic life. Their mission is in support of the traditional liturgy (i.e. 1962 / Latin) of the Church. FSSP Masses are offered worldwide, particularly in the US and Europe. They even have a parish in my archdiocese.

Many people are unaware of the FSSP. For that matter, many believe that the Latin Mass was consigned to history by Vatican II. That was never the case. John Paul II decreed by his Apostolic authority in Ecclesia Dei that respect be shown to those who desired the older forms of worship and that the provisions for older forms of worship be generously applied.

The Vicar of Christ was ignored and instead, many road blocks were erected by the more liberal bishops. In many places, it was difficult or impossible for a priest to say Mass in Latin. In 2002, Pope Benedict XVI addressed this and went much further in Summorum Pontificum. Now, every priest has direct authority to offer Mass in Latin (permission from his bishop is clearly not required). Not only that, but pastors must see to the requests of the faithful for Mass in the older form (either the 1962 or 2002 Missale Romanum). Moreover, should they not be able for some reason to do so themselves, their bishop must assist in fulfilling the request. No more “Mr. Nice Guy.”

I am intrigued by the forms of Latin Mass and think that having it more widely available is a very good thing. However, the Ordinary Form (OF; e.g. in English) Mass is not going away either nor should it. It should be corrected and strengthened. Abuses, excesses and the taking of liberties should be reigned in. This will cause howls of protest, but the faith will be stronger for it.

I will complete this topic next Tuesday with my personal hopes and reasoning.


  1. …Mass is a supernatural mystery where heaven and earth touch, angels and saints join us as the Last Supper and Calvary are made present. The body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus is literally confected in the Eucharist — in which we are united with Christ and each other through all time and space."

    The more one learns about Mass the more interesting it gets.

  2. Hmmm. I'm not sure about this: "The poorly catechized may not see it as particularly different than any Christian worship service." I definitely agree that poor catechesis abounds, but that has always been the case. I think the change in people's attitudes toward the Church and Church authority has much less to do with changes in the liturgy and much, MUCH more to do with the societal/cultural changes that took place in the 60s. I am a post-V2 child, so I cannot say this with any certainty; I can only say that I think it's easier to tune out in a language that is not your own. Although it may give the impression of holiness, whether it actually leads to greater holy living is questionable.

    Now, I'm not arguing against those who want to worship in Latin; I actually get a lot out of singing, etc. in Latin, but that's because I'm a language geek and I love having to think to understand what the words I'm saying/singing mean. I teach a lot of voice students, and they don't get it. I'll point to an Italian word, which is clear as day to me b/c it's so close to Latin, and say, "What word does that look like?" And they will have no earthly idea. It doesn't connect with anything they know.

    Anyway, I just think the shift in attitude among the faithful has far more to do with the cultural paradigm shift than the liturgical one. It may look otherwise because of the type of people who choose to go to Masses in Latin, but if we were to take a cross-section of the entire Church, I really believe that's what we'd find.

  3. Thanks for the comment Kathleen! While I am not personally keen on Latin, the point I hoped to make was a need for reverence in the OF Mass. EF (Latin) is already quite reverent and was meant as a good example of that.

    Increased reverence wouldn't completely overcome societal influences but IMHO it could really help in 2 ways. First, reverence is certainly due in this most holy setting. Second, I believe it would raise awareness of the true nature of Mass and keep that awareness in our minds and hearts.

    I wrote more about some specifics in the 2nd part of this post.

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