Wednesday, January 27, 2010
by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
When the secular media suddenly start talking about Catholic liturgy, something is afoot in the life of the Church. By the second year of Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate, that's exactly what happened. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, U.S. News and World Report -- the subject was everywhere.
The reason for all this attention was the pope's long-awaited motu proprio that would make the traditional Latin Mass of the pre-conciliar Church (or the 1962 Missal) more widely available. That used to be considered a dangerous idea. It's now mainstream.
The consensus today -- which echoes the conclusion of a blue-ribbon commission of cardinals in 1986 -- is that although Pope Paul VI had devoutly wished that the new missal would supplant the old, no action officially suppressing the traditional liturgy was ever taken, and thus the old missal, even if largely eclipsed in practice, has continued to be a living part of the Church these past four decades.
This is the view of -- among other Vatican officials -- Darío Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, president of the Ecclesia Dei Commission and former prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, and Jorge Cardinal Medina Estévez, former prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. It also happens to be the view of Benedict, who noted in his letter to bishops that "this Missal was never juridically abrogated and, consequently, in principle, was always permitted." The 1986 Commission added that any priest ought to be able to choose which missal he wanted to use. Initially sympathetic, Pope John Paul II ultimately shelved the idea.
What We Lost
With the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, the idea of freedom for the old missal -- and not just the Mass but all the sacraments, and even the old Breviary -- is back.
The secular media, so often wrongheaded and hostile when it comes to the Church, were correct to sense that Benedict's desire to bring back the traditional liturgy was something momentous. Still, some managed to get the issue entirely wrong: Some people want "Mass in English," they report, but others want "Mass in Latin." But the issue at stake has never been merely one of language. It is a question of two different liturgical books and two different ways of saying Mass.
Benedict's move is an act of generosity, justice, and simple common sense. When the Church possesses something of priceless worth like the Missal of St. Pius V -- which is itself the consummation of centuries of gradual development -- and when some of her faithful seek to nourish their souls at its copious font of grace, who could be so petty as to deny it to them?
Countless figures of prominence recognized what the Church was losing in the old rite. When nearly four decades ago it seemed as if the traditional Latin Mass would never be heard from again, a group of British intellectuals, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, issued a protest to the pope urging him not to carry out such a terrible offense against Europe's cultural patrimony. Signatories included Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, and Malcolm Muggeridge. It read, in part:
If some senseless decree were to order the total or partial destruction of basilicas or cathedrals, then obviously it would be the educated -- whatever their personal beliefs -- who would rise up in horror to oppose such a possibility. Now the fact is that basilicas and cathedrals were built so as to celebrate a rite which, until a few months ago, constituted a living tradition. We are referring to the Roman Catholic Mass. Yet, according to the latest information in Rome, there is a plan to obliterate that Mass by the end of the current year . . . . The rite in question, in its magnificent Latin text, has also inspired a host of priceless achievements in the arts -- not only mystical works, but works by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs. Thus, it belongs to universal culture as well as to churchmen and formal Christians.