Monday, November 11, 2019

The National Catholic Reporter’s New Resolve to Promote the Traditional Latin Mass

Which bespeaketh clericalism?
As many readers no doubt have seen or caught word of, Zita Ballinger Fletcher’s article at the National Catholic Reporter, “The Latin Mass becomes a cult of toxic tradition” — the title really captures her entire message about how terrible-awful-no good the TLM is, which she develops ad nauseam and with impressive though unintentional poetic license — has opened up a fountain of responses, both sober and humorous. It seems that the Reporter, not content to ignore usus antiquior enthusiasts, has decided to take the new editorial tack of promoting the cause of Summorum Pontificum.

To my knowledge, there have been five earnest replies and two satirical ones. I have enjoyed all of them. In the first category:
And in the second category:
In light of all this discussion (which, in general, seems to me a good thing: there are common misconceptions to be dismantled and now decades-old arguments that still need to be addressed for the ever-growing number who are awakening to the questions), I found myself thinking again about Fletcher’s claim that the old liturgy is clericalist, which was repeated as a mantra in the 60s and 70s, and is now being warmed up again in the microwave.

It seems to me really obvious, having attending both the NO and the TLM for decades, that the old Mass is far less clerico-centric, precisely because it is so ritualistic, formal, dictated, and prayerful. There is very little room at all for the “personality” of the priest.

Then I saw, while working on a book by Michael Fiedrowicz, a beautiful passage in Fr. Engelbert Recktenwald, FSSP. Now, Fr. Recktenwald and I have exchanged a few jabs on another aspect of the liturgy (namely, the use of the vernacular for readings and the postures to be observed in giving the readings at Mass), but here we are absolutely of one mind. He writes:
This retreat [into the ritual] serves to visualize the divine reality that comes from God—the earthly liturgy is the image of the heavenly liturgy—and to make way for the action of the main celebrant, namely, Christ himself—the priest acts in persona Christi. The celebrating priest becomes the more unimportant in his individual personality the more priestly his action is. In the heart of the Holy Mass, during the Canon, in which the transubstantiation and thus the descent of the one eternal High Priest occurs, the priest no longer has a face: he stands—yes!—with his back to the people, he speaks what every other priest speaks at this point, he becomes in his person completely unimportant and replaceable, because he makes room for the One for whose sake alone the believer takes part in the sacred liturgy. To emphasize eye contact with the priest at this point therefore means the utmost misunderstanding of the priestly function in its proper sense. In the highest priestly act, the priest is pure instrument and perviousness for the One.
Let’s have a look at a few contrasting photos and ask ourselves how the necessarily unique and irreducible function of the priest in Catholic worship (for there will never be a Mass without a priest) translates phenomenologically into a perception of his role within the Mystical Body.

In the following photos of the traditional High Mass, one sees, on the one hand, a certain separation of the priest from the people and a surrounding of his office with great solemnity and decorum, but on the other hand, the overall impression given is that of a whole community united in prayer, intently focused on worshiping God, each in his or her own way.

If I had to give a name to what I see in the foregoing photos, I would call it “hierarchically differentiated co-participation.”

In the following photos of the Novus Ordo Mass as celebrated nearly universally, one sees, in conjunction with the separate standing of the priest (which, as I mentioned, is unavoidable in any case), a sense of the clergy being over-against the people, in charge of their act of worship, and lording it over the faithful as if the faithful did not enjoy their own equal dignity versus Deum.

I regret to say that in this next photo of a Mass concelebrated by a bishop, newly-ordained priests, and presbyterate, the overwhelming impression is one of a bunch of concessionaires in the limelight, saying grace over the snackbar. If that last cluster of metaphors is jarring, I submit it’s no more jarring than the aesthetic reality we are dealing with. (I say this with no disrespect intended to individual persons, who may interiorly hold the Catholic faith in its integrity, but who are compelled to use ritual forms that do not express this faith.)

Due to the virtually obligatory versus populum stance and other ceremonial elements and lacunae, the overall impression given is that of a clerical caste intent on doing something in sight of the people and to them, while the people are focused on the clerical caste, because it catches the eye. The personal interaction has become the rite. If I had to give it a name, I would call it “hierarchically confrontational codependency.”

Thus there is a confused sense of what exactly the common action is or where it is directed: is it primarily to God? Or to one another? Or maybe we don’t know? In any case, there is a serious ambivalence and ambiguity about what exactly is being done, by whom, for whom, and why. This, of course, plays into the whole question of understanding the Mass as being primarily a sacrifice or primarily a meal (and, since it is both, how they relate to one another). A sacrifice can also be a meal, by way of the sacrificial victim being shared in by the ones offering; it is much harder to see how a meal, as such, would also be a sacrifice, except in the very generic sense that it costs something to put on a meal.

I’m perfectly well aware that a Novus Ordo Mass can be celebrated to look somewhat like the solemn Mass, as in this fine photo from a past CMAA Colloquium:

But three points must be made.

(1) This happens about as often as it snows in Jamaica, and every possible factor in the Church is against it at this time.

(2) If the new Mass can, due to its flexi-rubrics, be made to look somewhat like the old Mass, the old Mass, for its part, can never be celebrated to look like the jamboree version of the new Mass. This is the same objection that has been made many times to the ROTR at this blog and elsewhere: a liturgy that need not be celebrated properly, with the correct orientation and priorities, is a liturgy defective at its core. It is no surprise that the moral and institutional evil of clericalism, by which individual personalities abuse their offices, would find its corresponding lex orandi and external image in just such a liturgy. It is no surprise that the traditional lex orandi, though it cannot prevent moral and institutional evils, runs decisively against clericalism in the exacting humility, precision, and anonymity of its ritual form.

(3) The differences between the two are not only on the surface, as important as surface beauty is; they run much deeper. As a result, even if a new pope came along who suddenly declared that all Novus Ordo Masses had to be offered ad orientem, in Latin, with chant, starting the first Sunday of Advent, it would solve only the external problems — not the internal ones. It would be like repairing the face of a crash victim with plastic surgery while neglecting the more harmful damage to the internal organs.

Needless to say, this article is not the place to go further. We can, at least, be grateful to the National Catholic Reporter for stirring up such important discussions.

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