Monday, June 08, 2020

How the Traditional Liturgy Contributes to Racial and Ethnic Integration

Pax at a Solemn Pontifical Mass: the source of our peace
The unrest in the United States in recent weeks has prompted a great deal of soul-searching, though it is not yet clear that the soul-searching has reached deep enough in Catholic circles. An excellent start, from the angle of Catholic Social Teaching, is Kevin Wells’s article at OnePeterFive: “George Floyd and How the Church Abandoned the Inner Cities.”

An observation I recently read—“since the United States was never a Catholic country, it has historically lacked the full means that Catholic nations had to unite the different races”—made me think about the liturgical resources for unity that the Church has historically possessed, and how her postconciliar rulers have squandered those resources thanks to a misguided movement of modernization, lowest-common-denominator localization, and narrowly-construed inculturation.

The old Latin liturgy united nations, clans, tribes, races. Everyone had (more or less) the same kind of liturgy. It was in a high style, said in a language no longer anyone’s vernacular; it was celebrated “just so,” in a way that was distinctively its own, because it came from so many centuries and influences. In an article for the Southern Nebraska Register, Fr. Justin Wylie writes:
Only a language owned by no one in particular belongs to everyone universally. Truly, Latin has rendered our Faith Catholic (which is to say, universal) in time and space. Babel’s curse of linguistic segmentation was remedied by the Pentecost miracle of a Church that evangelizes all nations in a single tongue, with parity of understanding. The pagans of ancient Greece and Rome, Europe’s barbarian tribes, and the New World’s disparate peoples were evangelized by the common denominator of our Latin liturgy.
Even into modern times, one could see very diverse congregations gathered in the same church for the same Latin Mass, engaging with it in various ways depending on their needs and abilities: servants and their employers; rich and poor; “blue-collar” and “white-collar” workers; the educated and uneducated; devout daily Mass-goers and stubbornly dutiful Sunday regulars. Even if parishes were often set up along ethnic lines, there was still, beyond this, a strong sense of belonging to the one Catholic Church, the great equalizer and leveler.

Something greater than the community has to draw us into church.
In Phoenix from the Ashes, historian Henry Sire makes some mordant comments about the sociological results of the reform of the sixties:
By cutting off the life of the Church from a timeless tradition, the Modernists have immersed it in a contemporary social setting. The foible is especially noticeable in Germany, where the radicalism of the reformers has produced a parish Mass of comically bourgeois style; but that is the tone of the modern liturgy in all the Western countries. In an ordinary Mass today the sense one has is not the offering of an eternal sacrifice but a lecture conducted by the priest and two or three women of the public-librarian class, to whom the readings and other duties of the church are allocated. The verbosity and preachiness of the liturgy is itself a middle-class characteristic with which many ordinary parishioners feel little rapport; and the alienation of working-class worshippers, in a way that was never true of the old Mass in poor parishes, has become a peculiar feature of the liturgical reform.
Sire’s critique was empirically verified by the research of Anthony Archer in his 1984 study The Two Catholic Churches, well summarized by Joseph Shaw in a pair of articles: “A sociologist on the Latin Mass” and “The Old Mass and the Workers.” [1] To sum it up: the liturgical reform homogenized and narrowed the reach of Catholic liturgy, in particular cutting off all those people (and they are, and will always be, very numerous) to whom immediate verbal and rational comprehension of people-directed vernacular discourse with obligatory responses was not an appealing mode of engagement, or worse, was an impediment to prayerful engagement.

The imposition of the vernacular and the lack of ritual and rubrical discipline has separated us into little enclaves. You end up with Masses for white upper-middle-class golfers, Mass with African-American Gospel music, Mass for Hispanics, Mass for Vietnamese, etc. etc. How can the Church “unite the different races” if she can’t even unite us in a single recognizably Catholic worship?

Thus the aforementioned Fr. Wylie, who grew up in South Africa, notes with sadness:
Apartheid did less to divide Catholics of many races in South Africa than the introduction of the vernacular in the liturgy, for whereas before, these worshipped together easily in Latin, since its loss, now find themselves deeply divided at diocesan celebrations.
Traditional practices appeal to a universal sense of reverence before God.

My experience with TLM communities around the world has been dramatically different. Almost everywhere I go, but especially in urban parishes, I see different races and ethnicities side by side in the pews: Asians, African-Americans, Africans, whites of all European backgrounds. [2] The commonness of the worship and its deep reverence unite us all. The traditional Latin liturgy chanted by the minister and choir in the church is one and common to all, binding us together as a fixed, stable, reliable external “gold standard.” It is the center of gravity that draws us all towards Christ—and therefore towards each other. Prayer happens within and between the ancient Latin chanted aloud, the modern vernacular quietly available, and the prayer of the worshiper’s heart, which transcends all linguistic differences. [3]

In his masterpiece Democracy in America, published between 1835 and 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville describes a Catholic Church that seems almost no longer to exist:
On doctrinal points the Catholic faith places all human capacities upon the same level; it subjects the wise and ignorant, the man of genius and the vulgar crowd, to the details of the same creed; it imposes the same observances upon the rich and the needy, it inflicts the same austerities upon the strong and the weak; it listens to no compromise with mortal man, but, reducing all the human race to the same standard, it confounds all the distinctions of society at the foot of the same altar, even as they are confounded in the sight of God. If Catholicism predisposes the faithful to obedience, it certainly does not prepare them for inequality; but the contrary may be said of Protestantism, which generally tends to make men independent more than to render them equal. Catholicism is like an absolute monarchy; if the sovereign be removed, all the other classes of society are more equal than in republics.
Churchmen after the Council foolishly abandoned this remarkable power of a single Creed, acknowledged and taught as such; a single observance with real asceticism; and, above all, a common body of Latin liturgy to draw together people of different races, ethnicities, languages, classes, backgrounds, and vocations. We may truly say that the practice of the traditional liturgy has been, and is capable of becoming once again, the Catholic Church’s “secret weapon” for unity among the faithful of the far-flung and demographically highly diverse Latin rite. The Collect of Easter Tuesday beautifully captures this aspiration, reflected in the very externals of traditional Roman rite:
O God, Who dost make all nations, how diverse soever they be, to become one family in giving praise to thy Name, grant unto all them that are born again in the fountain of baptism to live ever in oneness of faith and godliness of works.
The world needs genuine signs and sources of unity more than ever, not farces like white people claiming to “renounce their whiteness” (or, for that matter, Catholics renouncing their own great tradition). We need to find our unity and healing not in social justice campaigns or police reforms, whatever value those may have in their way, but in the grace and truth of the one Savior of mankind and His one Church, vividly symbolized, in the West, by the common Latin liturgical inheritance still embodied—and happily returning—in the usus antiquior.

The iconic outfit of the server: black and white together.
One common heritage of sacred chant: its harmony becomes ours.

[1] E.g., from the second article: “Archer’s critique of the changes after Vatican II is based on the fact that the aspects of the Church which were most appealing to the working class were swept away, and what was brought in was appealing only to the educated and leisured middle class. Out went the Latin Mass in which everyone could engage at their own level; in came an English Mass where your engagement is supposed to be strictly controlled: exactly what the banal phrases mean, what responses to make, when to be friendly to your neighbour, etc. Out went popular devotions, in came cliquey little groups at house-Masses, charismatic gatherings, or parish councils. Out went the Church as a sign of contradiction, an eccentric, exotic refuge from society, where truth and authority were alone to be found; in came a Church in which the bishops talked as equals to Anglican bishops, and attended state functions. Out went the spirituality of perseverence in adversity; in came a way of ‘finding Jesus’ to escape from middle class problems such as loneliness and depression—or just hypochondria. The inspiration for the changes, after all, did not come from any attempt to find out what the bulk of Catholics wanted: it came from theologians, who wanted the respect of their Protestant colleagues.”

[2] I am not saying, of course, that no NOM communities are possessed of such diversity, nor that no TLM communities could ever be described as single-demographic. Rather, I am pointing to some broader trends that I have personally seen and heard others confirm.

[3] When I say “the vernacular quietly available,” I mean translations contained in a hand missal or a leaflet as an aid to understanding, a ladder to climb up, “training wheels” for the bicycle, as indeed they were for me for many years. Trads are not snobs about this; we are very pragmatic. Whatever helps, helps. Vernacular translations hold out a welcoming hand to those who are not familiar with the liturgical texts, and help them to ponder their meaning. At the same time, such translations never have to be “official translations,” the diction and style of which are endlessly fought over in committees, with results no one is really pleased with; they do not have to bear such weight. The Latin text bears all the ritual and theological weight, while the vernacular is free to be read—or to be ignored. From this point of a view, the TLM community offers far more realistic possibilities for multilingual congregations, since its more compact missal-cum-lectionary has already been conveniently translated into so many major languages. In an urban congregation it is not uncommon to find hand missals in half a dozen different languages being used at the same liturgy: truly the same liturgy.

All photos courtesy of Allison Girone.

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