Monday, August 01, 2022

Praying in the Same Words with which the Saints Prayed

A few of the many altar missals I had the chance to peruse in a monastery library...

The first level in being converted to taking Catholic liturgy seriously is what might be called the “smells and bells.” As rational animals who learn through our senses, we notice and appreciate beautiful vestments, furnishings, bells, incense, and music. These things are important: not only do their subtly instruct us as to what is going on and how we should respond to it, they also inoculate us against the errors of minimalism and spiritualism. We might call this “extrinsic maximalism.” It is sad to think that many, perhaps most, Catholics have never experienced it.

But, at times, the smells and bells can be largely absent without fatal results, as in a devout Low Mass. This helps us to see the second level of being converted to Catholic liturgy, namely, the integral, substantive, expressively adequate or even superabundant prayers and ceremonies contained in the traditional missal and required to be used. We might call this an “intrinsic maximalism” that should never be absent from the liturgy, no matter what the circumstances of its celebration — whether pontifical, solemn, sung, or low. This level bespeaks adherence to living tradition, belonging to a community stretching back 2,000 years (or even 3,000 if we take the Jewish roots into account: a truth of which the commemoration of the Holy Maccabees today reminds us), but extending also to the Church triumphant in heaven.

It is no small matter that we have the privilege of praying in the very same words as our predecessors. St. Mechtilde of Hackeborn (1240/41–1298), whose Liber specialis gratiae (Book of Spiritual Grace, which came into medieval England as Booke of Gostlye Grace) contains frequent and detailed visions springing forth from the Latin texts of the liturgy. The liturgy came alive before her as Christ enacted the meaning of the texts. At one point, describing a liturgy she beheld (“After this our Lord sang the Mass, dressed in a red chasuble and bishop’s trappings” [1]), Mectilde hears the Lord telling her:

You shall understand that when you say any psalm or prayer which any saints prayed when they were alive on earth, then all of those saints pray to me for you. Additionally, when you are in your devotions and speak with me, then all of the saints are joyful and worship and thank me. [2]
Dom Edouard Guillou, in his 1975 work Le livre de la messe: Mysterium fidei — Le texte de la messe de saint Pie V, with a foreword by Msgr. Marcel Lefebvre (repr. Paris: Éditions Fideliter, 1992), writes concerning the Roman Canon:
This main prayer of the Canon has been meditated by so many saints, murmured by so many priests, that it can not be compared to any other prayer. Keeping its original Latin form is the dazzling testimony of the necessary unity of the Roman Church in time and space. Its abandonment in practice would be an act of impiety. [3]
Fr. Joseph Kreuter, O.S.B., in the journal Orate Fratres of October 7, 1933, wrote:
Is it not a prolific source of devotion, of spiritual joy and consolation, to know that you are privileged to call holy Mass your own Sacrifice, to share in it with Christ and His ordained priest? Happy those who say those ancient and divinely inspired words together with the priest, for they thus become intimately united with the generations of Christians who have preceded them. For centuries the faithful have prayed those words. What emotions, what joys, what sentiments of praise, adoration, thanksgiving and expiation have found their expression in these prayers of the Missal! What torrents of grace and blessings, temporal and spiritual, have they drawn down from on High upon the faithful worshipers! [4]
Since we all know now, thanks to the groundbreaking work of Fr. Anthony Cekada and the even better scholarship of Matthew Hazell, that only 13% of the orations of the old missal made their way intact into the new missal — and therefore 87% of the verbatim prayer of the Roman Church prior to 1969 has been effectively canceled out — it is worth asking what are the cosmic, heavenly, eschatological, and ecclesiological implications of such memoricide, or, to use Guillou’s word, impiety. [5]

Msgr. James Byrnes, formerly of the archdiocese of New York, whose gradual discovery of tradition obliged him to grapple with the “Novus Ordo question,” resulting in his ultimately deciding to no longer celebrate the new rite, said in a talk he gave in 2014:
It was during the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar that the thought struck me. This was the Mass offered by those priest-saints I had read biographies of when I was young, particularly St. Isaac Jogues. I could and did imagine him standing before a crude altar in the wilds of Northern New York State, uttering these very same words. It was this overwhelming sense of continuity that stayed with me, this sense that I had never experienced during my twenty-one years of offering the Novus Ordo, and made me realize what had been stolen from myself and others of my generation. We had been the victims of spiritual identity theft and we hadn’t even realized it. That was the worst part. So much was taken from us and we didn’t know it. I can say definitively that that is the reaction of most folks my age (53, almost 54) and younger who still attend the Novus Ordo but sense something isn’t quite right. After experiencing the traditional Mass and beginning to fill in all the gaps of their spiritual life with tradition, all they can do is proclaim loudly, “We. Were. Robbed.” [6]
Prodigal Son (Rembrandt), Rijksmuseum
We can probe more deeply into the moral dimensions of this problem by reflecting on the fourth commandment: “Honor thy father and thy mother, that thou mayest have long life in the land that the Lord thy God will show thee.” Robert Spaemann once remarked: When we abandon the Roman Canon and the piety of our forefathers, how are we being obedient to this commandment in its ecclesial reality? We have not only biological fathers and mothers, but spiritual ones as well. In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Our holy and our beautiful house, where our fathers praised thee, is burned up with fire: and all our pleasant things are laid waste” (Is 64:11).

By rejecting centuries of Catholic liturgy and devotion, the clergy involved in the liturgical reform of the 1960s and 1970s were, in essence, trash-talking their Mother. They were outrageously violating the fourth commandment: “Honor thy father [God in His Providence] and thy mother [the Church in her order of worship and her customs].” It was a sin of, and against, the spiritual paternity of the priest, who is supposed to pass on the family inheritance, the social and cultural life of the people — a transmission far more imporant than that of mere biological life.

What we do to, or with, our family inheritance shows what we think of our father and of our entire family. Whatever one might say about rococo churches or fiddleback chasubles, no one can deny that such things as Latin, Gregorian chant, and the eastward orientation are central, constitutive, and characteristic treasures of our patrimony. Therefore the proponents and adherents of the liturgical reform cannot escape culpability for the grave sins of patricide, matricide, pride, ingratitude, and contempt. These are the very same sins as those of the Prodigal Son — and they can be expiated, and their bitter fruits overcome, only in the same way: “Father, I have sinned against heaven [Providence] and against you [the Latin tradition]; I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” Take me on as a servant who will punctiliously serve the family once again and devote himself to its well-being.

In its spirit, certainly, the commandment to honor our father and mother carries implications in how we treat the ways of tradition and the teachings of our parents — not only our parents individually but also our forefathers collectively. The reward of faithfulness to the commandment is obvious: a clear sense of identity, a community life that is coherent and creative and reasonable. In treating respectfully the traditions (and hence the teachings!) of our ancestors, we take our place in the continuing dialogue that God started with mankind in our first parents. Even if the central portion of it was recorded in the Sacred Scriptures, the dialogue of love within the family of faith continues past the final page of Revelation and into the history of the Church, the Body of Christ. Faithfulness to the ecclesial fourth commandment lets God continue to develop the discussion, with all of its former exchanges presupposed; whereas lack of faithfulness causes a rupture and in some sense the discussion has to be started from scratch, in random bits and pieces, like rough and difficult side paths apart from the main highway. The fruits of rejecting the commandment are visible in the unraveling of a society, the waywardness and untetheredness and confusion of the younger generations.

There is no question that this is a difficult time for Catholics who love their faith and are concerned to serve a worthy liturgy, a Eucharistic liturgy faithful to the purpose and significance of the Mass. To achieve this we must follow the commandments of God in their individual, social, and ecclesial dimensions. We must abandon the impiety of rupture from the common voice of tradition and embrace anew the status of descendents, heirs, servants, and pupils.


[1] Christian Gregory Savage, in his dissertation “Music and the Writings of the Helfta Mystics,” thesis for the Master of Music, Florida State University, 2012, p. 47.

[2] Cum autem psalmos aut aliquam orationem tuam Sancti in terris oraverunt legis, omnes Sancti pro te orant. Cum vero meditaris, vel mecum loqueris, omnes Sanct gaudentes me benedicunt. Liber 3:11, 210; in Savage, 53.

[3] Cette prière capitale du Canon a été méditée par tant de saints, murmurée par tant de prêtres, qu’elle ne peut être équiparée à aucune autre. Son maintien dans sa forme originale latine est le témoignage éclatant de l’unité nécessaire de l’Église romaine dans le temps et dans l’espace. Son abandon pratique serait une impiété.

[4] Text here.

[5] See “‘All the Elements of the Roman Rite’? Mythbusting, Part II.”

[6] Audio here.

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