Monday, July 03, 2023

Thoughts of a Young Modern Traditionalist Catholic

Many who read my books decide at some point that they would like to share their reactions or reflections with me. I welcome this, even though it means a lot of emails, but so far, I can honestly say I have never left a single email unanswered, except those that were, or verged on being, spam.

Among these correspondents there stands out one who, having read my book Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright, decided to share her thoughts with me. I was very impressed with her insights, and would like to share them here. (I will not use quotation marks for her comments; it may be assumed that all the commentary that follows is from her.)

“The prayers of the new Missal are often watered-down in their expression of dogma and ascetical doctrine, whereas the prayers of the old Missal are unambiguously and uncompromisingly Catholic” (Reclaiming, p. 14).

That is so very true. It’s a powerful foothold for those on the fence to cross over to tradition. When I was in my “reform-of-the-reform” days, this unambiguously Catholic identity was hugely important to me (and it still is now, of course). I wanted very badly to participate in worship that would be totally foreign to Protestants. It scared me when a Jewish friend of mine came to an Ordinary Form Mass with me one time and said, “It wasn’t that different from other Christian churches I’ve been to.” It’s possible to try to artificially (and it is quite artificially) inject Catholic identity into the Ordinary Form, but it is very difficult and rarely done (one has only to consider the rarity of the chanted, ad orientem, Latin Novus Ordo). The TLM has it already—Catholic identity, in spades. It’s right there. Infused into the liturgy like our own souls infused in our bodies. If a Latin Mass-goer had told me this in my reform-of-the-reform days, I probably would have dropped everything and said, “Take me with you!”

You write sometimes that the TLM challenges us with demands that the Novus Ordo does not make, and that if we are not up to those demands, we will walk away disgusted or indifferent. I think this is true; but I also think it is much easier to pray in the TLM, once one has grown accustomed to it. A person of good will who really wants to offer right worship to God will come to the Holy Mass—whether it is a NOM or a TLM—ready to make an effort. In a sense, the effort required at the TLM is greater, but only at first, and only in a way: there are initial steep barriers, but the result of patient acquaintance is interior freedom, a sense of sitting on top of the world, looking out over the huge vista. An attendee of willing spirit will notice that her effort yields richer fruits at the TLM, since the soil there is more fertile; while a person who isn’t prepared to give herself in honest prayer will probably be bored by any Mass, but even more so by the TLM. It’s all a matter of attitude.

NOM-going Catholics who have assisted at very few TLMs dismiss the possibility that the TLM could be superior in every way; they have not given it an honest chance to persuade them of that conclusion, which is held by nearly all traditionalists on the basis of personal experience. Unfortunately, there are often hidden reasons people shy away from the TLM, and these reasons are very subjective. Maybe the family lives far away from the TLM, so it was just too hard to go to it. Or they didn’t like the particular priest. Or they were offended by an uncharitable parish secretary or a grumpy layman who pushed veils at the entrance. The list goes on and on. This is an instance where we can actually take the advice of Pope Francis and “Dig! Dig!” into the real reasons that people are against the TLM. On the other hand, most of the people who vigorously argue that the TLM is superior have assisted at a great number of NOMs: they have experienced both and know the contrast. They have given the TLM an honest chance. And then they have found they can’t go back. It happens again and again this way. One could say that the TLM “ruins” the NOM forever. It might not happen overnight, but if one assists regularly at the TLM—and one is at very high risk if one assists daily!—one is slowly but surely taking the “red pill.” When the NOM group complains about the TLM group’s dismissal of the NOM as inferior, they are like blind people complaining about sighted people for saying it is better to be able to see.

It’s rarely pointed out that a huge part of the reason that the NOM is still around today—rather than being thrown out by outraged pitchfork-equipped faithful demanding the restoration of the TLM—is the general destruction of the common sense, the “good taste,” that prevailed in the West until the twentieth century. People who wear yoga pants and hoodies to any and every event are not going to bat an eye about an ugly vestment. They might not like it, but they won’t be able to imagine (much less demand) anything better. People who eat fast foot and drink wine out of plastic boxes aren’t going to be disturbed by clay chalices. And the people who listen to the noise our world calls “music” won’t be much offended by Marty Haugen, although they may sullenly think about how Taylor Swift and Coldplay are so much better.

Those who support the “reform of the reform” are those who, for some reason, haven’t given the TLM a chance, because it is too far from the respectable norms of polite “establishment” society. They cling to their Sisyphean reform efforts like a person who clings desperately to driftwood even when the rescue ship—the TLM—is right beside them, waving them on board.

Critics of the TLM fail to recognize that many of the TLM’s greatest champions are those who knew nothing but the NOM for a very long time. We learned the NOM inside-out, and, given that we didn’t start with the wish for TLM restoration, we really were unbiased and tried our “darndest” to experience this “profound conversion” and “intense spiritual participation” in the new liturgy that Dr. Healy touts. If only the critics of the TLM could have the same honesty, objectivity, and patience in their assessments! If only they could try their darndest to experience the ancient liturgy of the saints, so as to be unbiased in its evaluation.

To be perfectly clear: I am in favor of a rapid flight from the Novus Ordo to the TLM. But I also see that Divine Providence often allows people of good will to undergo a period of their lives when they will expend their energy trying to “fix” things locally. This is a grace period for emotional closure. The Lord shows them—if only they will see it—that they cannot fix things in a lasting way: activism fails here, as it fails everywhere. The Liturgical Movement, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the GIRM, documents by John Paul II and Benedict XVI—all of these things prove, in time, to be a dead letter, because all of them start from suspicion and skepticism of the Church’s tradition, and all of them assume the non-arguable good of massive change toward accommodating what is believed to be required by modernity. Once one realizes, viscerally as well as intellectually, that modern man requires something extremely different—requires mystery, velation, contemplation, abandonment—then, after this lesson, one can surrender more fully and rest more serenely in the arms of the traditional liturgy. Our probationary period in the NOM is what made it possible, for most of us, to recognize the TLM as the answer to the deepest questions for which we had no words.

Parents who truly tried their best to catechize their children (like my parents) and who even brought them to daily NOM (for which I am still grateful, given it was all we knew about at the time) often feel a huge angst when they look at, on the one hand, the wasteland of lapsed children, and, on the other, the flocking of believers to the TLM. They feel as if they did it “all wrong.” After all, they thought—egged on by the clucking of their shepherds—that encouraging their little girls to serve at Mass was a great thing! They thought that having their children in the Praise and Worship band was great. They have a fear, nowadays, that they’ll be “exposed” by the rad trads as horrible heretics. When their children “go trad,” they feel as if their children are rejecting part of their upbringing. I feel for these people! We must remind them again and again that we are grateful for the fidelity that led them to raise us as Catholics and to instill in us the thirst for something great and meaningful and holy. This is what led us to the TLM: it is not a repudiation of our parents’ aspirations, but an unexpected fulfillment of them.

God works in mysterious ways. What matters now is what we do with the information and opportunities we have at hand.

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