Traditional vs. Modern Liturgy

Catholic Memes recently posted the above photo; the sub-caption on its Facebook page read, “Don’t be this version of the liturgy.” This is a play on DirectTV’s current ad campaign featuring Rob Lowe, who plays two versions of himself: “DirectTV Rob Lowe” is the usual, well-spoken, well-dressed man most people recognize. “Cable Rob Lowe” is a grossly caricatured incarnation of the actor. The point of the commercials are, obviously, that DirectTV is a higher quality product than cable TV. The DirectTV-cable analogy is then transferred to the tension between traditional Masses and contemporary liturgy, with the implication that traditional liturgy is superior.

As expected, the image precipitated a lot of discussion. I will simply address a few trends I found in the Facebook comments, ignoring the usual Protestant sola scriptura trolls, accusations of Pharasaism, and general attacks ad hominem (or ad mulierem, as the case may be). Names and profile pictures are censored.

Trend 1: Voices of Reason

Let’s start with the positives. Thankfully, some astute people made their minds known. At first glance, others understandably (and erroneously) assumed that the meme pitted the Traditional Latin Mass (Missal of John XXIII/Extraordinary Form) against the Novus Ordo (Missal of Paul VI/Ordinary Form). However, on closer inspection of the upper (traditional) image, one can clearly see two priests in chasubles, indicating a concelebrated Mass, which means that the photo depicts a Mass in the Ordinary Form, celebrated ad orientem. (Concelebrations in the older rite occur only at ordinations). The comment which said “both forms of the Roman Rite are supposed to look like the top image” and that “Liturgy is intrinsically traditional in any form or rite” are absolutely spot-on. The two forms of the liturgy must exhibit an affinity and continuity with one another, according to the “hermeneutic of continuity” expressed by Benedict XVI and confirmed by Pope Francis.

In the image on the bottom, we notice an egregious liturgical abuse. As noted, the man in the white shirt with short green stole is Father Greg Reynolds, an unrepentant supporter of women’s ordination, same-sex unions, and other heretical opinions; investigated at length and suspended a divinis by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Benedict XVI, he was finally excommunicated by Pope Francis in 2014. A consecrated host was actually fed to the dog during the “service” depicted in that photo! Far from “Novus Ordo bashing,” the image condemns the mutilation of the liturgy at the hands of bad clergy.

However, the fact that so many people perceived this to be a criticism of the Novus Ordo speaks to the prevalence of similarly bad liturgies across the Church. When the lower image is taken at face value and few people find anything surprising or shocking about it, this indicates a general pervasiveness of lackadaisical, informal, irreverent Masses.

Trend 2: “The form of liturgy is of little importance, because Christ becomes present in the Eucharist.”

These comments are unfortunately all too common in the Church today. They exhibit is a reductive view of the liturgy whose implications do violence to the essence of liturgy itself. In response, first I’d like to quote from Dr. Peter Kwasniewski’s masterful and highly recommended book Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis, chapter 5. Though he specifically refers to the comparison between the Traditional Latin Mass and the Novus Ordo, what he writes could easily apply to a comparison between “traditional” and “contemporary” Novus Ordo liturgies.

To say, then, as so many Catholics do, that the form of the liturgy does not matter that much (“because, after all, Christ is truly present when the consecration is valid; what difference ultimately should it make? Should so much trouble be made over Tridentine versus Novus Ordo, when we just ought to be humbly grateful that our Lord is truly present?”) is like saying that it doesn’t matter what kind of mother Jesus has, what kind of woman or what kind of character Mary has– virginal, sinless, graceful, gentle, or their opposites– for these would be accidental, incidental, not of the essence of the Christ who comes to us through her.

Allow me to develop the analogy further. Christ, in his omnipotence, could have willed himself to be born of a normal human mother, or born of a whore, or born of a Gentile, or born of a man, or born of a beast– but he chose to be born of the Virgin Mary. Even if he were born of any other thing except the Virgin Mary, Jesus would still be the Christ, the eternally-begotten second Person of the Trinity who saves his people from sin and leads them into everlasting life, for nothing can detract from his divinity. And yet, we intuitively know that the context of the Incarnation– the Virgin Birth– really does matter, not because it adds to Christ’s divinity, but because it was God’s chosen method to reveal, in a most ineffable and sublime way, the depth of his love for us and the majesty of his power.

So is it with the celebration of the Eucharist. The modernist, rationalistic mindset that says “liturgical form doesn’t matter” can easily travel down a slippery slope that reduces the Mass to mere “validity”– that is, whether or not the priest pronounces the words of consecration. The readings from Scripture, the Responsorial Psalm, Kyrie, Gloria, Eucharistic Prayers, Sign of Peace, Our Father, the final blessing– all of these are  part of the “form”; all are aspects of liturgy that, strictu sensu, don’t affect Eucharistic validity, and yet a practicing Catholic would be hard pressed to admit that these things “don’t matter that much”. In the sacramental, incarnational worldview at the heart of Catholicism, form and content are jointly constitutive of a reality; form and content should exist in correlative and complementary harmony. Divorcing form from content is, quite simply, Protestant– and, more fundamentally, Gnostic (which in turn springs from a Platonism incapable of reconciling with the Incarnation).

Now, in the meme shown above, we see unabashed Christocentric worship on one hand, and anthropocentric worship on the other hand. For the sake of charity, let us assume that in both Masses, the consecration was pronounced properly by the respective priests such that, ex opere operato, Christ becomes present in the Eucharist. Which form shows itself in greater unity with the divine content of the Eucharist made present in each Mass: a form whose every action is ordered toward the divine, or a form designed to appeal to popular idiosyncracies? The answer is clear.

This is not a matter preferring one “worship environment” or another; the issue at hand is whether we totally orient ourselves to God, or whether we subtract some of that orientation and turn it on ourselves. In the traditional liturgies, form and content are visibly one. On the other hand, in many (though not all) of the “contemporary” liturgies, form and content are divorced; the congregants praise God with the lips but praise themselves by their gestures.

Trend 3: anti-Tradition antiquarianism

There as many errors in this person’s comment as there are sentences, so I will tackle them one by one, modo Divi Thomae.

Objection 1: “Christ did not conduct the Last Supper in Latin or any language the Apostles didn’t understand.”

I respond: The vernacular of Christ and the Apostles was Aramaic. Christ instituted the Eucharist in the context of the Passover ritual meal– an eminently liturgical act– meaning that it was more than likely conducted in Hebrew. Furthermore, the form of Hebrew found in the Old Testament ceased to be a spoken language by the time Jesus walked the earth. Yes, the Apostles certainly understood what was going on, but not because it was in the vernacular. They understood because, as religious Jews, they themselves were familiar with the sacred language of the faith of Israel.

Objection 2: “At the time the Church mandated the Latin Mass, Latin was understood by the congregation.”

I respond: This needs clarification. Yes, Latin was once spoken by the common man, but are we simply to assume that the liturgy used the same vocabulary, syntax, and structure of everyday speech? Simply put, we must first ask, “what kind of Latin was used in the Mass”?

Let us start with a more familiar example: consider an Anglophone student studying one of Shakespeare’s plays who, having been charged to read the prologue of Henry V, quickly comes across this:

O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great account,
On your imaginary forces work.

I don’t think I’m too far off the mark when I say that this short passage will cause not a few adolescents (and some adults) to expend some extra brain power in deciphering it. In our tech-savvy world, the student will likely turn to the internet for a translation; No Sweat Shakespeare provides one such rendering:

Oh sorry! But since one figure can represent a million on the stage, allow us – insignificant in this great affair – to get to work on your imaginations.

Leaving aside that the rendering of “ciphers to this great account” as “insignificant in this great affair” is problematic, one can nevertheless see which form of English our modern minds can process with ease. The point is this: just because a person speaks English doesn’t mean that he/she can readily apprehend any or all things written in English. There is a difference between everyday speech and higher language– that language rich in rhetoric and varied in syntax, a language which elevates the mind to the contemplation of higher things.

To demonstrate, the venerable and ancient collect Excita, quaesumus (once used for the last Sunday before Advent, when the Feast of Christ the King was still in October) finds two vastly different renderings in the old, obsolete 1973 translation and in the newer 2011 improved translation.

Excita, quaesumus, Domine, tuorum fidelium voluntates:
ut, divini operis fructum propensius exsequentes,
pietatis tuae remedia maiora percipiant.

For the past four decades, English-speaking Catholics were fed this dreadful bit:

Lord, increase our eagerness to do your will
and help us to know the saving power of your love.

which today has been corrected, Deo gratias, to this:

Stir up the will of your faithful, we pray, O Lord,
that, striving more eagerly to bring your divine work to fruitful completion,
they may receive in greater measure the healing remedies your kindness bestows.

The two English translations, if taken in a purely reductive sense, express the (sort of) same sentiment. The latter one, however (because it is more faithful to the original), retains the same gravity, depth, precision, and eloquence of its Latin parent. It therefore maintains a measure of inscrutability, a lack of immediacy that forces the listener to truly and consciously pay attention to words in order to digest, internalize, and appreciate its content.

Latin likewise does not exist in a universally-understood standard form. Compare Julius Caesar’s pithy De Bello Gallico with Cicero’s Hortensius (at least what we know of it from Augustine)– one will see, even in translation, that the former reads much easily than the latter. In the same way, the Latin used for liturgical functions is not the same as the Latin once used in everyday speech. Ancient prayers from the Mass such as Excita, quaesumus cited above make use of a rich vocabulary and varied rhetorical techniques (alliteration, hyperbaton, chiasmic phrases, parallelism, polysyndeton, among others), all of which produced a style of Latin far removed from language in popular use. Pope St. Damasus, who wrote many of the oldest extant collects and established their now-standard style, was a rhetorical master. The various inscriptions he left at the tombs of martyrs constitute a true literary achievement. If we compare these marvels of composition against the same Pope’s extant correspondences with St. Jerome, one will note a marked difference in complexity and comprehensibility. Similarly, the sermons of the great Latin Fathers are far easier to read than many a liturgical oration. In short, liturgical language tends to be more complex, refined, and difficult– yes, difficult— understood only after a real genuine effort to absorb its content.

Therefore, the proposition that “at the time the Church mandated the Latin Mass, Latin was understood by the congregation” relies on erroneous assumptions. Language used at Mass was, in fact, not immediately grasped or understood by many in the congregation– and the same is true for the early Greek liturgies. The artfully-constructed ancient prayers of the Church are not of the same language as marketplace speech. Some of this has to do with the so-called disciplina arcani— the veiling of doctrine from catechumens. More fundamentally, it has to do with reserving for God the best we can offer, reserving for God a sacred language and a special mode of speech that befits his transcendent majesty, distinguished from the way we speak to one another.

Important to remember is that the Mass is not a primarily didactic or catachetical moment; its chief purpose is not to speak to the congregation. Mass is liturgical, meaning that its speech is oriented toward God. He is the addressee of our prayers. The didactic moment happens through catechesis– often through preaching (the sermon or homily, which rightfully is in the vernacular), but also through extra-liturgical catechetical formation.

As a final observation on this point, I want to point out that the Latin liturgy still effectively evangelized the non-Latin cultures of the Franks, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Lombards, Helvetii, Belgae, Angles, Saxons, and Gauls, to name a few.

Objection 3: “The vestments the priests wore weren’t really vestments at all– they were the usual clothing worn by men of the time.”

This also needs qualification, because it is partially true. Some vestments, like the chasuble, were in fact derived from the cloak or overcoat commonly used by men. Other vestments, like the stole (for both priests and deacons) and the maniple (sadly used sparingly in the Novus Ordo) had a specific functional origin– namely, as a sort of hand towel or cleaning cloth. And other vestments, like the dalmatic and miter, were adapted from imperial court garb.

Latent in this third objection is a school of thought, definitively condemned by Venerable Pius XII, called “antiquarianism”. This is the belief that the original practice of the first generations of Christians are the “most pure”, and that everything that came afterward is a corruption of the pristine Apostolic era. The error of antiqarianism is obvious: it denies any legitimate historical development of the liturgy, of doctrine, of anything. In the liturgical reform instigated by Pope St. Pius X, there were some scholars who used antiquity as the measure of proper liturgical praxis, and consequently proposed some reforms on the basis of more ancient practices. Pius XII addressed the issue in the magisterial encyclical Mediator Dei (par. 62):

Assuredly it is a wise and most laudable thing to return in spirit and affection to the sources of the sacred liturgy… But it is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device. Thus, to cite some instances, one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive tableform; were he to want black excluded as a color for the liturgical vestments; were he to forbid the use of sacred images and statues in Churches; were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer’s body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings; and lastly were he to disdain and reject polyphonic music or singing in parts, even where it conforms to regulations issued by the Holy See.

Ad sacrae Liturgiae fontes mente animoque redire sapiens profecto ac laudabilissima res est… non sapiens tamen, non laudabile est omnia ad antiquitatem quovis modo reducere. Itaque, ut exemplis utamur, is ex recto aberret itinere, qui priscam altari velit mensae formam restituere; qui liturgicas vestes velit nigro semper carere colore; qui sacras imagines ac statuas e templis prohibeat; qui divini Redemptoris in Crucem acti effigies ita conformari iubeat, ut corpus eius acerrimos non referat, quos passus est, cruciatus; qui denique polyphonicos, seu multisonos concentus reprobet ac repudiet, etiamsi normis obtemperent Apostolica Sede datis.

The antiquarian ideology implicitly denies that the Church and her liturgy can grow in holiness throughout the centuries, which in turn implies that God somehow stopped guiding the Church and allowed her liturgy to fall into decay. This in turn is a rejection of the indefectibility of the Church, which was promised by Christ. Antiquarianism effectively freezes the Church at some arbitrary stage early in her history, yielding another reductive view of the liturgy.

Such a viewpoint is untenable. By advocating a “return” to earlier practices, or by implicitly criticizing later developments (such as formal priestly vestments), antiquarians ironically become champions of anachronistic innovations. Among the enumerated antiquarian tendencies noted by Pius XII include forbidding “the use of sacred images and statues in Churches” and rejection of “polyphonic music or singing in parts”. Yet no reasonable practicing Catholic would go so far as to espouse iconoclasm or despise antiphonal singing. Later developments in the liturgy, including the use of images and statues, have yielded much spiritual fruit for succeeding generations, as have many of the legitimate developments added to the Mass over the centuries.

In the case of vestments, when the ritual forms of Christian worship began to crystallize, the clothing of priests began to take on deeply spiritual interpretations, all pointing back to the essence of the Mass: offering sacrifice to God for his glory. This we see in the vesting prayers of the priest before Mass, still used in the Extraordinary Form and often ignored in the Ordinary Form. As the priest puts on each successive vestment, he recites these profound prayers which (1) emphasize his humility and unworthiness, (2) ask God to prepare him for the sacred rites, and (3) exhibit a vibrant biblical spirituality. For example, the amice is likened to the “helmet of salvation” (galeam salutis), the cincture symbolizes the “gird of purity” (cingulo puritatis), and the chasuble is the sweet yoke and light burden of Christ (Domine, qui dixistijugum meam suave est et onus meum leve, cf. Matt 11:30). If one reads all the vesting prayers, there is certainly nothing objectionable in their content; in fact, they are all in accord with the true spirit of the liturgy.


Even in a forum meant for faithful Catholics like Catholic Memes, we still see a lot of questionable ideas concerning something so fundamental and formative as the liturgy. We see old repeated tropes about how liturgical form “doesn’t matter”, gross misconceptions about liturgical language, and insinuations that a host of informal practices are permitted in the Novus Ordo (though they really be liturgical abuses). All this is indicative of the continuing liturgical crisis– which is really a crisis of identity– in the Church. We can help resolve this crisis by ensuring, as noted by one of the “voices of reason” cited above, that “both forms of the Roman Rite should look like the top image”.

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