For those whose liturgical sensibilities find a welcome haven in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, there is an overwhelming sense of comfort which arrests the soul when the procession bell chimes its telltale toll. That sound signifies not only an entrance into a particular Mass at a particular Church on that particular day; rather, it signifies an entry into the very universality of the Church. Despite any geographical variance, one can confidently expect to hear the same prayers and the same readings in the same sacral language, with none of the improvisational personalizing and unpredictable optionitis which so often plague the usual Mass in the Ordinary Form. In the older usage, the sacred ministers are truly servants, not masters, of the liturgy. With reverent care, they submit themselves to the ritual in a symbolic yet efficacious manner which reflects the humble submission of the faithful Christian soul to God. By strict adherence to the rite, the priest, iterum atque iterum, by his regulated ceremonial actions, says to the Lord non mea voluntas, sed tua fiat.
Those who have fled the more wildly idiosyncratic manifestations of the Novus Ordo, so often divorced from the mens Ecclesiae (and mens Concilii Patrum), have discovered in the TLM a solace and a refuge so refreshingly opposed to the atmosphere of its modern counterpart. The older rite, in all its stricture and structure, becomes such a bulwark against liturgical abuse to the point that, in the minds of innumerable TLM attendees, the Extraordinary Form seems a kind of panacea, a cure-all for the ills of the Church, liturgical or otherwise. It then becomes easy to take for granted the costly, painstaking work required to harvest the fruits of authentic liturgical life. The hours of diligent care, preparation, and labor undertaken by those laypeople who vivify the various TLM communities, not to mention the intensive formation demanded of the clerics who serve the old rite, tend to be an afterthought to those who are merely happy to escape the overwhelming horizontalism and contrived didacticism of the Ordinary Form. The older Mass is then considered preferable in absolute terms to any postconciliar liturgy because, in many TLM communities which have toiled for years to preserve the ancient usage (even during the era of the indult ghettos), a true love for the Mass has generally ensured that the liturgy therein shines in all its proper splendor according to both the spirit and the letter of the Roman Missal.
Yet is this true in every case? Does simple recourse to the TLM guarantee the emergence of an authentic liturgical spirit? Is the usus antiquior to be preferred semper et ubique?
Based on experience, my answer must be “no”.
Don’t get me wrong: paribus ceteris, I’d still choose a TLM over a run-of-the-mill Novus Ordo six days of the week and twice on Sunday. My main contention here is that the TLM, far from being impervious to abuse, is more than capable of being celebrated poorly. The characteristic which drives all reverent, well-executed Masses is not so much the particular rite, but the care and attentiveness of the ministers who ensure that the liturgy is truly offered according to the mind of the Church. A poorly formed priest can wreck any liturgy he endeavors to celebrate.
Case in point: the Sunday TLM I regularly attend (in the cathedral of the place where I currently reside) is the Mass of choice for the majority of usus antiquior adherents across the central part of the state, despite the availability of regular TLMs throughout the diocese. It is scheduled for 3:30 in the afternoon to accommodate the large number of commuters who travel hours for the ancient liturgy. Like many Extraordinary Form communities, hundreds of faithful Catholics, from the elderly to the many children of large, young families, pack the pews and confessional lines in anticipation of the simple austerity of what is usually a Low Mass. And yet, I often wonder whether the good faith of these people, many of whom dedicate the vast majority of their Sunday to this liturgy (and to the long travel associated with it), is repaid worthily by the priest who, week after week, offers this Mass so deficiently that, at times, I fear the invalidity of the sacrament.
As a relative newcomer to this diocese, I do not know this priest on a personal level, although I understand him to be the cathedral’s rector. While he obviously possesses a substantial body of doctrinally unobjectionable theological knowledge, he consistently fails to express himself coherently; working without a prepared text, his preaching rambles from point to disparate point for nearly half an hour, without even attempting a tortured connection to the Mass texts of the day, trying the patience of even the most devoted parishioners. Sadly, many of the parents let their kids take that time for a bathroom break.
Old enough to remember the Traditional Mass as a child but ordained under the Ordinary Form, he is a man whose unimpeachable familiarity with the ritual action could scarcely veil his appalling incompetence in our beautiful and venerable liturgical tongue. Those of us trying to follow the Mass with hand missals or copies of the propers struggle to concentrate as the poor Father pronounces letters that aren’t there, mutters words that don’t exist, places accents on wrong syllables, and confuses similarly spelled words, stammering and stuttering all the way through like a Colin Firth which no Geoffrey Rush could fix. God help him if a word has more than three syllables; trying to predict Father’s butchered product almost becomes an amusing pastime. All these egregious errors result in a spoken pidgin that is nearly unintelligible and hardly qualifies as anything resembling Latin, unless it were the speech of plebeian toddlers in ancient Rome first learning to speak. Immigrant priests from East Asia who only learned English late in adulthood are infinitely more comprehensible in our American idiom than this priest in the language which all clerics of the Roman Church are obliged to know very well (cf. CIC 249). If the would-be Conciliar reformers had any reason to push for all-vernacular liturgies, it would have been priests such as this. Even for those like me who have never spent one minute in a formal Latin class, Father’s linguistic deficiency is gravely apparent.
At first, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and presume some form of dyslexia, but when it came time for him to read the Epistle and Gospel in English prior to the homily, he proceeded without any problems. One of his milder mistakes came as he read the Preface for Lent; after the usual Vere dignum, etc., the text addresses God as qui corporali ieiunio vitia comprimis— except that instead of saying vitia, our priest pronounced vita. This is the first time I can recall of a priest referring to the Lord as a killer God who abruptly cuts our lives short (with improper declension, of course). Every week, as he invites us to communion, he presents the host and says, without fail, Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollis [sic] peccata mundi, making absolutely clear his unsuitability to offer the Traditional Mass due to his mindless repetition of incorrect phrases and failure to understand the elementary rules of conjugation. The silent Canon, that proud mystical hallmark of the TLM, suddenly becomes a font of terrifying doubt, supplying fears that the august Sacrament might not be confected, transforming a putative act of latria into an exercise in idolatry. Only his boom microphone provides us with final solace; if Father forgets to turn it off, we can, praise God, hear the faint whisper of the critical phrases: hoc est enim corpus meum; hic est enim calix sanguinis mei. It is a supreme witness to divine providence that even in this deplorable context, God acts as he always has acted throughout salvation history– through the minimal participation of fallen man, the Lord enters decisively and makes himself present among his people.
It goes without saying, of course, that priests of this type are a rarity among those who regularly celebrate the usus antiquior today.
A common retort to Catholics who strive to eliminate the far-too-frequent liturgical abuses in the Novus Ordo is “at least it’s a valid Mass…”; the implied subtext is often “…so quit complaining.” Such a sentiment might be applied to the TLM in question. However, this is a mistaken approach. We do not cut down a mighty redwood and regard the stump equal to the entire tree as if it were whole, although the essential organism is still present; we do not pull the petals from a rose and consider it the same as if it were in full bloomed splendor. Thus we cannot be satisfied when the liturgy is reduced to a mere question of validity. Our worship of Almighty God should be full and flowering, not a deformed bud deprived of beauty. This only happens when those responsible for the liturgy, lay and clerical, are diligent in safeguarding the integrity of the ordo Missae, whether antiquior or recentior. Without this vigilant care, any liturgy is open to deformation and abuse.
The Extraordinary Form is no exception.