Last week I drove five hours each way to sing in a schola for the Feast of the Assumption. The occasion was the celebration of the Solemn High Mass in the Extraordinary Form at the Church of the Gesu in Miami. Why? Because I knew that only in the Extraordinary Form would the splendor of the Mass truly reflect the splendor of the feast. And it did.
So I’m “coming out” for the Extraordinary Form. While this may not mean much to you, for me it is mentally crossing the Rubicon. Since Summorum Pontificum, I’ve kept my opinions to myself (and tried to talk myself out of them). At the same time, I wouldn’t be a Catholic today if I hadn’t stumbled across the Extraordinary Form at St. Agnes Church in New York one Sunday in 1989. There I found a Latin Rite Mass equal to the Orthodox Liturgy – a Mass that embodied the doctrines I was studying as I acknowledged the Petrine claims and re-oriented myself to Western theology. And even though I knew it was not the norm, at least I knew it still existed.
For 20 years I have defended the 1970 Missal, attributing its shortcomings to the manner in which it was celebrated, not to the rite itself. Since I was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1990, my battle cry as a musician has been “we can make it better.” I believed better hymns, better vestments, chanted propers, an improved translation or celebration in Latin – some combination of these could raise the 1970 Novus Ordo to the level of the Missal of Pius V or the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Church.
We can make it better. But it will always fall short. I do not – for one single minute – doubt that it is the Church’s authorized celebration of the Eucharist and that it carries all the graces of the sacrament. I truly believe that Our Lord is present there and is adored by the angels. But is this the window into Heaven that liturgy is meant to be?
The Novus Ordo‘s stripped-down text, its multiplicity of options for readings, Eucharistic prayers, and its preference for suggestion over precision are built into its structure. The bare-bones version is as uplifting as a Protestant prayer service. More elaborate celebrations are confections of local taste – ranging from LifeTeen to beautiful chant at the taste of the presider, choir director, and the liturgist. It is a child of the mid-20th century - iconoclastic, mistakenly ecumenical, and with a bad case of faux archaeologism.
The Latin Rite has constantly “re-formed” itself through history. The revered 1570 missal that followed the Council of Trent was itself a revision. Beginning in the 19th century, liturgical theologians, musicians and others all knew that it was time to revivify the rite’s celebration. Dom Gueranger, Lambert Beauduin, Louis Bouyer, Romano Guardini and a host of others in Europe and the United States wrote, met, worked for liturgical reform. And by the mid-20th century, it was happening – the Gregorian chant revival, the dialogue Mass replacing the dead-silent Low Mass, adult education courses on liturgy and doctrine, and increased lay interest in the breviary. Anyone who reads Sacrosanctum Concilium knows that this document sought continued movement in this direction. For reasons that don’t bear discussing here, there was instead a radical shift, a rupture. The result was the Novus Ordo Mass.
Is it the Latin? No, most definitely not. The Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil are celebrated in a multiplicity of languages from Greek to contemporary African tongues with no loss of dignity.
While I love Latin, I know that it lies far out of the reach of most of the current clergy and that worshippers aren’t interested in reading their way through a hand missal. By limiting the Extraordinary Form to the Latin language, we shut out potential celebrants and worshippers with barriers they can’t overcome. I know sincere priests who study the rite, but they will never be sufficiently comfortable in Latin to celebrate anything more complex than a Low Mass. And the Low Mass was not meant to the the preferred public celebration of the rite. In the transitional missal of the mid-1960s, we had a good translation of the Missale Romanum. The English Missal of the Anglo-Catholic movement is another fine translation and could be a wonderful consequence of Anglicanorum coetibus. Our worship needs the depth and expansiveness of the old rite, its universality, its orientation to the supernatural. Let us not keep language as a barrier.
Worship is honor and adoration given to what we love. And that love goes on to inspire great deeds. The Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite is the Western Church’s great treasure. What could happen if it were allowed to flourish?