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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
25 Jul 2003

Revisiting Some Old Questions

by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

The controversy surrounding the heroic Fr. Stephen Zigrang, who announced to his parish several weeks ago that he would never again celebrate the Novus Ordo Mass, provoked the greatest outburst of letters to the editor that I have ever seen on Seattle Catholic. Of those who opposed Fr. Zigrang, some suggested that he should not have acted without the approval of his bishop, but one or two others - members of Father's parish - opposed his decision because they genuinely preferred the vernacular Novus Ordo to the traditional Latin Mass.

I have no desire to embark upon yet another critique of the new rite of Mass, particularly since such critiques have been so skillfully performed by others. Instead, I'd like to offer a few fresh answers to some of the typical objections to the traditional rite and particularly to the use of the Latin language. Although I am pessimistic about a great many things, I do believe that the return of the traditional Latin Mass, at least alongside the new rite, is simply a matter of time. For that reason, it cannot hurt to prepare and refine our answers to the inevitable questions that people new to the traditional Mass are bound to ask.

Consider this fairly typical remark, which appeared in a letter to Seattle Catholic commenting on Fr. Zigrang: "I'm not saying that the traditional Church is wrong. But, especially in today's world, why have a Mass that people cannot understand and participate in? Attending the Latin Mass, yes it was beautiful and I knew generally what was going on but I really didn't get much out of it."

There is no need to ridicule or condemn this woman, who is doubtless a well-meaning person. Yet the post-conciliar spirit is so well encapsulated in this statement that it is hard to let it pass without comment. In this person's letter the Church's traditional practice is simply assumed to be wrong, and without so much as a tinge of curiosity about why the Roman Rite of the Church, for many centuries after Latin had given way to the vernacular languages among the general population, had continued to perform her liturgical rites in Latin.

The great English novelist Evelyn Waugh, author of Brideshead Revisited and a great many other books, had an answer for those who insisted on more "participation" in the Mass: "'Participation' in the Mass does not mean hearing our own voice. It means God hearing our voices. Only He knows who is 'participating' at Mass. I believe, to compare small things with great, that I 'participate' in a work of art when I study it and love it silently. No need to shout." 1

That the faithful did not understand the traditional Mass is simply not plausible. "In the old Mass," wrote Waugh, "a glance at the altar was enough to inform me of the precise stage of the liturgy. The priest's voice was often inaudible and unintelligible. I do not write with the pride of a classical scholar. Indeed I know less Latin now than I did 45 years ago. But it did not require any high state of prayer to unite oneself to the action of the priest." The emphasis on external "participation" did nothing to heighten this very real union with the actions taking place at the altar. "Repeatedly standing up and saying 'And with you' detracts from this relatively intimate association and 'participation.'"

Recall that Waugh, who died before the promulgation of the Novus Ordo, was speaking only about the changes that had been introduced in the years leading up to 1970, like vernacularization and Mass facing the people. And yet he could write: "Apart from the distress at finding our spiritual habits disordered (and I know this is a minor concern compared with the graver dangers to faith and morals openly propounded at the Council) my friends and I are totally at a loss to understand the new form of the Mass."

Look again at our letter writer's words: "especially in today's world, why have a Mass that people cannot understand and participate in?" Why "especially in today's world"? Apart from its spiritual and aesthetic impoverishment, I see little that is so special or unique about "today's world." The very opposite seems to be the case: it is precisely in today's world, a world in which man believes himself bound by nothing but his own whims, in which the traditional Mass is so obviously necessary. What generation has needed more than the present one to be told that the world does not revolve around them? In a world that believes that nothing is immune to change, that the family itself is subject to redefinition according to human whim, the piety and reverence of the traditional Latin Mass, in its beauty and stately reserve, and in its reservation of sacred tasks to the priest alone, reminds us that some things really are not to be touched by man. What message does our society need more than this?

The usual apologetic for the new rite of Mass includes the claim that the vernacular was necessary in order to assist people's understanding. But if that's all the "reformers" wanted, they would simply have translated the 1962 Missal into English. That would not have satisfied their desire for a radically restructured liturgy that would serve the purposes of ecumenism. This must have been the desired outcome rather than an interesting accident. As Michael Davies puts it, when a committee of liturgical experts manufactures a liturgical text that plenty of Protestants find unobjectionable, what other explanation is possible?2

As for "understanding" and "getting anything out of" the Mass, the vernacular liturgy hasn't exactly done wonders for the vast majority of faithful. Not only are the vast majority of Catholics aged 18-44 unable to identify their Church's teaching on the Eucharist from a list of several options, but they are also without the slightest idea of what the Mass is. In four years of teaching Western civilization at the college level, I have yet to encounter a single student who was able to define the Mass as the re-presentation of Christ's Sacrifice on Calvary. (The one student who came the closest described the Mass as a re-enactment of the Last Supper.) And no wonder: who, watching the spectacle that is the typical parish Mass, would possibly conclude that he was present at the re-presentation of Calvary?

"Noble, Majestic, and Non-Vernacular"

One could cite a great many popes on the use of the Latin language, but I shall confine myself to two. First, Pius XI: "For the Church, precisely because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure to the end of time...of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular." Pope John XXIII quoted this passage in his own Apostolic Letter on Latin, Veterum Sapientia. He himself wrote: "Finally, the Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular."

Think about that. The Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, and therefore, as befitting this dignity, should possess a language that is the unique possession of no single group of people. Now the Church has never condemned harmless regional variations, which are bound to exist: devotional practices more popular in one place than another, particular saints enjoying greater devotion in some places than in others, and so on. But when we step into our churches, it is good for us to leave outside much of what differentiates us as Americans, Canadians, Frenchmen, or Koreans, so that we might better appreciate what we share in common as Catholics. Shame on us if we turn our backs on this beautiful expression of the universality of the Church in order that we might enjoy the familiarity of our own language.

By preserving Latin as the liturgical language of the Roman Rite, not only do we erect a barrier against improvisation and heresy (in the form of questionable translations) but we also give expression to our identity as Catholics. We may not speak any Latin ourselves - though it is highly desirable for Catholics to learn that sacred language - and rely entirely on our missals to navigate the Mass. But a liturgical language common to us all reminds us that we belong to an institution greater than any nation, and one through which we are bound to faithful all over the world. The world is our mission territory, and it is entirely fitting that we missionaries, bound together as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, should worship in a common language.

The unity that Latin both symbolizes and fosters has proven irresistibly attractive to a great many converts. Consider the example of Douglas Hyde (1911-1981), the British Communist who worked for the Communist Party for two decades and edited its British newspaper, the Daily Worker. He had sought in secular ideologies a cure for the divisions that afflicted the postwar world. "The generation which came to manhood between the wars - my generation - pagan though it was, grew up in the belief that some sort of universal harmony and lasting peace was possible, that men need not remain divided." Hyde and his colleagues had looked in vain to secular organizations to supply this unity. "We looked to the new organizations to achieve this for us - some to the League of Nations, some to world Communism," he wrote. None lived up to expectations: "[T]he League of Nations has been dead, murdered, for eight years. No one has the same hopes of the United Nations or, if they ever had, bitter reality has long since brought disillusionment. The Communist International, far from uniting the human race, is splitting it both horizontally [into East versus West] and vertically [into property owners versus proletariat]...."

For a variety of reasons, including his interest in the medieval world, Hyde had begun to inquire into Catholicism. Then something impressed itself upon him:

At 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve I was twiddling the knob of my radio. Unable to get out to Midnight Mass I wanted at least to bring it to my fireside. And as I switched from one European station to the next I tuned in to one Midnight Mass after the other. Belgium, France, Germany, Eire, yes, even behind the Iron Curtain, Prague. It seemed as though the whole of what was once Christendom was celebrating what is potentially the most unifying event in man's history. And the important thing was that it was the same Mass. I am a newcomer to the Mass but I was able to recognize its continuity as I went from station to station for it was in one common language. This aspect of Catholicism is but a single one, and maybe not the most important. But I have a strong feeling that it is precisely the Catholicism of the Catholic Church which may prove the greatest attraction, and will meet the greatest need, for my disillusioned generation.3

Hyde, who converted to Catholicism in 1948, traveled extensively throughout Asia during the 1950s. In his ensuing book One Front Across the World (1956) he wrote about those travels, where time and again he witnessed the simplest of folk actively praying the traditional Latin Mass. He told a story from Korea in which a Msgr. Thomas Quinlan had wanted to start a choir for his cathedral. The monsignor recruited a pagan professor of music and seventy of his students, none of whom were Catholic (this was genuine mission territory) and taught them how to pronounce ecclesiastical Latin. Soon they were practicing the music for High Mass.

When the time came for Bishop Patrick J. Byrne to be consecrated in Seoul, Hyde relates, the professor went to the consecration "and was enormously impressed by the Church's liturgy. It was, he said, the nearest thing to heaven he had ever experienced, and the Cistercian Salve Regina was the most perfect piece of music he had ever heard. He came into the Church a convert and before long the students in the choir, one after another, came in too."

And they didn't even speak Latin - or any language derived from it.

Even non-Catholics could appreciate the Church's liturgy and its central place in the history of Western civilization. In 1971, a petition of 50 top British intellectuals, only a few of them Catholic, urged the Pope not to abrogate the traditional Latin Mass. It read:

If some senseless decree were to order the total or partial destruction of basilicas or cathedrals, then obviously it would be the educated - whatever their personal beliefs - who would rise up in horror to oppose such a possibility. Now the fact is that basilicas and cathedrals were built so as to celebrate a rite which, until a few months ago, constituted a living tradition. We are referring to the Roman Catholic Mass. Yet, according to the latest information in Rome, there is a plan to obliterate that Mass by the end of the current year. One of the axioms of contemporary publicity, religious as well as secular, is that modern man in general, and intellectuals in particular, have become intolerant of all forms of tradition and are anxious to suppress them and put something else in their place. But, like many other affirmations of our publicity machines, this axiom is false. Today, as in times gone by, educated people are in the vanguard where recognition of the value of tradition in concerned, and are the first to raise the alarm when it is threatened. We are not at this moment considering the religious or spiritual experience of millions of individuals. The rite in question, in its magnificent Latin text, has also inspired a host of priceless achievements in the arts - not only mystical works, but works by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs. Thus, it belongs to universal culture as well as to churchmen and formal Christians. In the materialistic and technocratic civilization that is increasingly threatening the life of mind and spirit in its original creative expression - the word - it seems particularly inhuman to deprive man of word-forms in one of their most grandiose manifestations. The signatories of this appeal, which is entirely ecumenical and non-political, have been drawn from every branch of modern culture in Europe and elsewhere. They wish to call to the attention of the Holy See, the appalling responsibility it would incur in the history of the human spirit were it to refuse to allow the Traditional Mass to survive, even though this survival took place side by side with other liturgical reforms. Signed: Harold Acton, Vladimir Ashkenazy, John Bayler, Lennox Berkeley, Maurice Bowra, Agatha Christie, Kenneth Clark, Nevill Coghill, Cyril Connolly, Colin Davis, Hugh Delargy, +Robert Exeter, Miles Fitzalan-Howard, Constantine Fitzgibbon, William Glock, Magdalen Gofflin, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, Ian Greenless, Joseph Grimond, Harman Grisewood, Colin Hardie, Rupert Hart-Davis, Barbara Hepworth, Auberon Herbert, John Jolliffe, David Jones, Osbert Lancaster, F.R. Leavis, Cecil Day Lewis, Compton Mackenzie, George Malcolm, Max Mallowan, Alfred Marnau, Yehudi Menuhin, Nancy Mitford, Raymond Mortimer, Malcolm Muggeridge, Iris Murdoch, John Murray, Sean O'Faolain, E.J. Oliver, Oxford and Asquith, William Plomer, Kathleen Raine, William Rees-Mogg, Ralph Richardson, +John Ripon, Charles Russell, Rivers Scott, Joan Sutherland, Philip Toynbee, Martin Turnell, Bernard Wall, Patrick Wall, E.I Watkin, R.C. Zaehner.

In 1923 even H.L. Mencken, no Catholic he, conceded a certain respect for the Catholic Church and the Mass: "The Latin Church, which I constantly find myself admiring, despite its frequent astounding imbecilities, has always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism, but a poem.... Rome, indeed, has not only preserved the original poetry of Christianity; it has also made capital additions to that poetry - for example, [to] the poetry...of the liturgy itself." "A solemn High Mass," he concluded, "must be a thousand times as impressive, to a man with any genuine religious sense in him, as the most powerful sermon ever roared under the big-top..."

Mencken warned that a day might come "when some extra-bombastic deacon will astound humanity and insult God by proposing to translate the liturgy into American, that all the faithful may be convinced by it." One can only imagine the withering satire with which Mencken would have treated the vandals who today occupy so many of the official precincts of the Church.

The new rite itself, of course, by breaking dramatically with liturgical tradition, de-emphasizing important Catholic doctrines, and imposing bland, manufactured prayers, has severed one of the Catholic's most tangible links to the communion of saints. No longer does he worship in a manner that those who came before him would have recognized. (Please spare us the tired claims that the Novus Ordo restored the liturgical traditions of the patristic period - a wildly misleading claim that, among other things, ignores the highly dubious historical foundations of such Novus Ordo innovations as the Prayer of the Faithful and the practice of concelebration.)

While the new rite itself has thus cut us off from the saints, the introduction of the vernacular, whereby the model of the universal Church as symbolized in our worship gives way to a massive retreat into our national groupings, has cut us off from fellow members of the Church Militant throughout the world. As Alfons Cardinal Stickler has pointed out more than once, there was once a time when a priest could have said Mass anywhere in the world. There was also a time when Catholics could have attended Mass around the world and found it the same Mass with which they were familiar - a profoundly moving testimony to their membership in a universal, supernatural organization. That world is gone. Roman Rite Catholics have been rendered spiritual orphans, rootless and rudderless in a hostile world.

The letter writer to whom I referred above says that "especially in today's world" we need vernacular Masses. To the contrary. In today's world, where Catholics are confused, demoralized, and scattered, we need a point of unity, not the Tower of Babel. In today's world, when the enemies of Catholic morality surround us at every turn and the dismantling of our civilization continues before our very eyes, we need to be reminded of our strength as members of a single Mystical Body of Christ around the world. Spurning the narcissistic self-preoccupation that demands that everything, no matter how beautiful or sacred or hallowed by tradition, must be remade to conform to man's fancies, let us continue the fight to restore to all our altars the one spiritual thing that our modern world truly needs: the Church's ancient Latin Mass.


Thomas E. Woods, Jr., holds a bachelor's degree from Harvard and his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University. He is associate editor of The Latin Mass magazine and co-author of The Great Fašade: Vatican II and the Regime of Novelty in the Roman Catholic Church. His next book, Ever Ancient, Ever New: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era, will be published by Columbia University Press in May 2004.

© Copyright 2003 Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

1 All quotations from Waugh are taken from A Bitter Trial: Evelyn Waugh and John Carmel Cardinal Heenan on the Liturgical Changes, ed. Scott M.P. Reid (London: St. Austin Press, 1996).
2 Of course, no Protestant could approve a text that included the Roman Canon, as the new rite does. But the point is that thanks to the "options" at the celebrant's disposal, he need not use the Roman Canon.
3 For Hyde and his story I am indebted to Michael J. Miller, "The International and the Introibo: How the Catholic Mass Converted a Communist," Sursum Corda, Winter 1999, pp. 24-26, 43.
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