The Case for the Tridentine Mass

By Michael Davies (RIP)
Reprinted from The Remnant  (July 31, 1972)

“Thus says the Lord: ‘Stand by the roads and look and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.’ But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’”

No group of Catholics has been more maligned by the “establishment” than those who seek the preservation of the Tridentine rite of Mass. Indeed, they are justified in complaining that those who criticize them for favoring the Tridentine rite seem either unwilling or unable to answer the arguments which they put forth, but concern themselves with peripheral matters or points which they have never raised.

A typical attack on the case for the Tridentine Mass was made in the English Catholic Herald in September of this year.  The author, Canon J. O’Connell, is a liturgist of international repute.  Any serious student of the liturgy will be familiar with the classic work written by him in conjunction with Fr. Fortescue – “The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described”.  To see a scholar of Fr. O’Connell’s stature putting forth such unconvincing arguments is proof of the weakness of the case against the Tridentine Rite.  The basis of his article was that the reforms stem from the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” approved by an overwhelming majority of Council Fathers; that they are the fruit of the liturgical movement so warmly commended by the great Popes of this century; that it is an “active sharing” in worship to which Catholic traditionalists really object; that the traditionalists are being selfish in putting their own preferences before the good of the whole community; that a lack of consistency is displayed by those Catholics who “while they accept the Church as a teacher of faith and morals, decline to recognize her as a teacher of the forms of worship”.

Needless to say, Fr. O’Connell also lays strong emphasis on the alleged fact that those who wish for the retention of the Tridentine Rite are only “a small but vocal minority.”

As these assertions occur time and again in the establishment press, it is worth considering them in some detail – dealing with the last point first, as it is certainly the shallowest allegation in a case which is nowhere truly profound.

No Support for the Tridentine Rite? 

Let us begin by observing that support for innumerable good causes, from the abolition of slavery to the anti-abortion campaign, has been confined, historically, to a “small but active minority”.  The justice of a cause must be judged, after all, by the inherent merits of the case, not by the number of its supporters.  Certain it is that support for the retention of the Tridentine Rite is far greater today than the support which existed in pre-Conciliar days for the type of reform which has now been enacted.   While the Vernacular Society of Great Britain only had its hundreds, the Latin Mass Society today has its thousands – and these form only the tip of the Traditionalist iceberg.  Organized support for the Tridentine Rite on the continent is far greater as can be proved from France alone, where several periodicals with the preservation of the Tridentine Rite as a prime aim have circulations running into the tens of thousands.

The number of Catholics who are actively interested in the liturgy one way or another is comparatively small.  It is quite possible that a substantial majority of these are in favour of the retention of the Tridentine rite.  Certainly, where quality is concerned, no one can deny the critics of the new liturgy include many of the most distinguished lay men (and women) in all the major European countries as well as the U.S.A.  In Great Britain, at least, they include in their ranks a high proportion of converts from Protestantism, whose experience of the style of worship now being imposed upon us is far greater than that of the so-called liturgical experts, invariably clerics, who are enforcing the changes in the most rigid and legalistic manner possible. 

What did The Council Say?

It is implied that, as the new rite “stems from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy”, approval by an overwhelming majority of Council Fathers and by His Holiness Pope Paul, that opposition to it would denote a refusal to accept the will of Vatican II and of the Pope – a very serious matter.  Identification of the new liturgy with what the Council Fathers had in mind is, of course, THE great non-sequitur of the present controversy.  The Constitution itself states, however, that “there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them and care should be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing”.

Did the good of the Church genuinely and certainly require the new Confiteor; the abolition of kneeling at the Incarnatus during the Creed; the interpolation of the acclamations after the Consecration; the abolition of Offertory prayers of incomparable spiritual and aesthetic richness; of the prayer Placeat tibi, said by the celebrant at the end of the Mass and summarizing so perfectly the action he had just performed; the abolition of the Last Gospel? …There is really no limit to the items which could be included in this list. 

Did not the Constitution give very clear instructions concerning the use of Latin and the importance of Gregorian Chant – which was to be given pride of place in liturgical services?  Where in the Constitution is anything said concerning the turning around of the altar, let alone the substitution of a table?  What does the Constitution itself have to say about introducing new canons, the kiss of peace, female lectors, or the denuding of so many of our churches of statues of saints and other objects of piety? These are reasonable questions which reasonable people have been asking for years.  It is hardly surprising that when their questions are ignored, or replied to in an evasive manner, some of them become impatient.

When the Synod of Bishops was asked to vote on the merits of the new Normative Mass in 1967, less than half proclaimed themselves unreservedly pleased.  This is of the utmost importance, as it is certain that while all the radicals would vote in favour – and this group has the knack of ensuring that it is invariably overrepresented on these synods – many of the moderates and even conservatives would be reluctant to evince a lack of enthusiasm for anything put forward with Vatican approval.

The crucial question put to the Synod was: “Are the Fathers pleased in general with the structure of the so-called ‘Normative Mass’ as proposed?”

The voting was:  “Yes” – 71.  “Yes with reservations” – 62.  “No” – 43.

Commenting on these figures in a personal letter, one of the bishops observed:  “It is very significant that less than half of the members of the Synod had been unreservedly pleased with the proposed ‘Normative Mass’. It is true that a vote ‘Yes with reservations’ may be regarded as the acceptance of the proposal in principle, but the ‘reservations’ had to be presented in writing – and these are being scrupulously examined before the decision is made and most of these ‘reservations’ or ‘amendments’ have been critical of the proposed changes – they have been published in Notitiae No. 35, Nov. 67.”

Without getting bogged down in a discussion of precisely what these figures mean, it is clear that episcopal approval for the reforms themselves was very far from the virtual unanimity for the principle of reform voted by the Council itself.  It is also only too clear that the bishop just quoted was sadly naïve in respect of the “scrupulous” attention which the radical-dominated Consilium, which had obtained control of the implementation of the Decree on the Sacred Liturgy, would pay to any objections, episcopal or otherwise, voiced in respect of the reforms they were determined to impose.  This is proved beyond any doubt by the fact that the New Order of Mass now in use is, but for a few minor changes, virtually identical with the Normative Mass which was received with such little enthusiasm by the Synod of Bishops. 

Some Bishops Speak Out

A number of bishops have made some forthright comments on the failure of the reforms to correspond with what the Council intended.  Writing in the Los Angeles weekly, The Tidings, on July 9 this year, Archbishop Robert Dwyer commented that: “The Liturgy needed reform by 1965; there was no call for dismantling it.”   He believes that the great mistake of the Council Fathers was “to allow the interpretation and implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy to fall into the hands of men who were either unscrupulous or incompetent. This is the so-called ‘Liturgical Establishment’, a Sacred cow which acts more like a White Elephant as it tramples the shards of a shattered liturgy with ponderous abandon.”

Another prelate who fulfilled important functions during the council was quoted in the Italian paper Le Specchio as follows:  “We can no longer speak of a Roman Liturgy.  All its typical character has been destroyed.  In its place we have a conglomeration of fragments culled from other liturgies, and many parts of no worth at all.”  He goes on to state that he regrets having voted in favour of the Council Constitution in whose name – “but in what manner!” – this pseudo reform has been carried out.  “If it were possible I would take back my vote and attest before a magistrate that it had been obtained through trickery.”

 Original Liturgical Movement Betrayed

The claim that the new liturgy is the fruit of the liturgical movement is as unconvincing as the claim that it represents the wishes of the Council Fathers.  Fr. Louis Bouyer was certainly one of the most ardent apostles of the liturgical movement.  In his latest book (“The Decomposition of Catholicism”), he mentions how he has devoted the greater part of his priestly life to this apostolate and continues: “But I now have the impression, and I am not alone, that those who took it upon themselves to apply the Council’s directives on this point have turned their backs deliberately on what Beauduin, Casel and Pius Parsch had set out to do, and to which I had tried vainly to add some small contribution of my own.”  He invites those who would deny that the liturgical reformers have turned their backs on the liturgical movement to go back and study the original sources he has mentioned.  There is, he claims, “…practically no liturgy worthy of the name today in the Catholic Church.” 

No Participation?

It is claimed that it is an “active sharing” in the external signs of worship – singing, gestures, and attitudes – to which traditionalists really object.(*1)  This allegation can be answered simply by attending their (traditionalists’) Masses.  The degree of external participation in any of the recent public Masses sponsored by the British Latin Mass Societies is certainly far more impressive than that evinced at most of the new rite Masses I have seen.  The plainchant Masses sung by congregations of thousands during the Rome Pilgrimage of traditionalists this year provided a standard of congregational participation which even the most ardent advocate of the new rite would have conceded as impossible to improve upon.

There are, of course, a good number of people who prefer a virtually silent Mass, with only the server making the responses, but this is hardly surprising, as it is what they have been used to throughout a lifetime of worship.  Pope Pius XII made it clear, in Mediator Dei, that the same method of participation may not be suitable for every Catholic and that we are all free to use the method that suits us best.  This seems a far more reasonable and tolerant attitude (on the part of a Pope who is accused of rigidity and legalism) than the sergeant-majorish attitude utilized by some contemporary clerical martinets.  “When I say move you bloody move!” was a favorite expression of my old drill sergeant – but he said it with a twinkle in his eye.  I saw no twinkle in the eye of a zealous Monsignor recently when he castigated members of his congregation who refused to accept or offer “the sign of peace”.

Fruits of the Reform

The implication that traditionalists are prepared to put their personal preferences in liturgical worship before the good of the majority would be a serious one if it were true.  However, if the reforms are judged by their fruits, it will become clear how unfair such accusations are.  I recently completed a careful study of the Mass attendance statistics for every parish in my very large diocese for the past 17 years.  Up to the time of the reforms, almost every parish registered an annual increase.  There was, of course, a very serious leakage and one of the admirable intentions of the reform was to stem this and, indeed, bring back the lapsed.  This aim was well expressed by Pope Paul in 1964, when he prayed “That a popular liturgy may lead greater numbers to the Church”.  Had there been a pronounced or even a marginal improvement in the annual increase since then, this would undoubtedly have been put down as a fruit of the reforms and there would have been some sense in speaking of a renewal.  However, a marginal increase would not really have represented a success in view of the effort and expense devoted to the reforms. In actual fact, the situation following the reforms reveals that about 70 percent of parishes now register an annual decrease and that of those still registering an increase only a handful are doing so at a higher rate than before the reforms.  In these cases, it will be found that the increase is due not so much to the intrinsic merits of the new rite but to the pastoral zeal and energy of the clergy who implement it.  Of course this might imply, as is often stated, that the evident lack of success in the liturgical reforms lies not with the new rite but with the clergy.  But this does not follow at all.  If the effectiveness of the liturgy depends on the “showmanship” of the parish clergy, we will have reached the unenviable state of affairs found in certain Protestant denominations where attendance at public worship depends wholly on the personality of the minister.  In the Tridentine Rite the personality of the priest was largely irrelevant.  In the new rite it seems to be a predominating factor.  There has been, therefore, no liturgical renewal

It is true that the majority of Catholics dutifully stand and sit when told to, and read or recite whatever they are ordered – and what an insipid affair it is in the average parish!  It is the effectiveness of the new liturgy in the AVERAGE parish by which it must be judged and not in the few “show” parishes in which a passable imitation of a renewal can be displayed.  I know a good number of Catholics who, like myself, supported the reforms with great enthusiasm when they were first introduced.  I can well remember the pleasure with which a liturgical group to which I belonged met to sing compline in English when this was first allowed in the early 60s.  My own parish priest would not utilize the early option to have the Liturgy of the Word in the vernacular – I traveled miles to find one which did.  I considered the Latin Mass Society to be a rather pathetic bunch of cranks and would never have countenanced for one moment the possibility that I might one day be joining it in a campaign to restore the old order.  My views on the new liturgy are the result of widespread experience of its effectiveness.  As a teacher, I find that this is particularly so with young people.  The new rite is an obstacle to be overcome in helping them to understand the true nature of the Mass, rather than the greatest possible aid towards this, as the Tridentine Rite was. 

Growing Support for the Old Mass

Support for the traditional liturgy is constantly increasing.  Its merits were well stated by Dietrich Von Hildebrand in TRIUMPH magazine for June 1970.  True renewal, he says: 

…can only be maintained by a more profound realization of the difference between the sacred and the profane, between the supernatural and the natural – by delving deeper into the mystery of the Mass.  This implies a growth of reverence, gratitude, recollection in the soul of the individual, going to his depth and attaining holy receptivity.  This real renewal can be attained neither by changes of the text of the Holy Mass, nor by stressing its communal aspects, nor by mere emphasis on the exterior participation of the faithful. 

It must be said with all emphasis that the question of how much the faithful speak and sing during Mass is in no way the decisive criterion for their degree of real participation in the holy Mass.  Beautiful and desirable as exterior bodily participation is incomparably more important and essential.

The Latin Mass participation and dialogue may be, inner (I mean the Mass instituted by Pius V) and the Gregorian Chant favor an attitude of reverence and recollection; the sublime spirit which they emanate offers the greatest chance for drawing the faithful into the holy action, helping them to emerge from all profane things into the world of Christ.

The adaptation of the Mass to the mythical ‘modern man’ instead of to the never changing real man, is the very antithesis of true renewal…It is a grave pastoral mistake. 

Theological Deficiencies in the New Rite

A large section of traditionalist opinion, more manifest upon the continent than in Britain, considers that not only is the Tridentine Rite preferable for the reasons given by Von Hildebrand, and in view of the manifest failure of the intended renewal to materialize, but by reason of serious theological deficiencies implicit in the new rite.  Their case was summed up in the celebrated letter to the Pope from Cardinal Ottaviani.  (There is a dispute in progress as to whether he wished it to be made public, but no one has disputed the fact that he wrote the letter.) The Novus Ordo Missae, contended the Cardinal, “both as a whole, and in its details, is a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was formulated in Session XXII of the Council of Trent.”  Lack of space must preclude my discussion of the arguments for and against this proposition, but the very fact that it has been made and is maintained by tens of thousands of faithful Catholics, both lay and clerical, makes it obvious that there must be some ambiguity.  However, it must be made clear that to state that the new rite fails to give adequate liturgical expression to the essence of the Mass, and is also inadequate from a theological standpoint (lex orandi, lex credendi) is not the same as saying that it is heretical or invalid.  This is a contention being put forward by only the smallest minority among traditionalists (although, according to my own reasoning, this does not invalidate the contention!). But, it would be as unfair to use it as an excuse for denigrating the mainstream traditionalist case for the Tridentine Mass as it would be to make the activities of the I.R.A. an excuse for refusing to take the case of the movement for civil rights in Northern Ireland seriously.

Another red-herring brought in to divert attention from the arguments in favour of the Tridentine Mass is the alleged ambivalence of those who demand obedience to Holy Church on matters of faith and morals “but decline to recognize her as a teacher of the forms of worship.”  It is hard to believe that such an argument could be put forward seriously.  There is all the difference in the world between refusing to accept authoritative teaching on a matter of faith and morals and asking the Holy Father to think again on a disciplinary matter which has manifestly not had the effect for which it was intended.  It is also clear that the Holy See is willing to reverse pronouncements on liturgical discipline – as was made clear in the case of Communion in the hand. Persistent defiance of the regulation forbidding this resulted in its revision.  Similar instances could be cited.

There can, therefore, be no question of a lack of loyalty or orthodoxy in traditionalists working for the retention of a form of worship which was mandatory until recently and the preservation of which, they maintain, is not only for their benefit but that of the whole Church, and, as the recent “Intellectuals’ Petition” made clear, that of Western civilization as a whole. 

Souls At Stake

Arguments concerning the superiority of the old or new rites can be of great value if carried on in a spirit of mutual charity and willingness to modify existing positions, but, more often than not, they leave the participants more firmly entrenched than ever in their original beliefs.  There is, however, one argument which even the most enthusiastic devotee of the new rite should be able to look upon sympathetically and support without reservation.  The liturgical reform was promulgated for pastoral reasons – to help the faithful understand and participate in the Mass more fully.  Let us presume that for the majority of Catholics it does this; let us presume that it is superior to the old rite liturgically and theologically; let us presume that a renewal really is taking place.  If all this is conceded, no one can deny that thousands of Catholics are still distressed beyond all measure by the reforms.  They have not been able to adapt to it, nor will they be able to adapt to it.  This is not something to blame them for or to be surprised at.  In a reform of this nature, it is something which should have been expected and catered to.  With very few exceptions, they are not demanding the abrogation of the new rite and the wholesale return to the Mass of St. Pius V.  They are saying that for them life without this Mass in unbearable.  Their greatest desire in life is to take part in the Mass. There are priests who long more than anything else to offer it for them. 

To impoverish the lives of thousands of devout Catholics, then, to embitter many of them and bring others to despair while claiming that this is being done for pastoral reasons is utter nonsense.  I would challenge any advocate of the new liturgy to advance a coherent, let alone a convincing, reason to justify forcing so many of their fellow Catholic to live out their lives in misery when, with a stroke or the pen, the Holy Father could bring them consolation and take an important step towards restoring unity to the Church. 

An Important Step Forward

An important step towards the widespread implementation of such a pastoral attitude on the part of the bishops of England and Wales was taken in October 1971.  On the Feast of the Holy Rosary, and on the following Sunday, Tridentine Masses were celebrated with episcopal approval all over the country. They were widely advertised in the Catholic press and participated in by large and enthusiastic congregations in every instance.  Standing room only was the general rule.  A notable feature was the high proportion of young people present. The lessons to be learned from these Masses will certainly not be lost upon the bishops and it is no secret that the regular celebration of Tridentine Masses – including all public Masses on weekdays and Sundays in some churches – is definitely on the increase.  There may be some argument as to whether a bishop has the legal right to forbid the celebration of the Tridentine Mass, but there can be no doubt about the fact that he is quite free to permit it.

The letter received from the bishop of Arundel and Brighton in response to a request for permission to use the Tridentine Mass sets a standard which could well be emulated by many other bishops whose pastoral solicitude often seems to be as theoretical as that of certain of the renaissance predecessors for chastity!  Not only did Bishop Bowen give his permission without hesitation, but he added: “I do hope it will prove a source of solace and comfort to those of you who feel so attached to the Tridentine Mass.”

It would be an excellent idea if every reader of The Remnant brought this action to the attention of his bishop and suggested:  “Vade, et to fac similiter.”

(Footnote *1 above:  Much of the current obsession with vocal and physical activity in the liturgy arises from an inaccurate translation of the word “actuosa” as “active.” The serious consequences of this blunder have been brilliantly analyzed in a lecture by one of the most celebrated living liturgical scholars, Dom Bernard McElligott, OSB.  A full report of this important lecture was published in the November 15, 1971 Remnant).