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Monday, August 16, 2021

Crocodile Tears and Hand-Wringing: No GPS Coordinates for the Unicorn

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Crocodile Tears and Hand-Wringing: No GPS Coordinates for the Unicorn

“At the same time, I ask you to be vigilant in ensuring that every liturgy be celebrated with decorum and fidelity to the liturgical books promulgated after Vatican Council II, without the eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses…” Thus spake Francis in the letter that accompanies his motu proprio Traditionis Custodes of July 16, 2021.


Two days later, on July 18, we were given a textbook example of eccentricity in a Sunday Mass held by pastor Rainer Maria Schießler at the Hofbräuhaus München, a famous brewery restaurant, where Mass is held once a month in the midst of mascots and Biersteins:


On July 23, we were given an example of abuse (to say the least) in a Gay Mass in the Archdiocese of Berlin, featuring rainbow-colored cloths leading up to the altar and hanging from the ambo:

Gay Mass 3

The fabled unicorn—code language for the reverent, traditional (-looking), Ratzingerian Novus Ordo, which is supposed to satisfy the yearnings of devout Catholics—is still wandering at large and rarely sighted. Even where eccentricity and abuse are not abundant, banality and verbosity prevail.

For fifty years, popes have been wringing their hands about various kinds of abuses and the prevailing lack of reverence and beauty in the Novus Ordo. Yet nothing much has happened. Neither popes nor bishops have enforced the existing rules. They did not punish the recalcitrant or promote outstanding models. Redemptionis Sacramentum of 2004 was supposed to be the great moment, in the wake of John Paul II’s encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, when the new Mass would finally be restored to rubrical rightness and resplendent reverence. What happened? Fields of crickets from one end of the earth to the other. A friend of mine called a chancery one day and asked if she could report a violation against Redemptionis Sacramentum. The person on the phone went around the office asking if anyone had heard of the document, and then told her: “No, we haven’t heard of it. We’re sorry.” End of conversation.

Pope Francis added his crocodile tears to the hand-wringing of his predecessors:

I am saddened by abuses in the celebration of the liturgy on all sides. In common with Benedict XVI, I deplore the fact that “in many places the prescriptions of the new Missal are not observed in celebration, but indeed come to be interpreted as an authorization for or even a requirement of creativity, which leads to almost unbearable distortions.”

Saddening abuses. Deplorable facts. Unbearable distortions. Surely, then, they must be dealt with swiftly and mercilessly, in the same manner in which the pope has chosen to deal with the pressing problem of the traditionalists!

It is objectively evil to be cut off from the gift of tradition.

Such rhetorical tropes are as shallow as the feelings of comfort they evoke. How do we know that Pope Francis (or a like-minded Francis II) won’t take the well-rooted problem of bad liturgy seriously?

Watch the daily papal Mass: the dull and horizontal ritual of a dying Weltanschauung. This is the pope who violated the rules for whose feet could be washed on Holy Thursday, and then, having modified the rules, proceeded to violate the new ones. This is the pope who does not kneel or genuflect before the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, but who becomes surprisingly lithe when it’s time to kneel at the feet of politicians. This the pope on whose watch the Basilica of St. Peter, premiere pilgrimage church of Christendom, has outlawed Masses at side altars, undergrounded the Mass of the Ages, and nearly banished the use of Latin—at St. Peter’s, the one place in the world where the Church’s mother tongue has always been at home and would always be fitting. This is the pope under whom the Vatican’s publishing house has decided not to reprint the Liturgy of the Hours in Latin—its editio typica or standard edition—since it might foster dangerous linguistic liaisons.

No, this pope is no “guardian of tradition” (traditionis custos), nor will he lead the long-awaited crusade to bring forth “the spiritual richness and the theological depth of this [new] Missal” (to borrow a somewhat ironic phrase from Benedict XVI’s letter to the bishops of July 7, 2007). Nor can we expect any better from the influential churchmen of his making, who are as eager to cancel Tridentine Masses as they are to allow or even celebrate Masses for any and every subculture, especially if it calls itself by a string of capital letters.

The “high Novus Ordo” is not and never could be appealing to Latin Mass-goers. Where progressives hold that the liturgy is simply a means to an end, traditionalists view the Mass as a sublime end to which everything else should be ordered, because God Himself, Alpha and Omega, to whom all things bow, graces it and us with His very Presence. Because it is His gift to us of what is divine and most holy, the Mass must be rubrically inflexible, thoroughly scripted, as objective as the everlasting hills and the surging seas, carving out a space free of arbitrary personality in order to let the unchanging God of love act in our midst.

With the TLM, it makes almost no difference who the priest is, as long as he knows what he’s doing. I can go (and I have been) to Latin Masses all over the world, and I know just what I’m getting. The priest does a ritual that corresponds to what is printed in my hand missal. I might barely see his face, and at a Low Mass might never hear him speak a vernacular language. He is, as St. Thomas says, an “animated instrument” of the High Priest: it is quite clear Who is in charge, Who is the primary actor. It is theocentric and Christocentric. NIK7652 Black Altar LatinMass Czestochowa

In contrast, the Novus Ordo is clericocentric, depending on the priest for its “reverent” realization. A lover of sights and sounds might praise Holy Loftitude Parish because that priest at that place does it that way: with smells and bells, ad orientem, a pinch of Latin for Roman Catholic effect, kneeling for Communion, and so forth. All of it is optional: at the option of the priest and his “team,” at the option of a willing congregation without speed-dial Susans, at the option of a willing bishop. It quickly becomes a matter of “this good and holy priest does the Mass right,” instead of “the good and holy God gave us in His Providence a good and holy liturgy, on which we can always rely.”

The traditionalists’ issue with the Novus Ordo has never fundamentally been at the level of good looks, even if we’d readily admit that a new Mass dressed like the old Mass can be a feast for sore eyes. No. It is about the traditional liturgy in its total integrity on every level, starting with its ancient and venerable lex orandi found in the corpus of prayers, the chants, ceremonies, rubrics, and customs. These are either utterly missing, wildly mingled, or woefully mangled in the new liturgical books. The new and old rites (thankfully, Pope Francis has rid us of the clumsy “ordinary” and “extraordinary” jargon) are, in fact, nearly always different—and often radically so.

*             *             *

In the month that has passed since July 16, 2021, there have been well-meaning priests and laity who say: “I’m very sorry that we have to stop the TLM but I’m sure you’ll learn to adjust to the NO if you bring the right spirit.”

Whoever can speak thus doesn’t have even the faintest clue about what it is that attracts Catholics to the old rite, about how deeply the rites are different, and how inadequate the modern rite will always seem in comparison. Or why educated, serious, and devout Catholics have been sparring over this issue for more than half a century. It’s not the sort of thing about which one can shrug one’s shoulders and “move on.” You cannot unsee what you have seen, unknow what you have come to know. And that is why, in the absence of a competent pope, the troubles will continue and indeed multiply. Problems of this magnitude don’t evaporate simply because a powerful person orders them to vanish. They go away when truth and justice are recognized and accepted. Physical healing may be more or less automatic, but moral and spiritual healing doesn’t work that way.

Yes, God may be asking you to suffer, for a time, the loss of your local TLM. But this loss is still an evil. It is objectively evil to be cut off from the gift of tradition. It is objectively evil to repudiate a liturgical rite organically developed over more than 1,600 years. It is objectively evil to be deprived of a strong daily link with our ancestors in the faith and of a rich source of spiritual nourishment on which we had come to rely. God does not and cannot will these evils as such (pace the Abu Dhabi declaration), for He does not deny Himself or repent of His gifts. Yes, He sometimes asks priests to suffer imprisonment in a concentration camp and to say no Mass, or to say a rushed and whispered Mass with a scrap of smuggled bread and a thimbleful of wine. Needless to say (or is it?), this is not the normal, natural, social and cultural situation that is fitting for tradition-constituted rational animals. That is why God has not willed that most Christians most of the time should be incarcerated and deprived of their basic rights or rites.

We’ve all heard of “fiat currency.” This pope believes in “fiat culture.” As Tracey Rowland shows, the Fathers of Vatican II neither possessed nor were able to formulate a coherent conception of culture and therefore of how Catholicism was supposed to permeate and animate culture. This is why they ended up with an awkward view in which two forces—a religious subculture and a modern anti-culture—were supposed to blend and produce a new synthesis, which, however, must remain as crippled as either of its elements. Pope Francis’s Traditionis Custodes shows that he thinks it’s possible, by papal ukase, to tell Catholics who have embraced and internalized traditional ways of worshiping—which it is perfectly dignum et justum for them to do—that they must simply “transition” over to the modern liturgy of Paul VI, sooner or later. As if we just put on or put off our deepest thoughts and feelings, our surrounding world, like a piece of clothing. That, however, is modernity’s view: we are what we will ourselves to be; we are disembodied minds that choose our identity. So false is this view that it cannot be refuted by argument; it is refuted by the whole of reality at every moment.

The authors and promoters of Traditionis Custodes are not concerned only about whether or not Catholics “accept” Vatican II or the new liturgy. Of course they want us to say we do. But the goal is not verifying assent to some propositions and then moving on with life. The goal is to exterminate the possibility of living a coherently traditional Catholic life in adherence to the perennial Magisterium. It is, in that sense, precisely an anti-Catholic campaign, as Sebastian Morello and Massimo Viglione bring out so well. The partisans of Bergoglianity would rather see a sparsely-attended Novus Ordo church than a full one with the traditional Mass; a tiny family that worships contemporarily than a large family that worships timelessly; fewer priestly and religious vocations, as long as they are liberal and lavender, than an abundance of vocations cut from old-fashioned cloth, be it black, brown, or gray. The specious hermeneutic of continuity has been summarily swapped out for the hermeneutic of hatred—a hatred of the past, of memory and identity, of history, of reality.

A priest friend wrote to me:

I think that people need to wake up to the fact that this is about so much more than the TLM—Francis is attempting to eliminate a whole way of being Catholic, even for people who never go to the TLM. The English liturgist Clifford Howell was wont to say that the use of vernacular in the Liturgy was pointing towards a new world order that couldn’t otherwise be expressed coterminously with Latin. I realize now that what he meant is that essentially the new liturgy is a social movement based on the wholesale rejection of the Catholic worldview. The Old Mass is too off-message now to be allowed to continue.

To our conservative Catholic friends we say: thanks for the reminders about how the pope’s motu proprio is a cross, willed by God, that we must carry. That’s true. At the same time, let’s not turn our religion, centered on the sacrifice of Calvary, into a version of Buddhism bedecked with a Christian symbol. We do not wave aside evils as illusions on the path to enlightenment and nirvana; we recognize them for what they are—ontological parasites—and we strive to overcome them by the grace of a personal God who reveals Himself to us. As Leo XIII says in his encyclical Libertas Praestantissimum, evils in a society may need to be tolerated for a time, but they may never be approved as regular fixtures, much less hailed as advantages. And if the injustice is deep enough, it must call forth our total effort at eradicating it.

Meanwhile, program your GPS to find the nearest Latin Mass. It will probably be easier to find, and will certainly be more Catholic, than the fabled unicorn.

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Last modified on Tuesday, August 17, 2021
Peter Kwasniewski, PhD

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He has taught for the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. He writes regularly for blogs, magazines, and newspapers, and has published nine books, four of which concern traditional Catholicism. Visit his website at