Pope Paul VI's New Order Mass should be embraced

Father John A. Kiley

If one can believe the conservative Web logs on the internet, every priest in Christendom will soon be offering the old Tridentine Latin Mass in parish churches and private oratories throughout the known world.

Episcopal permission be damned as celebrants don their maniples and join their thumbs and index fingers in deference to the Sacred Species. In spite of the reputation for traditionalism that the Quiet Corner has willingly fostered over the decades, the author is little attracted to a revival of the liturgical practices of his youth. I was 24 years old when the Mass switched from Latin into English and still in my 20s when the Novus Ordo of Pope Paul VI was fully implemented with parish altars reversed. Considering that I attended the old Latin Mass every day of my seminary years and that the Canon was still in Latin when I said my first Mass, the old Mass has held no interest for me.

If I might adjust a phrase from Chesterton, the trouble with the new Mass is not that it has been tried and found wanting; it really hasn't been tried at all. The new rite of Pope Paul VI was introduced to the world precisely at a time when Western civilization was relaxing all its traditions and customs. Everything from marriage to manners, and not just the Mass, has suffered in the last 40 years. People forgot the rules and embraced the exceptions as their criteria for action. The ritual for the Mass became a backdrop for puppet shows, interactive readings, balloons, birthday cakes, basketballs and the occasional ballerina. The very notion of ritual - repeated behavior - gave way to innovation - a new gimmick every week. Consequently the new Mass itself, the New Order of the Mass promulgated by Pope Paul, was left untapped. Since the authentic rite of the Mass remained ignored, the supporting actions of the Mass were free to exalt supposed relevance over neglected ritual. Gold chalices and silver patens gave way to ceramic goblets and straw baskets. The organ yielded to the guitar. Roman copes and Gothic chasubles were replaced by Mexican ponchos and third world stoles. Panis Angelicus capitulated to "The Whole World in His Hands." Everything was very folksy - which is exactly why the Tridentine Mass now evokes nostalgic appeal among many. People remember the old Latin Mass as being very majestic, very grand, very triumphant. Yet, was it as regal as some fondly recall?

The Tridentine Mass, for most of its history, was not the dialogue Mass of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Nor was every Tridentine Mass a solemn high celebration. In most parishes, parishioners knelt with their faces in their missals or their fingers on their beads, while the priest quietly offered prayers and supplications on their behalf to a God who was somewhere out in the middle distance beyond the marble and the frescoes. The old Mass was genuinely an act of faith in which most participation was interior. The well-meaning but often abused active participation of today - presentation of gifts, signs of peace, lay readings, general intercessions, Communion in the hand and under both Species, even concelebration - was unknown.

Unfortunately, these ancient but recently-restored forms of participation overwhelmed the basic new rite itself. The fundamental rubrics have been neglected while the participatory parts have been over-indulged. Rather than resuscitate the old Tridentine Mass, the New Order Mass of Pope Paul VI should finally be allowed to see the light of day.

Cross and candles, incense and holy water, books and bells, genuflections and bows, gestures and vestments, ambience and appointments, even Greek and Latin acclamations, can be employed with equal reverence and equal effect in the new rite just as in the old rite. Nothing was drearier than the Tridentine Holy Week observances before Pope Pius XII revised their rituals in the 1950s - lonely clergy processing and praying in empty churches at the crack of dawn. These Tridentine holy days were more somnolent than solemn. Old did not mean better. The glory and grandeur that the Christian world will experience on this Easter Sunday can be echoed every Sunday and, at least faintly, even on weekdays if the new rite is embraced with faith, respect, compliance and an extra candlestick or two.

(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)